2nd pastor injured by police at Occupy Seattle

6:00 P.M. ET Dec. 15, 2011

For the second time in a month, a United Methodist pastor was injured by police while trying to keep the peace during an Occupy Movement protest in Seattle.

The Rev. John Helmiere, pastor of the Valley and Mountain Fellowship Church in the Columbia City/Rainier Valley area of Seattle, said he was beaten by a Seattle police officer as he shouted, “Keep the peace, everyone!”

On Nov. 15, the Rev. Rich Lang, pastor at University Temple United Methodist Church, was pepper-sprayed by police during an Occupy protest march in downtown Seattle.

“In both cases, these pastors were involved in demonstrations linked with Occupy Seattle,” said the Rev. Patricia Simpson, superintendent of the Seattle District of the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference.

“They were involved in a particular capacity — as supporters of the message of protest against income inequality and (in Helmiere’s case) support of short-haul truckers, who are the lowest paid truckers at the port.”

Both wore clothing identifying them as clergy. Lang wore an alb; Helmiere a clerical collar.

“In both cases, they were trying to keep the peace and calm people,” she said. “They were trying to help avoid violence. When Rich (Lang) was pepper-sprayed, he had stepped out to ask protesters to move back. He was encouraging people to cooperate so violence would not erupt.

“John, similarly, had just restrained someone from punching an officer,” she said.

Helmiere’s account of the Dec. 12 incident appears on the Valley and Mountain Fellowship website. In it, he writes:

“Yesterday evening, I was brutally beaten by my brothers on the Seattle Police force as I stood before an entrance to Pier 18 of the Seattle Port in my clergy garb bellowing, ‘Keep the Peace! Keep the Peace!’  An officer pulled me down from behind and threw me to the asphalt. Between my cries of pain and shouts of ‘I’m a man of peace!’ he pressed a knee to my spine and immobilized my arms behind my back, crushing me against the ground. With the right side of my face pressed to the street, he repeatedly punched the left side of my face for long enough that I had time to pray that the crunching sounds I heard were not damaging my brain.”

The Port Seattle Incident

The Dec. 12 protest was part of a coordinated effort of Occupy forces to disrupt shipping traffic in West Coast port areas. Similar protests were staged in California in Oakland, Long Beach and San Diego and in Portland, Ore., Anchorage, Alaska, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Many of the protests targeted SSA Marine, a shipping company partly owned by Goldman Sachs Investment Bank, which is engaged in labor disputes with some port truckers.

In Seattle, protesters gathered in the afternoon near Terminal 18 in the area of Klickitat Ave. S.W. and S.W. Spokane St. As evening approached, protesters began erecting barricades made of aluminum and wooden crates in the streets, blocking truck and commuter traffic. The police issued orders to clear the streets.

Helmiere, who had attended the afternoon’s protest with his wife, Freddie, said the mounting tension made him uneasy and he considered leaving.

“I was there initially as a participant in the Occupy demonstration,” he told United Methodist News Service.“I was about to leave, but I stayed once things got heated to be a peacemaker.”

Helmiere said he was linked arm-in-arm with other protesters in a classic nonviolent protest technique, yelling at protesters to keep the peace and maintain nonviolent strategies. At the same time, he was speaking to police officers in front of him, asking them to think about what they were doing, to think about their humanity.

“I was trying to give officers a chance to make a moral decision (when dealing with the protesters) instead of just reacting,” he said.

Helmiere said he only saw one moment of violence, when an older man standing next to him reacted to being shoved in the neck by a police officer. “He reared back to sock the officer, and I pulled him away.”

Moments later, Helmiere told Seattle’s MOXNews he was grabbed by the back of the collar and hurled to the ground. A knee dug into his back, his face was shoved against the asphalt and someone began punching him on the side of the face.

Helmiere was handcuffed, booked on charges of obstruction and jailed at the King County Jail for 12 hours before being released. As of late yesterday, the city attorney’s office had not filed charges against him.

Two sides, two views

Though it had begun peacefully, the protest in Port Seattle did become violent, Seattle Police Detective Jeff Kappel of the Public Information Office reported on the department’s online blotter.

Kappel writes of the incident on the Seattle Police Department Blotter and shares photos showing a paint-spattered horse, a bag of bricks and a chunk of rebar that police said were hurled at officers by protesters.

“At least five officers … injured after being struck with a bag of paint, flares, rebar and other debris thrown by suspects,” Kappel wrote. “The officers … treated at the scene by SFD medics.”

In an email response to United Methodist News Service inquiries, Kappel said, “Officers used the force necessary to ward off attacks and or to effect arrest. If this gentleman (Helmiere) feels that he was mistreated or ‘brutally beaten,’ he should contact the Office of Professional Accountability and launch a formal complaint.”

The incident report filed by the Seattle Police Department stated that between 300 and 400 protesters blocked the streets in the area of Klickitat Ave S.W. and S.W. Spokane St. “As a result, numerous lawful orders to disperse were given by multiple officers,” the report stated.

Responding officers were directed to move the protesters out of the streets, where they had been blocking traffic, the report said, and eight of the protesters, including Helmiere, ignored the orders to disperse and remained in the street.

According to the website SeattlePI.com, the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability has opened an investigation into Helmiere’s allegations. Helmiere is also reaching out to the officer involved in the incident.

Cabinet responds

The bishop and cabinet of the Pacific Northwest Annual Regional Conference were meeting when they received word of the incident.

“As soon as we heard, all of the district superintendents and the bishop (Grant Hagiya) sent an email (to Helmiere) in support,” said Simpson, the district superintendent.

She said that the cabinet is planning to discuss its growing concern about the excessive use of force by some Seattle police officers over the last year. “The issue has been very much on the church’s radar in this last year,” she said. “We may end up with an ecumenical response from the bishops and religious executives. That’s the strongest way to go about it.”

Church leaders from multiple denominations are expected to discuss the issue at a scheduled Dec. 21 meeting.

The United Methodist Church has always been in support of the right of nonviolence witness and protest, Simpson said. “That’s the function that clergy, in clergy garb, have served in public demonstrations for decades.”

Role of the church

“God is much bigger than any party or any movement,” Helmiere said.

“I don’t believe the Holy Spirit instituted the church to fill gaps in social service networks. I think the church is instituted to ignite the fire of hope and help people live lives of unconditional love that reflect the grace that we’ve received.”

Helmiere said he carried a sign at Monday’s protest that read, “Our system stands against those my God stands for,” a statement he believes deeply.

“I think our current system gives more voice and power and opportunity to a few, and the system allows the few to steal from the many,” he said.

Despite the actions Monday, Helmiere said he would continue to be involved in the Occupy Movement because, “We are called as the church to follow Christ’s example of speaking truth, even if it causes us to sacrifice.

“I think the Occupy Movement is changing the public dialogue,” he said. “We’ve looked at poverty and labeled it as individual failure, that it’s poor people who have the problem. The Occupy Movement is finally identifying that there’s a problem with the system and poor people are a symbol of the problem.”

He said United Methodists must have a serious conversation about the issues the Occupy Movement has raised. “Don’t join the movement blindly,” he said, “but really do some serious investigation and see if they agree there’s a systemic problem in this country.”

*Brands is a freelance writer living in eastern Upstate New York.

News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

 

This article was originally posted by the United Methodist News Service Dec. 15, 2011 at http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=11551765&mid=554. It is reposted here with permission.

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