Seattle’s Flag 3 wins Lawsuit Against Seattle Police: Seattle Cop Taken off the Street!
After three years of legal battles prompted by a battle with cops that never happened, three Olympia, WA anarchists settle out of court in a lawsuit that gave them over $30,000 and gave the City of Seattle one less reckless cop brutalizing people on the streets. Nadav Lewkowicz from the Leatherstocking Collective of Crumm Mountain, NY interviewed Brendan Maslauskas Dunn, a member of the IWW, anarchist and one of the Flag 3.
Nadav Lewkowicz (NL): I understand the Seattle's nefarious Flag 3 won their lawsuit against Seattle's finest and the city itself. Can you talk about the background of this case for people who don't know?
Brendan Maslauskas Dunn (BMD): Sure. Well, we actually won back in early December 2009. It was a long, stressful legal battle that spanned over three years. It involved me and two other anarchists from Olympia who were arrested at a World Can't Wait rally in Seattle's Cal Anderson Park in October of 2006. Personally, I was a little reluctant to go to the rally because of the group that put it on but I decided to go last minute and brought an anarcho-syndicalist flag with me. The three of us, Jake Erwin, Ryan Tompkins and myself, were hanging out in the park before the rally with a number of anarchists, SDSers and Wobblies from Olympia and Tacoma, when out of nowhere, two cops with bicycles approached Jake from behind and snatched the flag from him. An argument ensued and when one of the cops in question - Officer Matt Hyra - asked if it was an anarchist flag and someone said "yes", he started walking away with it.
NL: So what happened next? Did things erupt into a riot?
BMD: Hardly, although that's what the cops wanted to believe and what the media reported. A group of us demanded the flag back, tried to bring attention to what was going on to others at the rally and then the cops lost it. Hyra rammed his bike into Ryan's leg, Ryan in turn called him a name and then Hyra grabbed him to either beat him up or arrest him. I wasn't really sure. A bunch of people grabbed onto Ryan to de-arrest him. One young woman was pinned against a tree by the cops and cried out in pain (apparently an EMT treated her after our arrests) so I instantly let go. And right when that happened, I was tackled to the ground by a line-backer sized cop. I was tossed into a squad car and by the end of the day the three of us found ourselves in King County Jail.
NL: Did Hyra or the other cops try to interrogate you or question you in jail?
BMD: Hyra did. Jake and I were in a cell together. Ryan was elsewhere. Hyra came in and started to ask us questions. I remained completely silent, but Jake tried to reason, tried to find some logic or common ground with him. It's hard to find that with cops and was especially hard to do that with Hyra. He asked us what anarchist groups and organizations we were in, said that our friend Ryan had "already admitted to being an anarchist" and we should fess up and do the same. It was pretty obvious why we were in there. All the questions he asked were political in nature. I remember scoffing at him when he said it was completely legal for the police to confiscate anarchist flags at demonstrations and that the owners could come to the police, give them all their information, get ID'd and get their flags back at the end of the day. Right when I made that noise, he looked at me and said, "You put your hands on my back!" I shrugged at that. I had no idea what he was talking about.
NL: What was it like in the slammer? Were you scared at all? Were you in there long?
BMD: Ryan and Jake were bailed out - they only had misdemeanors so it wasn't that much. I spent a day and a half or so in there and was bailed out. I was facing charges of felony assault of an officer. It wasn't my first time in jail, but I was preparing for the worst. I thought I'd be there for a long time. I was in a general population unit with Ryan. There were about thirty of us in there, all sleeping on big sheets of metal for beds. It was pretty cold in there and half of the people weren't given enough clothes or blankets to stay warm. The food was pretty disgusting - I remember some kind of "stir fry" that had little pink, white and light brown cubelets of some kind of meat substance. We all shared one toilet that looked like it hadn't been cleaned for three months and we had a chess set made out of wetted then dried wads of toilet paper for pieces. Everyone in there, really, was in there because they were poor. One guy was caught stealing a TV, someone else was caught dealing. How else are you expected to make money when you're pushed to the fringes of society? There are few options out there for really poor folks and so to stay alive, people run with them. I remember seeing a lot of graffiti scribbled in the wall about Oaxaca. The whole experience was humiliating; just how the guards treat you - everything from the strip downs, to the searches, to the strict regimentation. It wasn't until months later that I learned that that jail in particular has so much abuse and torture that goes on inside that the Department of Justice of all agencies did an investigation on the place and delivered a pretty damning report. Lucky for me, my friend Stalin bailed me out and I wasn't in too long, but it sure gave fuel to the fire of my beliefs that the prisons shouldn't be reformed - they should be abolished.
