The City of Seattle has long been a laboratory for the radical Left. Activists experiment with concepts, language, techniques, and policies that eventually appear in other cities. For this reason, Seattle law enforcement often gets early insight into the evolving tactics of left-wing street protesters. The city’s officers have had decades of experience dealing with Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and anarchist movements, which culminated in the George Floyd riots of 2020.

To understand the latest chaos at American universities, I spoke with Christopher Young, who served as an officer and detective for the Seattle Police Department, including working undercover for a long stretch during the season of George Floyd. Young has since retired and has greater liberty to speak about the current campus unrest and how police departments should respond.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Christopher Rufo: I sense that 2024 might play out as a variation on the theme of 2020, with dramatic political and civil unrest. From a law-enforcement perspective, what has changed?

Christopher Young: The activists are not stupid. They learned a lot during the George Floyd riots. I think the most effective lesson they learned was to pathologize safe and effective riot-control tactics. They say that it’s a “war crime” to use tear gas, but they never say that the cops shouldn’t have riot batons. The reason is that they want to provoke the cops into hitting somebody with a baton, which looks bad on camera.

I worked undercover during the George Floyd riots. I’ve been gassed hundreds of times, which is scary and unpleasant. But it’s better than getting hit with a stick or shot with pepper balls.

Rufo: What is the attitude in police departments in response to the current pro-Hamas campus unrest?

Young: For the most part, the university police can’t really remove the protesters. So, they have to get the city to do it, but the cities are not eager to step in because there’s no upside for them. The university administrations give the protesters an inch, and the protestors take a mile. Then they want the city to come in and deal with the consequences. It’s putting the municipal police departments in an impossible situation, where they’re going to get hit with litigation for routine arrests: “You put the cuffs on too tight. You didn’t read their rights soon enough.”

Rufo: I’ve noticed that, in some cities, universities are requesting that local police departments intervene and disband encampments, and the local police departments are flat-out refusing.

Young: The police departments don’t want to get involved. If you look on Twitter, the activists are basically saying, “the cops are champing at the bit to crack the skulls of these poor students who just want end a genocide.” No, they aren’t. The police don’t want to deal with all the drama and the lawsuits that are going to come from it.

Rufo: This is a different posture than was taken four years ago. When the Seattle Police Department decided to abandon the East Precinct and allow the CHAZ to form, I thought it was a terrible decision. In retrospect, it does not seem as bad as I thought at the time. It is almost as if non-engagement can be a superior tactic than manning the barricades and fighting it out.

Young: Yes, the big lesson learned in the George Floyd riots for SPD is that a static riot line of police is not sustainable for more than a day. Because the protesters are fanatics, they will stay out there for weeks, tormenting the cops on the line and gradually increasing the provocation until they get the cops to react. And eventually, the police are going to react and try to make arrests, and there’s going to be tear gas. That’s what we learned. It’s just not sustainable to stand there and let them abuse you.

Rufo: One other tactic that I saw in the Pacific Northwest that seemed productive was officers in plain clothes and unmarked vans snatching people in the dead of night. Very fast, very decentralized, very small-scale: identifying ringleaders who had engaged in illegal activity and then grabbing them.

Young: It’s highly mobile now. Undercover officers like me would watch them do their protests: “They’re chanting. They’re burning an American flag. They’ve stolen a dumpster and now they’re setting it on fire. Now we can move in.” Then teams of mobile officers would swoop in. In Portland during 2020, when they were attacking the federal courthouse, the feds finally had enough—they had held the riot line for months, like a pitched medieval battle—and they got a fleet of rental vans and started arresting them.

Rufo: If you were advising law enforcement in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, how would you tell them to approach the current wave of campus protests?

Young: I would avoid getting involved as much as possible. The universities created this problem, and it’s not fair for them to ask the cops to come in and fix it. The universities have their own security forces. The state schools have their own police forces. They can expel people. They created this mess; it seems like they really encouraged it. Then it got out of hand, and now they want to be rescued. There’s no upside for the cities and police departments to bail out the universities.

Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images


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