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Police and teens clash in Seattle's University District on August 13, 1969.

HistoryLink.org Essay 1264 : Printer-Friendly Format

On August 13, 1969, police and teens clash in the University District. Twenty-one rioters are arrested and three officers are injured. Although much blame is given to political agitators, the riot is actually caused by teenagers looking for trouble.

Tension ran thick in the University District owing to a small riot between street people and the police two nights earlier. Two flyers had been circulating in the community. One urged calm in the name of the New American Community; the other was unsigned and much more militant. A sketch of a pistol bore the caption "We're looking for people who like to draw."

A community meeting of about 50 people gathered at 7:30. Much anger was vented about police harassment, but the dominant tone was that people should be cool and avoid further confrontations.

After the meeting dispersed around 8:30, attendees found the streets were filled with hundred of teenagers, white and black, whom no one had ever seen before. Around 9:30, a group of black teens began looting Bluebeard's boutique on the 4200 block of University Way. Several locals tried to intervene, explaining that Bluebeard's wasn't the enemy, but the break-in had nothing to do with class dialectics.

Amazingly, no police appeared. Somebody dragged a trashcan into traffic and lit it afire. Still, no police came.

Precisely at 10:00 p.m., a banshee wail erupted from atop the Adams Forkner Funeral Home, where police had installed a "howler." The machine emitted a focused beam of disorienting sound, which strafed the Ave like a machine gun. Moments later, a loudspeaker announced, "You are ordered to disperse. If you do not disperse, you will be removed by force."

Rocks immediately flew in the direction of the speaker. CS gas grenades (which sicken their victims) began popping, and scores of Tactical Squad officers in full riot gear charged onto the Ave from nearby alleys. Amid the screams, explosions, and otherworldly howling, clots of kids pelted the police. When the latter advanced, the kids retreated, rearmed, and attacked anew.

Along the way, trash cans were ignited to bait the police, parking meters were smashed, and stores were looted. A mobile crane along 15th Avenue NE was set afire, and when firemen arrived they had to withdraw under a hail of stones.

At the height of the violence, around 11 p.m., the Neptune Theater's performance of Romeo and Juliet ended, and hundreds of moviegoers exited into the middle of the war zone. Astoundingly, the police never blocked off traffic, and scores of motorists on University Way and NE 45th Street found themselves trapped in clouds of tear gas and swarming masses of teens and police.

The battle, really a series of running skirmishes, continued until 3 a.m. The night ended with 21 rioters in jail and three officers in the emergency room.

Later, police denied using CS gas, despite ample physical evidence to the contrary. Police, along with The Seattle Times, claimed the riot was planned and deliberate. In truth, few of the participants were denizens of the University District, and even fewer were politically motivated. Instead, it was mostly teenagers having "fun" at the expense of cops and property.

In fact, they had so much fun, the next night, they did it again.

Sources:
Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 151-153.


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Police blockaded Seattle's U-District during the August 1969 riots
Photo by Alan Lande


 
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