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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane sheriff, police chief blame Sunday’s violence on outside agitators

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl speaks during a news conference outside the damaged Nike store on Main Avenue on Monday, June 1, 2020. Meidl is flanked, from left, by Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson; pastor Shon Davis; Phil Tyler, past president of the Spokane NAACP; community organizer Kitara Johnson; Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson; pastor Lonnie Mitchell; and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Chad Sokol Emma Epperly and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

Law enforcement officials and leaders of Spokane’s Black community blamed Sunday night’s rioting, looting and property damage on outside agitators who “hijacked” what had been a day of mostly peaceful protests.

But the scope of the involvement of organizers outside Spokane remains difficult to quantify, and police on Monday downplayed the presence of far-right agitators and militia members who roamed the downtown core with rifles and body armor.

Nonviolent demonstrations at the Spokane County Courthouse and the Red Wagon in Riverfront Park were “definitely hijacked,” Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said during a news conference with the city’s mayor and police chief.

“What we saw here was some fringe groups,” Robinson said. “Some of them were bused in, some of them were planted here, and maybe even some of them might actually be some Spokanites that were kind of talked into it.”

Mayor Nadine Woodward echoed that during the news conference outside the Nike store on Main Avenue.

“Another group showed up – the rioters and the looters who broke business windows, tagged many buildings, looted the Nike store behind us and refused police orders to disperse,” Woodward said. “That is not Spokane.”

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said preparations began “quite a while ago” for Sunday’s events. He said police had intelligence on plans for “antagonists coming into the area with the intent of provoking law enforcement into a confrontation.”

Meidl noted the presence of antifascist or “antifa” demonstrators on Sunday. There were “some antifa” downtown wearing “masks that said antifa,” and a woman with a bullhorn “espousing antifa rhetoric, as well, trying to stir up the crowd,” he said.

Later Monday, Meidl acknowledged to Spokane City Council members in a meeting of the Public Safety and Community Health Committee that many of those participating in the demonstration were “local, homegrown” residents of Spokane with “some from outside spinning things up.”

Council President Breean Beggs asked Meidl how police were separating peaceful protesters from those participating in violence and vandalism.

“The short answer is there is absolutely no way to separate those in that kind of environment,” Meidl answered.

Officers in the River Park Square area were outnumbered about 20 to one, Meidl estimated. At that deficit, there’s “no way you can go in and start picking out” the people committing crimes, he said.

The choice officers were left with, Meidl said, was to allow people to continue looting, “using peaceful protesters as a shield,” or take more aggressive action.

Julie Humphreys, a police spokeswoman, told The Spokesman-Review that of the 15 people arrested Sunday night, “I’m sure there’s plenty from Spokane.” It’s not the department’s position that the unrest was caused solely by outsiders, though they played a role, she said.

“At some point, no, it was people in our city, and we don’t want to discount that,” Humphreys said. Video of the incidents will play a key role, she added. “We’re open to look at whoever it is.”

During a news conference Monday afternoon, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich blamed the rioting almost solely on antifa agitators from the Portland area.

“This was not our African American community,” Knezovich said.

Local authorities have been working with the FBI and confidential informants to investigate those responsible for the rioting, Knezovich said.

“I can tell you that they came in three vehicles,” he said. “They were wearing communication headsets. They were using Motorola channel 4 to do their coordination. And it was coordinated.”

Law enforcement controls the intersection at Riverside and Howard around 11 p.m. after a 5 p.m. curfew was set while riots broke out on May 31, 2020 in downtown Spokane, Wash. This standoff area was the hot spot that lasted the longest out of all problem zones, and escalated beyond the tear gas and rubber bullets to flash bang grenades. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Law enforcement controls the intersection at Riverside and Howard around 11 p.m. after a 5 p.m. curfew was set while riots broke out on May 31, 2020 in downtown Spokane, Wash. This standoff area was the hot spot that lasted the longest out of all problem zones, and escalated beyond the tear gas and rubber bullets to flash bang grenades. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

When those individuals failed to “force the hand” of police and deputies at the courthouse, Knezovich said, “500 of them broke away from the main body and started going downtown.”

The sheriff also issued a warning to any local protesters who might have communicated with the alleged outsiders before Sunday’s protests.

