April 16, 1970: The Birth of the Seattle Seven

Several of the Seattle Seven and friends, circa November 1970. Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project

Several of the Seattle Seven and friends, circa November 1970.
Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project

The spring of 1970 was an intense time to be a radical in Seattle. The members of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF) knew that all too well on the date in focus here, when eight of them were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to incite a riot.

The SLF was a radical anti-Vietnam War organization formed in January 1970 at the University of Washington. The indictments were prompted by a demonstration in front of the United States Federal Courthouse in downtown Seattle on February 17, 1970. The demonstration was organized by the SLF to protest the controversial Chicago Seven trial, the verdict of which was expected that day. During the demonstration, approximately 2,000 protesters clashed with Seattle police. Demonstrators pelted the courthouse and police with rocks and paint bombs, leading to 76 arrests and 20 injuries.

Charges were filed against Michael Lerner (b. 1943), Susan Stern (1943-1976), Charles “Chip” Marshall (b. 1945), Michael Abeles (b. 1951), Jeff Dowd (b. 1949), Joe Kelly (b. 1946), Roger Lippman (b. 1947), and Michael Justesen (b. 1950). These SLF members then became known as the Seattle Eight and, after Justesen disappeared, the Seattle Seven.

The SLF was comprised mostly of former members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had collapsed the previous summer due to internal dissent at its national convention. It was deeply ironic that the February 17 demonstration was organized to protest the Chicago Seven trial, since the Chicago defendants had also been indicted for conspiracy in planning protests during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — an event which also turned violent. The Seattle event, along with several others nationwide that same day, was called “The Day After” (TDA) in anticipation of the verdict. The violence in Seattle occurred despite the SLF’s stated wishes for a peaceful demonstration. The SLF had in fact been created as a non-violent alternative to the Weathermen, the SDS-derived radical organization that openly advocated violent tactics against the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the SLF was blamed for the February 17 riot, and the indictments thus followed.

Five of the Eight were arrested on the same day the indictments were issued: Lerner, Stern, Dowd, Abeles, and Kelly. Marshall was arrested two days later in a bar in the University District. Lippman was already in jail in Berkeley, California, having been arrested the day before in conjunction with an antiwar protest there, while Justesen immediately went into hiding to avoid arrest. All of the Seven were soon released on personal recognizance pending trial.

Some SLF members and supporters suspected that the timing of the indictments was meant to provoke a riot at an antiwar march in downtown Seattle planned for that weekend on April 18. Stephanie Coontz, then a leader of the UW’s Student Mobilization Committee, told The Seattle Times about that suspicion on April 17.

“The Student Mobilization Committee feels that yesterday’s arrests were timed in an attempt to provoke an incident,” Coontz said. “We are not going to fall into the trap that the Justice Department has set.”

Contrary to the charge of conspiracy, the Seattle Seven in fact only became acquainted with each other as a group after the indictments. Roger Lippman would later recall:

“While some of the defendants actively organized TDA, several of them didn’t like or didn’t even know each other. This conspiracy existed primarily in the minds of the U.S. Department of Justice. Chip Marshall, Jeff Dowd, Mike Abeles, and Joe Kelly were recent transplants from SDS in Ithaca, NY, but Kelly didn’t move to Seattle until after TDA. I didn’t meet Abeles until after the indictment. Susan Stern, who had been an activist in Seattle for several years, had differences with most of the defendants, as did I. Mike Lerner was a visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Washington. As far as I could tell none of the other defendants got along with him.”

The Seattle Eight, represented unflatteringly on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970

The Seattle Eight, represented unflatteringly on the front page
of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970

The Seattle Seven were tried in Tacoma before Federal District Judge George Boldt (1903-1984). The pre-trial hearing occurred on November 6, 1970. The trial was quickly sabotaged by the defendants’ vocal disruptions, a protest walkout, and their eventual refusal to enter the courtroom. Because of these antics, Boldt declared a mistrial on December 10, 1970, and cited all seven defendants for contempt of court. He summarily sentenced them all to six months in prison and refused to grant bail.

