A Closer Look at What Happened Last Weekend in Downtown Tacoma

Last Saturday evening around 6:00, a Tacoma Police Officer drove his 4,500 lb. cruiser over two human beings like speed bumps in the middle of Pacific Avenue after plowing through a crowd of onlookers.

That fact can be plainly seen in multiple videos from various angles. For example, this one that shows what was going on several minutes before the cops showed up (as well as the fact that there was no street racing going on*) and this one that clearly shows there was no one behind the cruiser aside from another cop.

The reasons why it happened in the first place and accounts of what transpired the following evening seem to vary widely depending on who you ask. When we heard about this on Saturday we decided not to share the videos for a couple reasons.

First, we were all just having a “WHAT THE FUCK?!” moment as the brutality of the scene unfolded over and over from different angles. It was honestly just a lot to take in. 

Second, every major news network from Seattle to Portland was racing to share the videos before anyone else and that’s just not what we do. We had nothing new to add to the conversation at that time and anything we did share would likely have just fueled any number of reactionary social media fires. 

It only got more complicated after that, though. Later that evening, two community organizers were picked out of a crowd and arrested, a protest was planned for 7:00 the following evening, and right-wing commentators started alerting their followers about the “organized riot” in Tacoma.

At around 7:00 on Sunday a group of about 200 people gathered at the top of Frost Park just up the hill from the intersection of 9th and Pacific. There was a folding table with coffee, donuts, and flyers about Anarchism. The loudest noise was coming from a street preacher pacing in front of the crowd along the light rail tracks on Commerce and some occasional drumming and chanting.

Even though the scene was generally peaceful, the whole thing had a very different vibe than any of the Black Lives Matter protests that happened last summer. Almost everyone was dressed in black (in the interest of black bloc, not as a fashion choice), a number of people wore helmets and gas masks, and one guy was flying an Antifascist Action flag.

It didn’t just look different, though, it felt different. A few people harassed me for taking photos, shining laser pointers and strobe lights in my lens. Even though I wasn’t up in anyone’s faces and everyone was wearing masks anyway, there was a general mood of hostility toward anyone with a camera. Two people standing on the periphery were armed, one with a rifle, one with a shotgun. They were both locals and told me they were there as a deterrent to white nationalists.

Around 8:30, a few people dumped out the contents of three large plastic dumpsters from behind the Pantages and rolled them into the intersection. A few barricades and things were dragged over from the nearby construction site. Someone tossed a road flare into one of the trash cans and it slowly melted into a puddle on the street as it went up in flames.

I recognized a few people from different organizations and businesses around Tacoma and we talked about how this felt much more like a Portland or Seattle kind of protest. The only major difference being the notable absence of cops. They were parked in quiet corners all around downtown but they kept their distance as the protest moved up 9th st.

As they went, a few people knocked over trash cans and spray painted ACAB and Fuck 12, among other things, on walls, bus stops, and billboards. A few locals yelled down from windows and came out to the sidewalks, chastising protesters for making a mess of their neighborhood. As the protest rounded the corner toward the County-City building on Tacoma Ave, windows were broken out in a few places including many of the windows at the courthouse itself and a sheriff’s vehicle in the parking lot.

Just inside the main entrance, a line of cops in riot gear stood waiting. Even as protesters spray painted KILL COPS and smashed windows just outside, they exercised restraint and did not escalate the situation.

The protesters marched around the block, made some noise for the inmates in the county jail, and took one more lap around the front of the building. After a line of bicycle cops blocked the intersection at 11th, the protest moved up toward Wright Park, eventually dispersing around 10:30.

That’s it. That’s the “Terror in Tacoma” that Sean Hannity and his followers** were so riled up about. If that was a riot, it was the mellowest riot I’ve ever heard of. All totalled, there was a moderate amount of property damage and an unfortunate mess to clean up the following morning. 

So what’s the take-away here? Admittedly, I had a hard time figuring this out myself. There are a lot of layers in this story and trying to stack them up neatly just doesn’t work. The one thought I keep coming back to, though, is that none of it needed to happen. It was all totally avoidable at multiple points along the way.

The Fast and Furious hotshots didn’t need to spend 10+ minutes doing donuts in the middle of Pac Ave on a Saturday night while hundreds of passersby watched.

When the cops inevitably showed up, Officer Phan didn’t need to drive his SUV immediately up to the edge of the crowd.

The crowd of people didn’t need to gather around the front and sides of his SUV and start slapping it with their hands.

Officer Phan didn’t need to escalate to the use of deadly force less than a minute after arriving at the scene in a crowd that—at worst—could be described as rowdy.

When he backed up, he didn’t need to stop, put it back in drive, and take a running start at the crowd of people.

He didn’t need to keep going, driving over two people in the process.

He could’ve shown the level-headed restraint you’d hope to find in someone who’s been a cop for nearly 30 years—but he didn’t.