NL: I'm sorry, did you say Stalin? A friend named Stalin?
BMD: (Laughs) Don't take it too seriously. It's just a nickname. His real name sounded too British so my friends and I started calling him Stalin during the port demonstrations back in 2006. The police and authorities have often seen him as a "leader" and for a while some even thought he was the "anarchist president" in Olympia. That just goes to show how stupid and incompetent some cops really are.
NL: Since we're on the subject of stupid and incompetent cops, tell us what you know about Seattle Police Officer Matt Hyra, the officer who was instrumental in, well in many ways, creating the Flag 3.
BMD: From what I learned, he was in the academy, in training during WTO back in 99. I don't know if he was on the streets then, but I'm guessing that all the lies the police and media fed about anarchists, that that was his first introduction to anarchists. He's gotten in trouble in the past a number of times. I found a Sanyo phone testimonial online where he was bragging about all the times he ended up in ERs for getting into drunken brawls or fights - one time he almost drowned on a drunken fishing trip. He was also sued in the past by Oriyon Abraha. This was a racial profiling and pretty severe police brutality case where Hyra knocked Abraha unconscious, and knocked some of his teeth out. Hyra also totaled three Seattle police cruisers in the past, thus making him three times more effective in causing financial damage to the police than what happened the night of the dead prez concert in Olympia in 2008 - but they kept him on the force. They just demoted him from car cop to bike cop. The guy is pretty much a tool. I mean, he said the day I was arrested was the "scariest day" of his life.
NL: Going back to the criminal case. What was the outcome of it and how was that experience overall?
BMD: Jake and Ryan were tried separately, as I mentioned earlier they both had misdemeanors and I had a felony charge. I went to court with them the day their charges were dropped. The judge was so upset with the prosecutor and with Hyra and with the entire ordeal that she said that it was completely within the legal rights for Ryan and Jake to resist arrest and to obstruct the police officers because the arrests were unconstitutional and illegal. I thought that was pretty amazing - a judge encouraging people to refuse the orders of the police. My case lasted much longer and I think three or four different prosecutors were assigned to my case. The stories of the police changed so much that their final story was that I jumped on Hyra's back, strangled him, punched him and attempted to un-holster his gun to shoot him. I went to so many buildings in downtown Seattle - cop shops, lawyer offices, and different court houses - I really got tired of it. The day my charges were dropped just so happened to be the day I overslept and arrived in court late. For whatever reason, when I show up late to court things turn out well for me (although I wouldn't encourage people to show up to court late). I remember walking by Safeco field on my way to court and I walked by a newspaper box. The headline was something like "Norm Maleng - Seattle's Chief Prosecutor Dies" and my first thought was, damn, my charges are going to get dropped today. I was right.
NW: I understand though that your troubles didn't end there. Wasn't there something that stuck on your record?
BMD: There was. There was an "officer safety alert" on my name, meaning that whenever I got pulled over in a car, or my name was checked or my ID was ran that something would flash on their screen detailing my arrest, saying that, basically, I tried to kill a cop in Seattle and was in a riot. Last year when I was working in a lumber mill in Shelton I got pulled over by the police five times in one month for absolutely nothing. And that alert would always come up. It came up at Evergreen with an altercation with a cop over racial profiling of Indian students and it's come up at the border. Every time I tried to go to Canada since this arrest I was detained at the border, interrogated, once deported and once reluctantly allowed entry. One of the Canadian Immigration officers said I have an FBI number - from what, I don't know. But it's probably from being involved with Port Militarization Resistance, the Flag 3 case, helping with the outing of John Towery the military spy and perhaps other things. I was also denied jobs - most recently with the US Census Bureau. I was also denied apartments because this kept on coming up in background checks even after it was tossed out and the case was closed. The judge and the prosecutors repeatedly demanded that the Seattle Police and WA State Police clear this from my record and every time they refused.
NL: Anarchists suing the police. Seems kind of odd to me. I feel like social action and direct action is the best way to attack the system. Why did the three of you decide to take legal action?