While most of the Seattle Seven eventually did serve time for Boldt’s contempt charges, the original conspiracy charges against them were unsuccessfully prosecuted. Most observers agreed that the prosecution’s case was weak, and the defense was aided greatly by the admission of federal agents testifying at the trial that they played a major role in instigating the violence at the February 17 demonstration. The contempt charges were settled out of court in 1972, and the Seattle Seven, save for Lerner, all served brief sentences in federal minimum security prison. The original conspiracy charges were quietly dropped in March 1973.

During the trial’s conclusion, the SLF succumbed to internal dissent and disbanded acrimoniously in late 1971. Stern died in 1976 at the age of 33 of heart and lung failure from an accidental drug overdose. Justesen was arrested in 1977 in California by the FBI as part of an infiltration of the Weather Underground. Lerner is currently an ordained rabbi and editor-in-chief of the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun. Dowd eventually became a cineaste and helped found the Seattle International Film Festival in 1976; he’s now most famous as the inspiration for “The Dude,” the celebrated fictional character from the Coen Brothers cult-film classic The Big Lebowski.

Among the many things the Seattle Seven and the Chicago Seven had in common, the most important historically is that both were ultimately examples of government intimidation of antiwar activists by way of the legal system. In both examples, a group of loosely affiliated activists was charged with conspiracy for a riot that was in fact beyond their control; in both examples, the prosecution’s case was ultimately too weak to withstand courtroom scrutiny. Today, history has proven much kinder to the memory of these two kindred groups than to the war that ultimately created them.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Don Carter and Larry McCarten, “Grand Jury Indicts 8; Lerner, 4 Others Held,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. 1; Don Carter and Larry McCarten, “Indicted 8 Linked to 2 Named in U Post Office Bombing,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. 1; “Half at Courthouse Melee Took Active Roles,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1970, p. 1; Dee Norton, “8 Indicted for Conspiracy,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. 1; “Officials Give Background Of Those Indicted,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A 14; “Indictments Here Termed Provocation,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A 14; Don Hannula, “New Cause at U.W.: Free Seattle Eight’,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1970, p. A 14; “U. S. closes books on ‘Seattle 7′ case,” The Seattle Times, March 27, 1973, p. C 7; Susan Stern, “With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman” (Doubleday & Company, 1975); Roger Lippman, “Looking Back on the Seattle Conspiracy Trial” (http://terrasol.home.igc.org/trial.htm, December 1990); Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995).

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December 20, 1899: The Birth of the Seattle Union Record

Front page of the Seattle Union Record announcing the Seattle General Strike, February 3, 1919

Front page of the Seattle Union Record announcing the Seattle General Strike, February 3, 1919

Seattle’s history as a pro-labor town dates back well before the famous 1919 General Strike. It goes back in fact at least twenty years before that much-discussed event — specifically to the date in focus here, when the Seattle-based Western Central Labor Union (WCLU) voted to approve a proposal to publish a pro-labor newspaper in Seattle.

The first issue of the resulting paper, the Seattle Union Record, was published on February 20, 1900, under the ownership of the WCLU and the editorship of Gordon Rice, who had edited the short-lived Labor Gazette in 1894. The Union Record was originally published as a weekly paper, 6-8 pages in length, until April 1918, when it became a daily paper. Rice edited the paper until 1912, when Erwin Bratton “Harry” Ault (1883–1961) was chosen as its editor. Born in Newport, Kentucky, and raised in Washington state, Ault came to the Union Record from a long career working for newspapers, beginning as a newsboy at the age of five and working up to the positions of editor and publisher. Most of the papers Ault worked for were openly progressive in nature, including The Weekly People and The Socialist. He would go on to edit the Union Record until its final issue, dated February 28, 1928.

Erwin Bratton "Harry" Ault (1883–1961)

Erwin Bratton “Harry” Ault (1883–1961)

Ault, a passionate Socialist, was largely responsible for making the Union Record the force it would become in Seattle city politics by the time of the 1919 General Strike. In an editorial published in the Union Record on July 1, 1918, Ault expressed his vision of the paper’s mission, writing:

“The Union Record will help you win a greater prosperity…. the Union Record is the only paper in Seattle that dares to be consistent in its fight for the working man…. It gives you all the news the other papers give, and, in addition, the news the other papers will not print. It is the one paper that stands between you and industrial slavery.”