Now let’s fast forward to Sunday night.

The instinctual response of blaming the night’s destruction on outside agitators is a natural one. It’s comforting. Before I had time to really think the whole thing through, I felt it too. It allows us to keep in the forefront of our minds an image of a peaceful orderly Tacoma populous that would never smash their own windows or vandalize their own buildings. And that image is not necessarily false. But it’s not entirely true, either. 

A lot of the people in that crowd on Sunday night were from Tacoma and I know for a fact that some of them were involved in the vandalism everyone saw on the news. I also know for a fact that some of the people were from Seattle and it’s likely that other people came up from Olympia and elsewhere.

None of that really matters, though. Just thinking about it, it’s not inconceivable that people in Tacoma would apply anarchist tactics in situations like this. That guy flying the Antifa flag may be the guy who delivered your pizza last night. Tacoma is not immune to revolutionary ideals. And as long as we keep seeing abuses of power and a lack of accountability, I believe we’ll see a lot more of this kind of thing in the future.

It’s also worth noting that the destruction of property we saw wasn’t indiscriminate. The five businesses and government offices I noticed whose windows were broken all played a role in what anarchists would call the prison-industrial complex. I’m not saying I support this type of action but I think it’s important to understand it.

Anarchism is not a point on the extreme left of the political spectrum. Antifa is not a political party, nor is it trying to be one. This has nothing to do with Joe Biden or Donald Trump. The people smashing windows and lighting fires are not even necessarily following a well thought-out plan. They’re using tactics that have been historically proven to disrupt and erode systems of authority. From their perspective, police are an organ of authoritarianism. And whenever police demonstrate a lack of accountability, we’re bound to see a strong reaction from these types of people.

Looking at a crowd of 200 people all dressed the same and walking together, it’s easy to assume they’re all there for the same reason. For the most part, that’s how it was last summer. Last Sunday, though, that was impossible to say. When a guy ran out from the crowd and rammed a broken road sign through the front window of the Pierce County Courthouse, he ran right back into the crowd and disappeared, hence the appeal of black bloc. 

There was probably someone walking right next to him who didn’t agree with that kind of behavior. And there was someone else right next to that person who had yet another divergent set of political ideals. Some people were there to get attention from the media and some people would’ve just as soon smashed my camera and let the smoldering aftermath speak for itself.

The whole thing is messy and contradictory and confusing. But that’s not necessarily a problem to be solved. Sometimes life is just like that. I should mention that it’s only because a close friend of mine is a life-long anarchist (and a lawyer, by the way) that I’m able to come to any sort of understanding of what happened Sunday night. My perspective is still a very narrow view of a complex philosophy so I would encourage you to research it more on your own if you’re interested.

Before I wrap this up, I want to look at what happened Monday afternoon.

At 4:30, the Tacoma City Council organized a special meeting to discuss the “9th Street and Pacific Avenue incident.” It lasted an hour and a half and the first hour of it focused almost exclusively on how to crack down on street racing*. Deputy Mayor Keith Blocker spoke up about an hour in. A couple excerpts are below but you can watch a recording of the meeting here (there were some audio issues when he first started speaking at the one hour mark but you can skip to 1:03:30 for the main bit.)

“I want to bring this conversation back to where I think it belongs,” he said, “which is the fact that a person was run over by a Tacoma Police Department officer. We can talk about all the things that lead to that led to that situation. But the fact of the matter is, a tragedy happened. It happened in large part because as a society, we haven’t figured out better strategies to police our communities. We could talk about street racing ordinances [but] none of that matters if we can’t get policing right.”

He talked about how minimizing property damage is important but pointed out that the most important thing is deploying officers in a way that preserves human life. He continued with a point that will resonate with a lot of people in Tacoma:

“I’m tired. I’m struggling. And I know other people are tired. Because we can’t keep coming back to making excuses about why law enforcement is not serving and protecting and I’m not saying all they do is harm people, we know that’s not the case. But at the same time, we know why people are upset.”

As sad as it is to say, it’s only a matter of time before something like this happens again in Tacoma. No one yet knows what will happen to Officer Phan but, when you consider the fact that the cops who killed Manuel Ellis are still on the force, it’s not hard to imagine what his fate might be.

The best thing you can do right now is stay informed and make your voice heard. Contact your City Council representative if you have something to say. And follow your grassroots community leaders. They’re the ones on the street and behind the scenes doing the hard work and making things happen:

  • Read the Mayor’s statement here
  • Read TPD’s press releases on the incident here.
  • Check for updates on the investigation here.
  • Leave links to any other useful resources in the comments below

*This was not a street race. The cops were not “in pursuit” of anyone as some social media comments have insisted. It was a sideshow. This is more of an Oakland thing than a Tacoma thing but it’s certainly not the first time it’s happened here and it won’t be the last. It’s not exactly a cruise on Ruston Way but it’s a far cry from a street race.

