Protest in which marchers enter Interstate 5 called 'strategic strike'

The protest march on Interstate 5 that plugged up southbound rush-hour traffic for almost an hour yesterday was just the first of several "surprise strategic strikes" aimed at changing the way law enforcement views black men, African-American leaders said.

"This is just the inauguration, the beginning of a sustained effort to get the responses we've been seeking," said the Rev. Leslie Braxton, senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, while standing in the middle of the Madison Street offramp surrounded by at least 200 people.

"We will continue this behavior until there are substantive changes. What you saw (yesterday) is an example of what we're talking about."

The march followed the funeral of Robert Lee Thomas Sr. of Ballard, who was shot April 7 by Melvin Miller, an off-duty King County sheriff's deputy.

Thomas, who was black, had driven his pickup into Miller's rural neighborhood east of Renton and parked it on a shoulder, partly blocking a road.

A neighbor thought the truck looked suspicious and called Miller, who agreed to investigate. Miller, who is white, said he fired because Thomas aimed a gun in his direction when he approached. Thomas' son, Robert Lee Thomas Jr., who was a passenger in the truck, said they were lost and trying to get their bearings when Miller fired without warning. He said Miller did not identify himself as a sheriff's deputy.

Yesterday's procession was an attempt by the marchers to get answers from the Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the shooting.

Several hundred people had packed into Mount Zion, 1634 19th Ave., to say their farewells. After the service, most of them walked from the church down Madison Street, heading to the King County Courthouse for a rally.

At least that was the plan given to the Seattle Police Department's motorcycle escort.

But the leaders unexpectedly led the crowd onto Interstate 5 at a ramp near Madison Street, although some of the marchers stayed off the freeway.

Motorcycle police officers rushed to swerve in front of those going onto the freeway to prevent them from being hit by cars. Several vehicles almost hit the marchers.

Police formed a blockade with squad cars a few hundred yards from the ramp, stopping traffic, which backed up past Northgate Mall.

"We would not have allowed them to go on the freeway if we had any idea they had planned to do that," said Nick Metz, Seattle assistant police chief. "We had no reason to believe they would not follow through with what they promised us."

Motorists trying to get onto I-5 at the Mercer Street entrance had mixed reactions to the delay.

"They're going to get attention," said Tasneem Lalani, who was inching forward in an effort to get on I-5. "But it's a huge inconvenience. If everyone's got a right to protest, well, everyone's got a right to get home."

The protesters made several demands before kneeling in prayer. They asked for an "open, honest investigation" and answers to three questions: Were Thomas, his son or his son's girlfriend, also a passenger in the truck, involved in an illegal activity when they were parked on the road? Did Miller follow departmental procedure as an off-duty deputy? And did Miller identify himself as a sheriff's deputy before shooting Thomas?

The Sheriff's Office has not provided answers to those questions. Yesterday, detectives asked for and received a copy of Miller's written statement detailing his version of the shooting. Police would not comment on what Miller had said. The statement cannot be used in any criminal proceedings against him because under state law it is considered a "compelled statement," since he had to give it or face administrative punishments.

The protesters also demanded the firing of Miller, the creation of an independent review board, increased sensitivity training for police officers and meetings with King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

In fiery speeches throughout the march, leaders read off the names of area black men who had died in police shootings and said if demands were not met, the disruptions would continue.

"We're going to keep coming back to undisclosed spots," Braxton said.

"The element of surprise is on our side."

Carl Mack, vice president of the Seattle chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, described the situation as volatile.

"If the verdict comes back that this was a justified homicide, that will be the spark that will ignite this powder keg," Mack said. When asked to elaborate later, he said, "Do you remember the Rodney King riots?"

Deanna Nollette, Seattle police spokeswoman, said, "We will do whatever we can to help people get whatever message they want to get across, across. And we did that today. But we cannot allow people to break the law and to endanger life and property. ... If we're going to allow people to walk on the freeway, it's just a matter of time that someone's going to get run over."

Larry Gossett, a Metropolitan King County councilman, said the march was simply "the manifestation of the rage and frustration of the black community."

"It's hard to understand the role that police have played to keep us in our place," said Gossett, who is black. "Unfortunately, most of Seattle will wake up tomorrow and won't understand what this is all about."

Larry Dean, 45, of Seattle, walking with his two sons, said, "If (Thomas) was a white man, he (Miller) talks him down. There is no problem. There is no gun."

Seattle's Aaron Fowler, 30, and his brother Ben, 27, who work with youth, said that as black men they think about things that white people don't have to think about: "What time of day it is, where we are, how we are going to be perceived," Ben Fowler said. "It's tangible. You can feel the stereotypes that are pervasive in our society about black men, and they're largely negative."

"In this state we hide behind a liberal cloak," Aaron Fowler said. "Hopefully, this march will bring attention to an issue that people can analyze, look at and come to a logical conclusion."

Police were preparing to bring in buses to remove the protesters when they left on their own. They continued to the courthouse, where several of the leaders threw two bags of red liquid against the building as a symbol of Thomas' blood. There were no injuries or arrests reported.

Earlier, at the funeral, friends and family remembered Thomas as a wise, beloved man who spoke his mind.

"He gave me the nickname 'Sidewalk Commando' because my bike was always breaking down," said Willie Dumas, 53, of Seattle, who rode Harley-Davidsons for 10 years with Thomas in the Magic Wheels motorcycle club.

Before the funeral, a procession of 45 cars including the hearse with Thomas' body passed by the site of the shooting, in the 14500 block of 196th Avenue Southeast in the Lake McDonald neighborhood. They stopped and got out of their cars for about 10 minutes to hold hands in a circle and pray.

A freshly painted cardboard sign, which read "Support Our Sheriff," met them on their way out.

Bill Hollibaugh, 46, said he tacked up the sign to a telephone pole in front of his house because Miller has been a good neighbor.

"He is being persecuted, and I just wanted to put in my two cents," Hollibaugh said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Gina Kim and J. Martin McOmber contributed to this report.

Michael Ko can be reached at 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.