Editorial: Judge's tear gas ruling shows power of justice system to uphold essential American rights

©The Seattle Times

Police deploy tear gas at protesters to disperse the crowd gathered in downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020. - Amanda Snyder/Seattle Times/TNS

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones acted wisely in barring Seattle Police from using tear gas and other forceful crowd-control measures against peaceful demonstrators. His eloquent ruling June 12 showed keen attention to the urgency of demands for racial justice and the constitutional rights to speak and assemble freely.

The decision was a meaningful step toward de-escalating confrontations between protesters and police. Its consequences have reverberated powerfully. On June 15, after Jones blocked tear gas for two weeks, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a permanent ban on it and other crowd-control weaponry. Then the city agreed June 17 to an injunction blocking tear gas use through September. By then, the council’s prohibition will have taken effect.

Jones’ ruling started this momentum by putting the weight of the federal courts behind a ban Seattle’s police found too easy to sidestep. Two nights after Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best announced June 5 that tear gas wouldn’t be used against peaceful protesters, police broke it out again.

That move antagonized demonstrators and undermined the credibility of the city’s leaders precisely when it was most needed.

Jones’ ruling established rigorous oversight and specific guidelines for crowd-control weaponry. This was urgently needed, as Jones wrote, to protect sacrosanct constitutional rights. Protesters had a right to take to the streets and speak their grievances. The calls for racial justice that sent tens of thousands into Seattle’s streets cut hard against how policing is done in Seattle and across America.

As Jones wrote, the Seattle police who heard this message failed their duty when they responded with force against whole crowds.

“The use of indiscriminate weapons against all protesters — not just the violent ones — supports the inference that SPD’s actions were substantially motivated by Plaintiffs’ protected First Amendment activity,” Jones wrote.

His ruling alone will not defuse societal tensions behind the protests. That will require time, leadership and political strength on many fronts. But in a moment where institutional credibility is failing, Jones showed the power of the justice system to uphold essential American rights. Trust in governance must be restored to resolve the national crisis. Jones’ decision showed how this can be accomplished.

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©2020 The Seattle Times