Hundreds of people are expected to gather in Riverfront Park this weekend to protest the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but at least one person who planned to be there has decided not to attend over concerns that the violence that erupted in the Midwest could be repeated in Spokane.
Curtis Hampton, a member of Smart Justice Spokane and Spokane Community Against Racism, said he was planning to speak at the Sunday protest about how people of color lack of opportunities and don’t feel safe in their own communities.
But he reconsidered after a 17-year-old shot three people, killing two, in Kenosha during protests of the police shooting that left Jacob Blake hospitalized.
Hampton said the incident reminded him of the armed counter-protesters who attended Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Spokane this summer. Hampton, who was in the Air Force, said he wouldn’t feel safe going to the march unless he was also armed.
“I told myself a long time ago that if I’ve got to go someplace and I’ve got to carry a weapon – I feel like I need a weapon – then perhaps it is not a place I need to go,” he said.
He said he was also concerned that carrying a weapon could put his life in danger.
“America allows whites to kill people and put the hand up and give up,” he said. “Black people with no gun are dying, shot in the back.”
Blake was left paralyzed after he was shot seven times in the back by a Wisconsin police officer while trying to enter his vehicle.
At a protest following the shooting, two people were killed and one person was injured during an altercation between Kyle Rittenhouse and protesters. Rittenhouse posted about police and firearms extensively on social media and told various reporters at the protest that he was protecting businesses. He has been charged with two counts of reckless homicide.
Hampton said he submitted the speech he planned to give to the Black Lens and hopes speaking out about his fears will help more people realize the double standard Black men are held to when they have a weapon or go to a protest.
Hampton is one of many in Spokane’s activist and social justice community who say they’re concerned about paramilitary and militia activity at protests. Armed men in body armor have followed protesters or stood outside of businesses across the country, sometimes claiming to be protecting them and other times saying they are partnering with police.
Kate Bitz, a program manager with the Western States Center, a progressive advocacy group that tracks white supremacist, paramilitary and militia groups, said the tense political atmosphere, proliferation of misinformation online and presence of firearms at protests is a powder keg for potential violence.
“It’s kind of a question of time until something really dangerous happens,” she said.
Bitz said many of the paramilitary groups showing up to protests aren’t necessarily tied to white nationalism or existing militia groups. Some formed within a few days and decided to show up to a protest in a matter of hours after seeing rumors or inflammatory posts online.
Some groups showing up at protests are organized around who owns guns and body armor, and didn’t exist before this summer.
Bitz assisted a group of activists with a petition asking leaders to distance themselves from paramilitary and militia groups, to monitor their activities and to support people’s freedom to assemble.
The petition has received around 200 signatures.
Angel Tomeo Sam, a bail disruptor for the Bail Project and community organizer who was involved with the petition, said she plans to attend the protest, though she understands why people are afraid.
“The general public wants to come out and support these things, but they need to feel safe,” she said. “The public wants to trust law enforcement and city leaders (and) it really means a lot when our leaders, mayor, City Council, chief of police and sheriff say they discourage those behaviors.”
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said deputies who gather information on militia activity said they hadn’t heard that they would attend demonstrations this weekend. He said those who are going to the march, whatever side they are on, will be safer if they “leave their guns at home.”
“If there is going to be a peaceful protest, let it happen, leave people alone,” he said. “Let them protest. Both sides should leave their guns at home.”
Terry Preuninger, a spokesman for the Spokane Police Department, said people are within their rights to protest and counter-protest, but said showing up with a rifle or other firearm can make a volatile situation worse and complicates the police department’s response.
“As a police official, I can’t try to dissuade them from exercising their liberties,” he said, “but it is not helpful to have large numbers of armed people with opposing views in emotional places come and gather at the same time.”
He said police checking counter-protesters’ IDs or asking them to provide proof that their firearms are legal would also be infringing on their rights. He said police do not have a reason to interfere with militia or paramilitary groups unless they are doing something illegal.
Julie Humpreys, another spokesperson for the Spokane Police Department, said the police are not collaborating with militia groups or others who come downtown with weapons and claim they are securing buildings or businesses.
“They’re there because they can legally carry a firearm in the state, but they were not asked by us, or recruited by us, or endorsed by us to be there for any peacekeeping effort,” she said.
Preuninger said he could not discus tactics or specific information about how police would respond to the demonstration on Sunday, but said they would be at the march monitoring and ready to respond to any potential issues, as they have been at previous protests.
Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP and I Did the Time, said he has not released the route of the march on Sunday in hopes of avoiding contact or conflicts with paramilitary or militia groups. He said the official demonstration will only run from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to avoid the issues that occurred after a previous protest ended and some stayed longer and damaged downtown businesses.
He said he understood peoples’ fears but argued people still need to take action because the problems communities of color are protesting haven’t stopped.
“We want people to feel like they’re doing their part but also not putting themselves at unnecessary risk,” he said. “I think the risk for Black and Brown people in Eastern Washington and the United States is just as real today as it was yesterday, as it was last year and as it’s been for 400 years.”
Robinson and fellow organizer Le’Taxione, who leads the group N’STEP Credible Messengers, said not marching against police brutality and injustice is far more harmful.
“The reality is it is far more dangerous for us to not protest, than for us to protest,” Le’Taxione said. “Black people don’t have a choice, this is how we air our grievances.”
The rally begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Red Wagon in Riverfront Park.
Editor’s note: This article was corrected on Aug. 29, 2020 to reflect that Curtis Hampton served in the military but did not retire from a military career. The story was also changed to correct the spelling of Kate Bitz’s name.
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