**You see that guy in the gray beanie having a conversation with a “rampaging anti-police rioter?” That’s me. I was taking pictures of the flaming dumpster and the dude behind me was giving me shit about it. Essentially, he assumed I would misrepresent the situation, focusing only on the most dramatic pieces of a multifaceted situation. After looking at a lot of the headlines over the last couple days, I’d say his concerns were valid. After explaining who I was and what I was doing there, we had a productive conversation about media representation and parted ways amicably.

  1. Just like the Manny Ellis situation you do not have, nor present all of the facts. The side show had been going on for over 45 min. I LIVE RIGHT ABOVE IT. The officer was trying to back up and here were people behind him as well (LOOK AT ALL THE FOOTAGE). He was in a highly volatile situation, a deadly situation. One that he is paid to make a decision to save his life… it’s easy to arm chair QB but I implore you to be better at presenting the facts from a neutral standpoint. You’re supposed to be an independent news source not a political QANON type, or if you are I unfortunately wasn’t informed.

    1. Burnouts are not punishable by Vehicular Assault. We are asking the cops to prioritize Tacoma citizens health and safety over chasing a suspect who was driving recklessly. Even after the mistake of driving up to the edge of the crowd. Could he not have driven slower out of the crowd forward or back? Or is ramming as fast as possible through humans the only option? Grit City’s article is incredibly balanced and far more informative compared to any other article on the subject I have read the past few days. Just because their reporting doesn’t fit your world view does not make them wrong.

  2. The start of paragraph 7 reads: ‘At around 7:00 on Saturday a group’ but I think it was intended to describe Sunday.

    Great article, by the way.

  3. What would you have done in the officers position, my friend? How many times have you been outnumbered 200 to 1 with a group surrounding and then pounding your vehicle in the middle of a protest in which people are calling for your death? I’m not saying his actions were 100% justified, but he will not be held criminally accountable as it’s clear he would have felt his life was in danger.

    You can write an article dismissing the actions of all these folks you sympathize with, but he wouldn’t have to be there if people weren’t acting like a bunch of childish assholes who do absolutely no good for any cause. Venting your frustration and anger by destroying others property and peace is what kids do when they have no other outlet… it’s not productive. No good could possibly come of it… the only type of outcome is what we saw, severe injury. And that officer who was there to try and keep the peace, decided he was not going to be the one injured when a mob began to turn. I have absolutely no sympathy for anyone who stands in front of and beats a cop car for no reason other than to agitate or destroy. It’s so damn cliche… but play stupid games win stupid prizes. And in all honestly, it’s unfortunate those assholes will probably be paid sweetly with your tax dollars for trying to take Darwin head on.

    Miss you dude

    1. Its okay, we know you have no sympathy. Im sure the idea of broken windows versus a human life would be the easiest decision for you. You just couldn’t wait to drive over some people for blocking the road. For some of us we prioritize life and justice over property. Crazy I know.

  4. Thank you for a well researched article. This really is better than any other I have seen on what occurred. Consider me a subscriber now.

    1. Thanks for this article. Best I’ve read on the events and probably best I’ve read from grit city mag since you started.

      The part about all the things that went wrong particularly resonated with me. The critical point that I would add to the list is the one (or probably more than one) person who reported the event to the cops. It could have been someone who was trying to drive thru the area and was annoyed. Could have been the commenter above who lives at the corner and has a baby trying to sleep. Could have been the fire truck that the crowd let through without much interference. And any one of those people could have realized that it seems like only a matter of time before one of the “hot shots” ran over one of their friends. All pretty legit reasons to want the donuts to stop. Which brings me to my main point. I’ve had to question my instincts to call the cops several times in the last year because I now realize that police presence can do more harm than good in some cases due to the degraded relationship between cops and our communities. Bottom line, we need another solution. We need a better way that we as a community can share when the behavior of one is harming a other and agree to deescalate situations. That’s supposed to be the cops, and maybe there’s a way to fix that relationship. I applaud all those who are working to identify and establish solutions to this problem.

  5. My feelings on this situation change slightly but my biggest takeaway from what happened is that a lot of people are just very frustrated with how this country has been run and maybe even just the predominate view of the country (Democrat or Republican). It’s all about money and profit. Hard work, dedication, and the motivation to make as much money in the shortest amount of time at the expense of anyone outside of you or your immediate family. This is not a society. It’s a bunch of individuals trying to get rich or get over on the rich. There is no unity or basic humanity. Just greed. For the most part. There are a lot of good people out there but they gave little to no voice or power. Eventually people strike out and protest, even if it isn’t conducted in the most productive way. There are also people that take advantage of a situation in order to enact violence and destruction without any care or cause. That is unfortunate. This country needs to change but there is one side dead set on keeping things the way they are, and another side ready to just fuck everything up. We just need to find a middle ground.

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