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Police shut down light rail to keep protesters from Sea-Tac airport

Pro-immigrant protesters forced off light rail walk the last 2 miles to their destination, Sea-Tac Airport, on Saturday.
Courtesy of Adam Dodge
Pro-immigrant protesters forced off light rail walk the last 2 miles to their destination, Sea-Tac Airport, on Saturday.

Hundreds of protesters of President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration were stymied in their efforts to get to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Saturday night.

Six light rail trains skipped the airport stop entirely after Port of Seattle police tried to curtail the rising numbers of protesters there, a civil rights infringement that transit officials say won't happen again.

While protesters chanted "let them in" on behalf of international travelers detained at the airport, police were working to keep protesters out.

Port of Seattle Police Commander Lisa Drake asked transit officials to stop light rail service to the airport, which is run by the Port of Seattle.

"Once we started to see these very large crowds starting to head to Sea-Tac, port police were looking to try and find ways that we might be able to slow some of those arrivals," airport spokesperson Perry Cooper said.

Cooper estimated the crowd size at 1,000 to 1,500 at 6:30 p.m. and said it at least doubled over the next two hours.

John Gallagher of Seattle was one of those light rail arrivals heading toward the airport on a train full of protesters shortly after 6 p.m.

"It was a very convivial and defiant atmosphere," Gallagher said, "very fun to be in."

Then they heard the conductor announce the train would not be stopping at Sea-Tac.

"We all kind of looked at each other confused," Gallagher said. "How could a train just not stop at a scheduled stop?"

The crowds got off at the Tukwila International Boulevard station, two miles to the north.

"Almost the whole train got off at Tukwila," protester Adam Dodge said. "We were sitting there wondering what was going on."

Some found rides. Some waited for buses.

And some, including Amy Gore of Seattle, walked the 45 minutes to the airport to express their First Amendment right to assemble and protest.

"Public transportation belongs to everyone, and it shouldn't be used as a way to limit access or silence dissent," Gore said.

Video from earlier as thousands descended on Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle #seatacprotest #RefugeeBan #MuslimBan #OccupyAirports — Joshua Trujillo (@joshtrujillo) January 29, 2017

Video of Saturday's protest by Seattle videographer Joshua Trujillo

Once Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff heard about the shutdown and that there was no public-safety emergency to justify it, he resumed service. It was out for about half an hour.

Dodge and Gore praised Sound Transit for quickly restoring service.

"But I don't think that the request [to prevent protesters from riding to the airport] should have been made, and I don't think the request should have been followed, even for a short period of time," Gore said.

King County Metro and Sound Transit, which jointly run the light rail service, are legally required to honor requests from law enforcement to suspend service for safety concerns, according to a Monday press release from the two agencies. 

"Transit should always be available for those who want to participate in our democracy," King County Executive Dow Constantine said in the release.

Transit officials said any future police requests to shut down bus or rail service would have to be reviewed by the agencies' top officials, except for immediate, serious threats to public safety.

"And I've asked as chair that I be notified immediately before any decisions are made," Sound Transit board chair and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers told KUOW.

"It's really not our role to make a determination whether people should be going to a protest or not," Somers said. "Our role is not crowd control."

"We've admitted that that was not the best move to have done and we're working to coordinate with [transit agencies] better for the future," Cooper said.

Cooper said Saturday's protest, with a few thousand people, was new territory for the airport, where demonstrations typically have a few dozen participants.

After most of the protesters had gone home Saturday night, police used pepper spray on some who wouldn't disperse. Thirty-two people were arrested for disorderly conduct. The protest ended about 2 a.m., according to Port of Seattle officials.

Protester Adam Dodge said the transit shutdown was "wrong" and "annoying," but he said it had one bright side: The long walk to the airport fostered a sense of community among the inadvertent pedestrians.

"Everyone was talking to each other, complete strangers," said Dodge, who estimated that 100 people walked from the train he was on. "When you have a common cause, it brings people together."

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Year started with KUOW: 2009