“There are a few local organizations that might want to be sweating bullets right now,” he said, “because if I link you, we’re coming after you.”

Knezovich and Meidl downplayed the presence of armed men, whom the sheriff identified as members of the Three Percenters militia.

One of those militia members, Jered Bonneau – who mounted a long-shot campaign to represent Eastern Washington in Congress in 2018 – said in a series of Facebook posts that his group went downtown Sunday night to “render aid” to law enforcement and injured protesters.

Bonneau also distinguished between the peaceful protesters and antifa agitators. He posted a photo showing 19 members of his militia group, many armed with AR-15-style rifles.

Unlike many other demonstrators and some working reporters, members of the militia group were allowed to approach and communicate face to face with police in riot gear who lined the streets. Knezovich and Meidl said the militia members have a right to openly carry firearms, and they all complied when police and deputies told them to go home.

“Quite frankly, the message to them is: Don’t do that again. We don’t want you, and we don’t need you down there, causing more chaos,” Knezovich said. “That’s just not what we need.”

A few members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, also were present.

“Proud Boys – folks, there are about four of those in the Spokane area, that we know of,” Knezovich said. “They weren’t the ones causing damage.”

Meidl said the level of organization that went into Sunday’s protest was clear early on to police, who noted jugs of milk assembled to counteract the effects of tear gas. One group carried baseball bats and clubs, and one person carried an umbrella with a spike on top of it, Meidl said.

“We thought this was a group that had experience in committing riots and disorder, and we knew that they brought that equipment for a reason,” Meidl said.

The use of tear gas, and institution of a curfew, is profoundly abnormal for Spokane.

“This is such an unusual occurrence when we have individuals from outside this city pre-staging different things that show they have experience with what happens in these types of events,” Meidl said. “They’re going to continue to do what they do all night long, like you see in these other cities.”

A woman who did not identify herself confronted Meidl during the news conference outside the boarded-up Nike store.

“I was kneeling in the street, praying, and I was tear-gassed,” the woman told Meidl. “I’m a lifelong Spokanite. I’m not an outside agitator. I was kneeling in the street, praying, and I watched other people demonstrating peacefully with their hands up, and I watched them tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. How can you justify that?”

Meidl told the woman he didn’t know about that incident but offered to discuss it with her.

Meidl also gave a play-by-play of Sunday’s events.

Officers arrested one man trying to start fights near the Red Wagon, Meidl said. After the protest moved to the county courthouse campus, a small group of protestors threw rocks and water bottles toward officers, he said.

Hours later, as the demonstration at the county courthouse wound down, a group of 400 to 500 people moved back downtown in front of the federal courthouse, and then the turmoil began, he said.

“Our intent was to allow them to march, not to stop this,” Meidl said. “Let them take over the streets while we could keep them and traffic as safe as possible.”

Once people began breaking into businesses, Meidl said police engaged, hoping to avoid the dramatic scenes of property damage seen in other cities across the United States.

At about 6:45 p.m., he said, police used tear gas to disperse rioters in front of the Nike store.

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

Some protesters lingered on Howard Street, where minutes later police launched a second volley of tear gas. Later, a third round of the chemical was sent into Riverfront Park to disperse people.

As the protests escalated, Spokane police summoned more officers and deputies from Spokane County, Kootenai County, Cheney, Coeur d’Alene and the Tri-Cities.

Protesters moved a few blocks and then reassembled after each round of tear gas, until the last were dispersed around midnight, Meidl said.

“Throughout the night we continually tried to push them out of the city,” he said.

About 15 people were arrested during Sunday’s unrest, and Meidl said most were jailed on disorderly conduct charges. Police, he said, are reviewing video to find others responsible for looting and violence.

A spokesperson for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital said the hospitals treated fewer than 10 patients with protest-related injuries on Sunday night, mostly for tear gas exposure. Some were treated for rubber bullet wounds and injuries related to a fall. All were treated and released from the hospitals.

Notably missing was the Washington State Patrol’s Rapid Deployment Force, a Spokane-based unit that responds to civil disturbances and helps with crowd control.

The team already had been deployed to Seattle to help with protests there on Saturday, Trooper Jeff Sevigney said.