A large crowd of protesters packed the first and second floors of Seattle City Hall after sundown on Tuesday at the invitation of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. For more than an hour, the group listened to speeches advocating for the removal of Mayor Jenny Durkan, whom many of those gathered blame for the extreme police tactics used against protesters over the past week, which Durkan herself described Sunday as “more fitting of a war zone.” The group also called for Amazon, which is headquartered in Seattle, to be taxed.
By about 10:15 pm, city hall was empty again. A photo snapped by a local Fox reporter showed hardly any sign the building had been occupied, save for a couple of water bottles and what looked like luggage sitting on some steps. He described the group as having departed “peacefully.”
Followers of major conservative media accounts heard a different story on Twitter—one of a brazen siege on the building led by Black Lives Matter and “Antifa,” a left-wing boogeyman President Trump has accused of directing violence against police officers nationwide. (Short for “anti-fascist,” antifa is a label used by a numerous, largely unaffiliated activist groups across the country, many of which are anarchistic and, accordingly, reject hierarchical structures.)
Jake Goldstein-Street, a news editor with The Daily, the University of Washington newspaper, tweeted a video of the demonstrators entering the city hall building just before 9 pm, writing only that the group was chanting for Durkan’s removal “as they head up the steps toward the council chamber.” There was no mention of the group entering the building illegally. (In fact, Goldstein-Street and other reporters present noted that Sawant had a key to the building and had opened the door herself.)
Nevertheless, Elijah Schaffer, a Blaze TV producer, borrowed and tweeted Goldstein-Street’s video around 20 minutes later, adding his own spin on the story: “Antifa and [Black Lives Matter] have broken into Seattle city hall,” he tweeted. The claim quickly exploded and was shared by numerous other large conservative accounts, eventually making its way to GOP staffers on Capitol Hill.
The Daily Caller, the conservative news site founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, tweeted the video with the ambiguous phrase “taken over.” (“Protesters in Seattle have taken over City Hall.”) Many of its followers appeared ready to accept the act was a break-in, accusing the demonstrators of violence and saying the “troops” should be called in. The Caller’s social media editor, Greg Price, shared Schaffer’s tweeted directly, adding: “Seattle is lost. RIP Grunge.” (Grunge is a rock genre that died off over two decades ago.) Price later deleted his tweet.
Schaffer’s claim was amplified considerably by ex-Blaze TV colleague Tomi Lahren, now a Fox News host on FOX Nation, who has 1.6 million followers. (Lahren removed the tweet, a Fox News spokesperson said, following an inquiry by Gizmodo.)
Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, tweeted the video to his million followers under the caption: “Insurrection.” Alt-right troll Mike Cernovich tweeted the video to his 612,000 followers, writing: “I don’t really care. Do you?”
Omri Ceren, national security advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz, shared Schaffer’s tweet, as did Nate Madden, a Republican aide who works for the House Oversight Committee.
Gun rights activist Kaitlin Bennett—commonly referred to as “Gun Girl”—shared Schaffer’s tweet with her nearly 348,000 followers. The Reagan Battalion, a Republican Party group that formerly opposed Trump, also tweeted the video out to its 94,000 followers.
By Gizmodo’s count, Schaffer’s claim had been retweeted more than 15,000 times, at the time of writing.
The Blaze, Judicial Watch, and Sen. Ted Cruz’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning. Others could not be reached.
Daily Caller Editor-in-Chief Geoffrey Ingersoll said in an email to Gizmodo that his staff strives not to boost unproven claims. “The video seems pretty clear. However they got there, the protesters did fill city hall. It’s an interesting story,” he said. Ingersoll added that, over the past week, “reporters everywhere” had quickly deleted tweets claiming “Trump said George Floyd would love the improving employment numbers.” (Trump’s comments about Floyd, offered during a speech about better-than-expected unemployment figures, were widely taken out of context.)
“There’s an obvious lesson here: reporters should be more careful before they blurt out uncorroborated nonsense on Twitter,” said Ingersoll. “Much of our media seem to be infected with that lack of caution. It’s not helping the country.”
NPR reported Tuesday that the Department of Justice has brought criminal charges against more than 50 individuals in connection with civil disorder following the police killing of George Floyd. None of those facing charges is accused of having any ties to the antifa movement.
While Seattle’s city hall building remains intact and open for business, several streets surrounding the city’s East Precinct have been occupied by demonstrators. On Monday, the Seattle Police Department boarded up the precinct and applied fire retardant to its exterior before voluntarily withdrawing from the area in what Police Chief Carmen Best called “an exercise in trust and de-escalation.”
The announcement followed some 12,000 complaints about the police tactics used against mostly peaceful demonstrators, KUOW reported on Monday. Tear gas, flashbangs, and pepper spray had been used by police officers, who at times were pelted with bottles, rocks, and “incendiary devices.” Protesters have made a point of keeping the peace in the area, which they’ve re-named the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” with one speaker reportedly telling a crowd on Monday, “We’re not going to do what they want us to do.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle, claiming its mayor and police chief violated the First Amendment rights of its protesters by deploying “less lethal weapons to control and suppress demonstrations.”
The city’s decision not to engage with the protesters comes amid nationwide calls to defund police departments and redirect spending toward mental healthcare and other community-based initiatives. A majority of the Minneapolis city council has said it intends to vote to dismantle the city’s police department, saying simple reforms will not be adequate to fix the force, which even prior to the death of Floyd at the hands of four officers had been plagued with allegations of racism.
Claims that “antifa” has coordinated attacks on police drove hundreds of counter-protesters, many of them armed, to Seattle over a week ago, the Seattle Times reported. But the violence they were expecting to encounter “never materialized,” the paper said. The counter-protesters mostly stood around with their weapons, some of them while drinking beer. One was reportedly filmed punching a teenager in front of a bridal shop.
President Trump has pushed the narrative about “antifa” primarily influencing civil unrest on Twitter. On Tuesday, he accused Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old Buffalo, New York, man who fell and smacked his head on the pavement after being pushed by two police officers, of possibly being an “ANTIFA provocateur,” adding: “Could be a set up?” Acquaintances of Gugino’s told reporters he’s a devout Catholic and longtime peace activist. He remains hospitalized in serious condition. The officers who pushed him have been suspended without pay and charged with second-degree assault. Both pleaded not guilty.
Last week, the official White House Twitter account tweeted a video that showed random piles of bricks in several U.S. cities along protest routes. “Antifa and professional anarchists are invading our communities, staging bricks and weapons to instigate violence,” the tweet read. As Gizmodo reported, each pile of bricks, except for one, were placed there by construction crews, in most cases days or weeks before Floyd’s death. One of the images was of a security barrier erected in front of a Jewish community center intended to deter vehicle attacks.
The White House deleted the video approximately two hours later. The Trump administration has not responded to a request for comment.