Under Ault’s editorship, the Union Record‘s daily circulation would steadily increase from 3,000 to 80,000 at its peak. Later, of course, the paper would become most famous for publishing Anna Louise Strong’s incendiary “No One Knows Where” editorial that would help foment the 1919 General Strike.

Despite its labor background and ownership, the Seattle Union Record was not merely a newsletter of the WCLU, but rather a full-coverage newspaper, covering local, national, and international events. While its core target audience always remained union members, it always aspired to compete with Seattle’s other daily newspapers for a general audience. Its ultimate achievement today remains its historical status as both America’s first labor-owned daily newspaper and the longest-running.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Murray Morgan, “Skid Road” (Viking Press, 1951; Ballantine Books, 1971; University of Washington Press, 1982); Mary Joan O’Connell, “The Seattle Union Record, 1918-1928: A Pioneer Labor Daily,” M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1964; John J. Reddin, “The Union Record Recalled — First Hand,” The Seattle Times, November 8, 1967.

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May 29, 1940: Tyree Scott

Tyree Scott, 1940-2003

Tyree Scott, 1940-2003

Many of Seattle’s activist icons have been strongly identified with a particular event or era. Anna Louise Strong is most often mentioned in the same breath as the 1919 Seattle General Strike; Edwin T. Pratt with the 1960s Open Housing movement. By contrast, Tyree Scott — although he, too, first made a name for himself in the 1960s — is best identified with an activist career spanning decades.

Scott was best known as a civil rights and labor leader who opened the door to women and minority workers in the construction industry, both locally and nationally. Born in Hearne, Texas, on the date in focus here, Scott moved to Seattle in 1966 to help his father, an electrician in Seattle, build his construction business. At the time, the trade unions that controlled jobs in Seattle’s construction industry were off-limits to blacks.

In 1969, as Seattle was undergoing a building boom flush with federally-funded projects, Scott became the leader of the Central Contractors Association, a group of black contractors who sought equal opportunity in federal building projects. That summer, Scott led the CCA in shutting down every major federal construction site in Seattle to protest discrimination against black contractors and construction workers.

One protest shut down the construction of Red Square on the University of Washington campus, while another temporarily halted work on the construction of an airport runway at Sea-Tac Airport. Other such actions led or co-led by Scott included shutdowns at Harborview Medical Center, Medgar Evers Pool, and the King County Administration Building. These actions led to the first federal imposition of affirmative action upon local labor unions.

In the following decade, Scott would go on to lead other local labor struggles, crucially helping to found the Northwest Labor and Employment Law Office (LELO), which forged international ties among workers in the struggle to gain better job conditions for low-income workers through class-action lawsuits.

During the 1980s, Scott took his activism abroad and helped form organizations to assist laborers in developing countries. In 1997, he led a LELO-sponsored Seattle conference which drew delegates from a dozen countries to discuss leadership of labor and civil rights activism throughout the world. Two years later, in early 1999, Scott was among the activists who laid the early organizational groundwork for the WTO protests.

Scott died in Seattle on June 19, 2003, after a long battle with prostate cancer. His legacy lives on in LELO, which continues to do effective work on social justice and worker rights issues. In addition, the Tyree Scott Freedom School, a nine-day summer educational program sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, teaches young people aged 15 to 21 about social justice issues and the history of community organizing in Seattle.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu); HistoryLink.org; Quintard Taylor, “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era” (University of Washington Press, 1994).

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November 30, 1917: Louise Olivereau

Louise Olivereau, 1884-1963

Among the crucial decades in Seattle’s political history, the one that began in 1909 was arguably the most significant so far. This decade began with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and ended with the Seattle General Strike. In between, certain lesser-known events also helped define Seattle as a city where radical leftism has constantly been at odds with right-wing reactionary politics.

This was especially so during World War I, when pro-war conformism was at a fever pitch nationwide, and anti-sedition laws aimed at silencing antiwar activists were passed by Congress. In Seattle, where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and anarchists had established a strong political presence, reactionary sentiment led to the Potlatch Riots of July 1913, one year before the war broke out. Four years later, on the date in focus here, the schism between Seattle’s respective progressive and reactionary populations reared its head publicly when antiwar activist Louise Olivereau (1884-1963) was convicted of sedition.

