Seattle Mardi Gras Riots
The Seattle Mardi Gras riots occurred on February 27, 2001, when disturbances broke out in the Pioneer Square neighborhood during Mardi Gras celebrations in Seattle, Washington. There were numerous random attacks on revelers over a period of about three and a half hours. There were reports of widespread brawling, vandalism, and weapons being brandished. Damage to local businesses exceeded $100,000.
Much of the violence was perpetrated by black men against white revelers, and about 70 people were reported injured. Several women were sexually assaulted. One man, Kris Kime, died of injuries sustained during an attempt to assist a woman being brutalized.
It was the second serious rioting incident in over a three-year period seen in Seattle, the first being the 1999 World Trade Organization's Minister Level Conference On World Free Trade. There were allegations of police misconduct, and the highly controversial actions of officials in response to the riots were questioned.
Pioneer Square is often described as the center of Seattle's nightlife and was the site of Mardi Gras celebrations since 1977. More than 90 civilians and 30 officers were injured there during disorders in 1979.
Festivities on the Friday and Saturday leading up to 2001's Fat Tuesday were quickly broken up by police. The city's bicycle patrol was at the forefront of squashing festivities. This led to complaints from event goers. Up to 2,000 people gathered in the neighborhood on Sunday evening. Seven people were arrested as 200 police in riot gear disbanded the crowd with pepper spray, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades. Celebrations in 2001 were violent in other US cities, including Austin and Philadelphia.
Over 4,000 party goers filled the neighborhood and its bars on Tuesday evening. Large crowds began forming in the central plaza at 9:00 pm and eventually spilled into the surrounding streets. The celebrations included drinking, dancing, and women baring their breasts for beads.
Throngs of men began groping the women as the women exposed themselves. Sporadic fighting broke out at about 10:40 pm. Police donned riot gear and formed lines but did not enter the crowd for the most part. Cars were vandalized and overturned. Small fires were set and the windows of business were shattered. Police were notified that young men were pointing firearms and brandishing other weapons towards people. By midnight, groups roved through the crowd randomly attacking people along the stretch of Yesler Way between First and Second Avenues. Paramedics were not able to reach some victims due to the lack of police control in the area.
The police stood by and did nothing as a group assaulted a female teenager; when a bystander, Kris Kime, attempted to protect her, the group beat him to death. Witnesses said Kime was struck and knocked to the ground as he tried to help the frightened woman who had fallen in the melee. Kime died of massive head injuries. About 70 others were reported injured. Two of the injured had gunshot wounds.
At 12:30 am, 25 to 30 young men advanced on a line of police. The police retreated while bottles and other debris were thrown. A team of bicycle officers made a quick charge toward the crowd with pepper spray before retreating again. Fighting escalated with little police interference until shots were fired at 1:30 am. With the assistance of an armored vehicle, police advanced on the crowd with tear gas, pepper spray, and flashbangs. The crowds were finally dispersed shortly after 2:00 am.
The day after the riot, local newspapers carried a picture of a black man with brass knuckles engaged in an assault which came to symbolize the riot. An editorial in The Stranger said the incident was racially motivated and that much of the violence was directed at white civilians. Witnesses said gangs of black youth yelled racially charged slurs and sought white victims. Investigations later showed that roughly 75% of the over 100 suspects were black. Many of the suspects had criminal records and were believed to be affiliated with gangs. Some eyewitnesses said that most of the attackers were black but that race was not a factor in who was victimized. According to the Seattle Weekly shortly after the incident, police did not see the attacks as solely or even predominately racial violence.
Racial issues overshadowed the sexual assaults that took place. One man was charged with forcibly fondling a woman. A photograph of a partially nude woman being groped by some two dozen men while lying topless and on her back won an award from the National Press Photographer Association despite not being previously published in a newspaper.
During the incident, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske ordered the police at the scene not to intervene, instead maintaining a perimeter around the growing violence. The Seattle police force voted a resolution of "no confidence" in Chief Kerlikowske when officers complained of being "held back too long". The City of Seattle acknowledged that the police strategy during the incidents presented a public safety threat, and the City settled with Kime's family for just under $2,000,000. Schell appointed a three member task force panel to investigate the cause of the riots. He instructed them not to discuss the lack of police intervention which the public had been concerned about. Initially task force meetings were closed to the public, but protest forced the city to open them to attendance.
In the wake of the riots, Mayor Paul Schell announced a moratorium on Mardi Gras celebrations in Seattle. Schell lost to Greg Nickels and Mark Sidran in the city's 2001 mayoral primary elections. King County Executive Ron Sims called the Mardi Gras riot and the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting "defining issues" in Schell's failed bid for reelection. Nickels made Kime's death a political issue in his campaign, saying the certificate of death would hang in his office should he become mayor. He kept the pledge upon taking the office. As mayor, Nickels retained Kerlikowske as police chief.
That night, 21 were arrested. Dozens were later questioned by police after being identified through the use of videotape, photographs, and reports from eyewitnesses. The man photographed and videotaped wearing brass knuckles and beating people, Aaron Slaughter, was sentenced to three years in prison for assaults on a woman and two men. It ran concurrently with his nine-month sentence received for rendering criminal assistance during a brawl less than three months later.
A 17-year-old, Jerell Thomas, was found guilty in the death of Kime after jurors saw video footage of Thomas hitting Kime in the head three times. He was also convicted of two counts of second-degree assault for attacking two other men with a skateboard. He originally received a 15-year sentence, but it was overturned by the state's Supreme Court when it threw out the law that covered his crime. In 2006, Thomas avoided a new trial and plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. He received a 10-year sentence. In December 2009, Thomas was released from prison early. He soon reoffended.
On the day after the Mardi Gras riots, Seattle experienced the 6.8 Mw earthquake, the worst in 37 years. Its scale caused people to refocus their attention on earthquake recovery and away from the violence. Outside the Seattle area, the incidents attracted little media attention and have largely been forgotten. In 2011, local bars decided to reattempt Mardi Gras celebrations in Pioneer Square. Smaller Mardi Gras events had been held but it was the first to consist of a collaboration between multiple bars. Another group had considered organizing an event but the permitting process was too restrictive.
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