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‘A recipe for disaster’: As Olympia becomes the site of political clashes, officials voice concern for the Capitol and the city

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 22, 2020

By Joseph O’Sullivan Seattle Times

OLYMPIA – The demonstrations have become meaner. The taunts between opposing sides nastier. The number of weapons has multiplied. And the firearms traditionally brought to the Capitol for symbolism are now being pointed and fired to settle scores between political opponents.

With triggers pulled this month at two political clashes – wounding at least one person – Olympia has become one of the latest emblems of America’s frayed social fabric.

Washington’s capital city – population 54,000 and home to The Evergreen State College, a working port, eponymous oysters and storied music history – has long drawn protesters from all across the political spectrum.

But election season poured fuel on a year already afire with political protests, from unprecedented government restrictions to curb COVID-19, to widespread demonstrations in the wake of killings of people of color by law enforcement.

Since the Nov. 3 elections, Olympia has seen regular weekend demonstrations questioning the election results after the losses of President Donald Trump and GOP gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. Other rallies have called on government to reopen schools and businesses closed by the pandemic.

That escalation has also helped lead to a rift between some of Olympia’s community leaders and state officials – who have kept approaches to the Capitol closed with signs, concrete barriers and parked vehicles.

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby and others say closing the Capitol roads has pushed demonstrators and protesters into neighborhoods and toward downtown businesses trying to make holiday sales after an already difficult year.

“They’re coming to town because they want to protest on the campus,” said Selby, who has complained to state officials about the barricades around the Capitol. “These aren’t folks coming to patronize our stores or restaurants, and so why are we putting our residents at risk, and the Olympia Police Department at risk?”

But state officials say the road closures – which include “the diagonals,” two streets leading to the Capitol where visitors often park – are a form of de-escalation and necessary to protect both government workers and protesters.

“There has already been violence and damage to the capitol campus this year,” Gov. Jay Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “On several occasions, workers on campus have been advised to not come to the offices or to stay inside the buildings because of activities going on outside.”

The potential for clashes and violence isn’t likely to soon fade.

Another new twist: While right-wing demonstrators have long appeared at the Capitol carrying guns, they are now being met by left-wing counterdemonstrators with firearms.

Aaron Jelcick, Olympia’s interim police chief, said he is “extremely concerned” that so many on both sides are now armed.

“I’ve never seen in my career, and I don’t think any of the folks in this line of work have seen, so many firearms on both sides at protests,” Jelcick said. “When you add firearms and weapons to this level of emotions … it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Reducing risk

Demonstrations have occurred every weekend since the Nov. 3 election, according to Selby.

That all came a week after a Dec. 5 incident in which a demonstrator allegedly fired his gun at counterdemonstrators at the edge of the Capitol campus.

Right-wing protesters have long brought firearms to the Capitol.

But on Dec. 12, anti-fascist counterdemonstrators also appeared with long guns – which Selby and Jelcick say is a first. While those armed individuals appeared to hang in the background during that day’s clashes, the protest dynamic is now heavily armed political opponents.

As far as the Capitol, there’s “no reason for that to be shut down, as far as I’m concerned,” Jelcick said.

“Shutting that campus down just pushes people into the streets,” he said. “Then you have people who are not intending on being part of those protests, who are now forced to be part of them.”

Selby, Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and some others have urged state officials – unsuccessfully so far – to remove the concrete barriers blocking approaches to the Capitol.

They have also complained about vehicles owned by the state Department of Enterprise Services (DES) parking along Capitol Way, the main thoroughfare from downtown to the Capitol, which has blocked off other parking.

But in a statement, DES Director Chris Liu called blocking access to the Capitol necessary, in part to protect demonstrators.

Liu cited a demonstration in New York City earlier this month in which six people where hurt after a driver plowed into demonstrators at a rally in Manhattan.

“Select roads and the parking diagonals are closed because they abut primary areas on campus where people gather to exercise their constitutionally protected free speech rights,” wrote Liu, whose agency oversees the Capitol campus. “It’s important to protect public health and safety, including putting measures in place to reduce risk of incidents where vehicles can plow into crowds and cause injuries, as occurred in New York on Dec. 11.”

State officials have added signs at the Capitol to direct demonstrators to nearby parking areas to keep them from going downtown, according to DES spokesperson Linda Kent.

The Washington State Patrol, which oversees security at the Capitol, agrees with DES’s decisions on traffic and parking, according to spokesperson Chris Loftis.

In an email, Loftis called those measures “a form of de-escalation” that also make it harder for demonstrators to bring tables, chairs and public-address systems to unpermitted rallies.

State Democratic lawmakers, some of whom have been increasingly concerned about firearms on the campus, are discussing new restrictions.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said she is writing legislation to prohibit weapons on the campus and at state buildings, which would broaden the current bans at locations like courthouses and mental health facilities.

“I think that the potential for someone to get hurt is great,” Kuderer said. “Especially in these very polarized times.”

More protests planned

Olympia joins other capitals around the nation as a magnet for violence in a politically polarized era.

Michigan officials earlier this month closed the legislative building after “credible threats of violence” ahead of its scheduled Electoral College vote. In October, 13 people were charged with plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor, or seeking to storm that capitol in an effort to instigate a “civil war.”

In Oregon Monday, right-wing demonstrators armed with guns and bear spray pushed their way into the Oregon Capitol building, according to news reports. Oregon State Police troopers were reportedly sprayed with chemical agents and at least three people were arrested.

Also on Monday, the Washington Three Percenters sent an email calling for daily demonstrations at the Capitol in Olympia beginning Jan. 10 as the legislative session begins, albeit largely remotely.

The email stressed that the demonstrations were to be peaceful and “not to accost or infringe on the rights of others.”

But the goal is for protesters to get inside the Capitol, and occupy the House and Senate gallery areas each day.

“We will NOT take violent offensive action of any kind,” according to the email, “but we WILL be prepared to defend ourselves while demanding the State follow the Constitution.”

The first was part of a “Stop the Steal” rally the Saturday after the election.

Since then, weekend demonstrations have featured conservative demonstrators questioning and protesting the election results.

On Dec. 12, the Washington State Patrol confirmed one person had been shot during a clash between pro-Trump demonstrators rallying to question the integrity of the results.

The suspected gunman is a 25-year-old Trump supporter, while the 21-year-old who was shot had been arrested in October and charged with arson in federal court for allegedly throwing a lit mortar through a broken window in Seattle during a demonstration.

Doctors told law enforcement last week that the victim, whose identity was not released, was shot in the back and the bullet exited through the front of his torso.

The patrol later confirmed that a second shot had been fired the same day, and they continue to seek information in that incident.

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