Olivereau, a schoolteacher, poet, and self-described anarchist, first became involved in Seattle’s political left in 1915, when she moved here from Illinois and began working as a stenographer for the IWW’s Seattle offices. The events that led to her arrest and conviction began in August 1917, when she printed and mailed out literature addressed to young men in the Pacific Northwest encouraging them to become conscientious objectors to avoid military service in the war, which the United States joined in April that year. Her activity violated the Espionage Act, passed by Congress that June, which made it a crime to cause insubordination in the armed forces, to obstruct the recruitment of soldiers, and to use the U.S. postal service to do so.

At the trial, Olivereau conducted her own defense. No other IWW members attended, and her only support came from Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970), the noted radical leader and Seattle School Board member, who sat in the front row during the trial. The IWW chose to distance itself from Olivereau due to her anarchist identity, which was considered dangerous even among the radical left during that politically-charged decade. In her defense, Olivereau recounted her version of the events that led to her arrest, provided the jury with an explanation of her political views, and argued her case for the injustice of the war in Europe.

On December 3, the jury convicted Olivereau, and the judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison. She served 28 months in the state penitentiary in Cañon City, Colorado, before being paroled. After her release from prison, she worked at various clerical and sales jobs in Oregon and California. She settled in San Francisco in 1929 and worked there as a stenographer until her death on March 11, 1963.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Woman Anarchist Quickly Convicted for Attack on Military Draft Statute,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 1, 1917, p. 1; “Louise Olivereau Convicted Under Espionage Act,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 1, 1917, p. 12; “The Louise Olivereau Case” (pamphlet; New York: Minnie Parkhurst, 1918); Sally Flood, “The search for a cause: Louise Olivereau,” M.A. thesis (University of Washington 1979); Sarah Ellen Sharbach, “Louise Olivereau and the Seattle radical community 1917-1923,” M.A. thesis (University of Washington, 1986); Sarah E. Sharbach, “A Woman Acting Alone: Louise Olivereau and the First World War,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 78 (January-April 1987); Paul Avrich, “Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America” (Princeton University Press, 1994; AK Press, 2005); Harvey O’Connor, “Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir” (Monthly Review Press, 1964; Haymarket Books, 2009).

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August 13, 1936: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Strike

The Heffernan Building at 6th and Pine in downtown Seattle, home to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer during the 1936 newsroom strike. Photographed circa January 1936.
Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry

Seattle’s reputation as a pro-labor town has mostly been founded on the memory of the General Strike of 1919 and the WTO protests of 1999. But many other such events have occurred here to strengthen that reputation. Chief among these was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newsroom strike of 1936. This event stands out especially for being one of the first significant white-collar strikes in the United States.

The P-I strike began on the date in focus here, when 35 journalists employed by the P-I (half the paper’s newsroom staff at the time) walked off the job in response to the paper’s decision to fire two longtime newsroom employees as punishment for joining the American Newspaper Guild. The Guild, founded in 1933, was new and controversial at the time, since journalists were considered white-collar workers, thus not typical union material.

The strike was as much a protest against newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst as it was against the P-I management. The P-I had been owned since 1921 by Hearst, the nation’s most influential publisher, whose publishing empire included major newspapers and magazines across the United States. Hearst’s avid anti-communism, anti-unionism, and vocal opposition to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made him widely hated by organized labor nationwide. Hearst was especially hostile toward the Guild, and was determined to prevent his employees in Seattle from unionizing his newspaper there. In fact, the striking P-I writers found encouragement from strikers at another Hearst newspaper, the Wisconsin News in Milwaukee, earlier that year.

When two key P-I employees — drama critic Everhardt Armstrong and head photographer Frank “Slim” Lynch — joined the Guild, the P-I, under Hearst’s orders, manufactured reasons for firing the two journalists. Management accused them of inefficiency and insubordination, but the men claimed the action was taken because they had joined the Guild. At the time, Armstrong had worked at the P-I for 17 years, while Lynch had worked there for 15 years; both were highly revered by their colleagues.

Other members of the P-I newsroom staff supported the two fired Guild members by walking off the job. The Seattle Central Labor Council then declared the P-I unfair to organized labor and called for a boycott. The strike quickly won the support of all the unions in Seattle, including the Teamsters, then led by Dave Beck. Longshore workers, lumber workers, metal workers, and Teamsters all joined the picket lines outside the P-I building. Beck provided additional support by threatening that Teamster drivers would refuse to deliver newsprint for the P-I to be printed on.

