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Tacoma woman sentenced for setting police cars on fire during 2020 protest

A car fire burns as protesters flood the streets of Seattle on the first day of widespread demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd.
Parker Miles Blohm
KNKX file
Thousands of protesters flood downtown Seattle on May 30, 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier in the week. Peaceful demonstrations turned violent, and several police cars were set on fire.

A woman who torched five Seattle police cars during a tumultuous protest that heralded a summer of unrest after George Floyd's murder in 2020 was sentenced Tuesday to five years in prison.

Margaret Channon, 26, of Tacoma, used an aerosol can and a lighter as a makeshift flame-thrower to burn the unoccupied, parked police vehicles in downtown Seattle on May 30, soon after officers sprayed tear gas to disperse a massive crowd. For 25 minutes, she ran back and forth between the cars, adding fire as necessary to destroy them.

The burning police cars became some of the most indelible images of Seattle's unrest — overshadowing the thousands who demonstrated for racial justice with justifiable anger, but who were nevertheless peaceful, Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg told U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour.

“She wasn't alone, but Ms. Channon set the tone for what that protest became moving forward,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg said. “Ms. Channon left downtown Seattle in flames and in billowing smoke.”

Millions across the country took to the streets after cellphone video surfaced of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee against the neck of Floyd, who was Black, for 9 1/2 minutes as Floyd pleaded for breath. Chauvin was convicted last year on state charges of murder and manslaughter and was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison; he and three other officers have been convicted of federal civil rights violations.

In cities across the United States, protesters fed up with seeing Black people killed by police faced off against heavily-armed officers, with some smashing cruisers, ransacking businesses and setting fires. In Seattle, demonstrators went on to seize an area of several city blocks in the Capitol Hill neighborhood — the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest — and police for a time abandoned the nearby East Precinct building.

Channon, who also acknowledged smashing a store window and busting the cash register at a sandwich shop, was the fifth and final defendant sentenced in federal court for actions related to the civil unrest in Seattle.

Kelly Jackson received more than three years for throwing Molotov cocktails at two Seattle police vehicles on May 30. Tyre Means got five years for burning one Seattle police vehicle and stealing a firearm out of another that day. Desmond David-Pitts and Isaiah Willoughby received 20 and 24 months, respectively, for setting fires at the East Precinct.

Channon apologized in a letter to the court and through a sentencing memo filed by her lawyer, acknowledging that the Black Lives Matter movement does not condone illegal acts and that as a white woman it was not her place to coopt the cause.

“I apologize to the many workers and activists — who have given decades of their lives to building a countermeasure to police violence — that did not want to see fire,” Channon wrote. “I had intended to effect positive change, but my attempt was misguided.”

Her mother, Elizabeth MacGahan, wrote her own letter to the court, saying Channon grew up in a family with a long history of civil service and citing the destabilizing effects of the pandemic, the protests and the recent deaths of her two beloved grandmothers as possible factors in her actions.

“It’s a very difficult time to be young and sensitive, and to suffer losses,” she said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said it offered Channon a chance to plead guilty to conspiracy, rather than arson — which would have enabled her to argue for a sentence less than than the five-year mandatory minimum for arson.

Channon refused. Her attorney, Vanessa Pai-Thompson, wrote that “Channon was adamant that she would not do anything to shift blame to others for decisions that were hers alone.”

After the sentencing, Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown — the first Black person to serve as the Justice Department's top prosecutor in western Washington — said he understood and shared the anger over Floyd's murder.

“I watched people gather and protest here in Seattle with a lot of admiration,” Brown said. “To see that devolve into bombing of police vehicles and destruction of businesses ... was profoundly sad for me.”

His nearly 80-year-old father, Hank, was jailed during civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, and Brown said he appreciated that protests sometimes must be loud, angry and disruptive — but not destructive. Channon's actions undercut the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.