BMD: Well, you're absolutely right. Social and direct action, grassroots and community organizing, popular struggles - that's what makes a revolution. Legal action doesn't, although at times it can be a tactic for a larger political strategy. We were encouraged to sue from our friend and my lawyer Larry Hildes of the NLG and his assistant Karen Weill. Larry has a really interesting past. He was an Earth First!er and Wobbly during the Redwood Summer Campaign and has been involved with a number of radical movements throughout his life. Most recently he and Karen helped out with Port Militarization Resistance and are currently suing the Army, Navy and Coast Guard from the Towery spy case. The lawsuit was pretty stressful. Heather Carr, the lawyer representing the cops tried to argue that we brought the flag and the flag pole to use as a weapon to stab cops. Right before we were supposed to go to trial, there was a string of cop killings in Seattle and in Lakewood near Fort Lewis. That definitely was one of the things that caused us to settle out of court. We settled out of court for over $30,000 total. The City interestingly spent probably a quarter of a million dollars to fight us in the case. The officer safety alert was lifted from my name and, the icing on the cake, Hyra gets to spend the rest of his career as a cop sitting behind a desk. That was probably the best satisfaction I got from the whole trial. Oh, and I got the flag back.
NL: You mean they held on to the flag that whole time?
BMD: They did. They held it as evidence. Hyra and the police claimed it was a signal flag to start riots. If that was only true... had we gone to trial the whole court would have erupted in a riot when they unfurled the flag.
NL: What would your advice be to other anarchists, and other activists for that matter, who want to sue the police or the government?
BMD: If you have the patience and you think it will go well, you should do it. You really need the patience though. Emotionally, the whole thing was draining. I mentioned the humiliating nature of jail earlier. They carry this humiliation through all the way to the end - through the courts, even through lawsuits. It's just part of the society we live in: humiliation for being poor, or part of some oppressed group, for not fitting neatly into the dominant paradigm we have. That's something we as anarchists need to destroy, not just within ourselves but systematically. Court is very frustrating and I've spent more than enough hours sitting in court rooms as an observer, supporter or defendant that it has reaffirmed my beliefs that this whole system has to be completely scrapped for something new. Mumia Abu Jamal states that "the law is what the judge says it is" and he's absolutely right. So much power rests in the hands of one person.
NL: What do you plan on doing with the money you won?
BMD: I was a little too ambitious at first when I was suing for one million bucks. I had plans to pay off my student loans, help my parents buy the hose they had been renting the last ten years, donate most of it... but I ended up with $6,000 and most of it went to paying off debt and medical bills and insurance. I guess capitalism caught up with me yet again. My brother suggested I build a monument in Cal Anderson Park dedicated to the Flag 3 that would depict me strangling Officer Hyra.
NL: One thing I wanted to know was what kind of support did you get and in what forms?
BMD: Support was there from the very beginning. While we were in jail, a crowd came out and formed outside the jail - a Wobbly from Olympia came up with the name the Flag 3 and it stuck. That very same night, some bands held an impromptu performance in downtown Olympia to raise funds and later a benefit CD was made for fundraising. Most of the financial support came from Olympia activists of all stripes, SDSers and Wobblies. I even got an anonymous message in the mail this past fall with $100, so if that person is reading, I want to thank her. The RCP of course refused to help, even though my lawyer had helped them on a number of cases and some of their cadre was witness to my arrest. No surprises there.
NL: Any final words on the saga of the Flag 3?
BMD: Well, these past few years, my whole experience in this case has reconfirmed my convictions and beliefs that we need a complete and total withdrawal from, destruction of and alternative to the system we live under. A popular slogan in the Northwest, at least in the context of anti-militarization and anti-war organizing and demonstrations, especially in the ports, is "tear it down!". Anarchists are pretty good at citing what it is that needs to be torn down, but I think we really need to focus more on "building up" too. Envisioning and creating ways forward with everyone, not necessarily for everyone. If we don't believe in police then we need to both look critically at societies where police don't exist and see how these situations and societies will take shape in the present. We need to look no farther than Seattle during the general strike of 1919 - that was a beautiful moment in history - an expression of a society without police. There has been a lot of energy recently in places like Oakland and Portland against police violence and quite a few people critically looking into alternatives to a system built on violence and the role of police to enforce that violence. As the crises we are in deepens, I believe more of this will arise.
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