The firing of Armstrong and Lynch was merely the tip of the iceberg that fomented the strike. During the weeks preceding the strike, many P-I employees had become disgruntled over increasingly harsh management actions. So-called “efficiency” changes by management had resulted in the dismissal of experienced workers who were then replaced by workers who lacked experience, but could be paid lower wages.

The strike resulted in the suspension of publication of the P-I for three-and-a-half months. The P-I attempted to get its editions published at The Seattle Times, but the unionized typographers at the Times prevented that from happening. Thus, the P-I did not print from August 19, 1936, until late November. Meanwhile, the strikers published their own newspaper, The Guild Daily, staffed by striking P-I employees, which quickly became popular among Seattle citizens who supported the strike. By the end of the strike, that paper’s circulation had reached 60,000 copies a day.

The strike lasted three-and-a-half months and coincided with the 1936 national election season. Franklin D. Roosevelt — Hearst’s ideological adversary — was re-elected on November 3, 1936. After the election, Hearst settled with the American Newspaper Guild, giving the Guild its first victory and cementing Washington State’s reputation as a state where labor had genuine power.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer strike officially ended on November 25, 1936, and the P-I resumed publication on November 29. Having begun as an upstart fight by a small, local union, the strike ended as a major victory for white-collar labor nationwide.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “The Right To Publish,” The Seattle Star, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “Statement of P. I.,” The Seattle Star, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “Statement of Guild,” The Seattle Star, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “This Shameful Page” (editorial), The Seattle Times, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “Violence Flares at News Plant as Guild Men Strike,” The Seattle Times, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “A Statement by the Post-Intelligencer,” The Seattle Times, August 14, 1936, p. 1; “P.I.-Guild Strike Is ‘Coasting’,” The Seattle Star, August 15, 1936, p. 1; “Guild Gives Answer To Statement of P.-I.,” The Seattle Star, August 15, 1936, p. 1; “Guild Strikers Hold Blockade on P.-I. Building,” The Seattle Times, August 16, 1936, p. 1; “Publication Of P.-I. Still Is Blocked,” The Seattle Star, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “P-I Blames Beck,” The Seattle Star, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “Says the Guild:,” The Seattle Star, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “Newspaper Management Says Future Activities ‘Up To Community’,” The Seattle Times, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “Guild Issues Own Statement On Merits of Its P.-I. Strike,” The Seattle Times, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “One Picket Arrested as Drunk, One Hurt in Fight in Guild Strike,” The Seattle Times, August 17, 1936, p. 1; “Guild, P.-I. Mediation Proposed,” The Seattle Star, August 18, 1936, p. 1; Archie Binns, “Northwest Gateway: The Story of the Port of Seattle” (Binfords & Mort, 1941), pp. 297-299; William E. Ames and Roger A. Simpson, “Unionism or Hearst: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer Strike of 1936″ (Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, 1978).

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July 29, 1968: About That Typewriter…

The original Seattle Black Panther Party headquarters in the Central Area

In the heavy political weather of the summer of 1968, a war between the Seattle Police Department and the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party was almost inevitable. Tensions between the SPD and the Seattle BPP — barely six months old and already making an openly activist mark on a profoundly passive-aggressive city — were already stark enough without the typewriter business. On the date in focus here, the SPD raided the BPP office in the Central Area and arrested Panther captain Aaron Dixon and defense minister Curtis Harris. While Harris was released the next day, Dixon was charged with alleged possession of — no, not drugs; no, not weapons; get this — a stolen typewriter.

It was a laughable pretext with terrible consequences. Occurring in the midst of tension between Seattle’s black youth and the city government over the latter’s failure to provide adequate social services for minorities — and a summer that had already seen riots break out in the Central Area — the raid and arrests sparked yet another such riot in the neighborhood. This time it was serious: the July 29 riot lasted three days and resulted in further arrests — at least 69, according to one account — along with the wounding of seven policemen and two civilians hit by gunfire and rocks, in addition to property damage throughout the Central Area.

The aftermath was political as well as physical: while the riot itself died down, a resulting war between the SPD and the Panthers would last another two years. The raid was — and still is — believed by many surviving Seattle BPP members and associates to have been part of a nationwide effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy the nationwide BPP, one of a number of FBI terror operations against citizen movements in effect at that time.

One last intriguing detail about the events described above deserves mention here. About that typewriter: it may or may not have found its way into the BPP office by means other than theft, judging from the later acquittal of Dixon and Harris in the matter of its possession. Funny how such things happen — especially when “law and order” are involved.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “4 Wounded In Outburst Of Gunfire,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 1968, p. 1; Don Hannula, “Negroes Criticize Amount of Force in Police Search,” The Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, p. 2; “Panther Leader Charged in Theft,” The Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, p. 2; Mike Wyne, “9 Injured in Gunfire-Marked Outbreak in Central Area,” The Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, p. 3; “Ramon Blames Disturbances on Arrests,” The Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, p. 3; “30 Police-Action Protesters Crowd Into Chief’s Office,” The Seattle Times, July 30, 1968, p. 3; “Leader of Panthers Free on $3,000 Bail,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 31, 1968, p. 4; “Violence Must Be Curbed” (editorial), The Seattle Times, July 31, 1968, p. 10; “Aaron’s Trial,” Helix, August 1, 1968, p. 4; Walt Crowley, “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle” (University of Washington Press, 1995); Aaron Dixon, “My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain” (Haymarket Books, 2012); Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu).

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June 1, 1961: “Block the Ditch”

Marchers against I-5 construction, downtown Seattle, June 1, 1961
Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry

What would Seattle look like today without Interstate 5 slicing straight through it?

It’s all too easy these days to take for granted the concrete monstrosity that runs through the heart of our city, dividing Seattle into two absurdly disconnected halves like the result of a brain operation gone horribly awry. But there was in fact early opposition to the unfortunate location of I-5 while it was still in the planning stages.

One demonstration of that opposition occurred on the date in focus here, when a group of roughly 100 Seattle residents staged a protest march against the impending construction of I-5 through the city. Since the new freeway was already a done deal at the time, the march was aimed at persuading the Seattle city government to construct a lid over the portion of I-5 that would run directly through downtown.

The group was comprised mostly of First Hill and downtown neighborhood activists concerned about the negative effects the freeway might have upon the quality of life in the area. Escorted by Seattle police, the group marched along the proposed route of the freeway through a seven-block stretch of downtown, with many carrying placards proclaiming “Block the Ditch” and “Let’s Have a Lid on It,” among other noteworthy slogans.

Among the organizers of the protest were members of the First Hill Improvement Club and architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993). Best known as the primary architect of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Thiry was also one of the first to propose a lid over I-5 where businesses and apartments could be built. Downtown interests also supported the proposed lid, due to their concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the increase in traffic from the freeway. Among other significant local figures who had publicly opposed the freeway route was former Seattle Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958), who was concerned about the effects of building the route through a slide-prone area.

This protest was actually an anomaly, and there was in fact minimal opposition to the I-5 route during the early planning stages, since the freeway was mostly planned through quiet bureaucratic process in Olympia until late in the game. The Seattle portion of I-5 began conceptually as the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma Superhighway in 1951, and was approved by the Washington state legislature in 1953. Funds for construction were provided by the Federal Defense Highway Act of 1956, signed by President Eisenhower.

The Seattle portion of I-5 was completed in January 1967. Although the opposition to its construction was minimal and moot, the damage done to Seattle’s quality of life by its location would soon motivate much more fervent efforts against future freeway construction within the city limits — specifically, against the R. H. Thomson Expressway. That story, told elsewhere on this blog, ended in success when Seattle voters rejected that project in 1972. The cap desired by the June 1961 marchers was finally realized (although only in a limited area) when Freeway Park was dedicated on July 4, 1976.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Don Duncan, “100 Marchers Call For Freeway Lid,” The Seattle Times, June 1, 1961, p. 1; Sam Angeloff, “Freeway Marchers Advocate Landscaping,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 2, 1961, p. 8; Dan Coughlin, “Council OKs Mall Cover On Freeway,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1961, p. 1; “Council Backs Mall Over Two Downtown Freeway Sections,” The Seattle Times, June 6, 1961, p. 11; Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, “Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works” (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998); Jeffrey Craig Sanders, “Seattle and the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).

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