In a scathing rebuke on Thursday, numerous local elected officials condemned the armed citizens who have stood guard outside businesses during Spokane’s recent protests.
Leaders referred to the rifle-strapped, camouflage-clad groups that have lined the city’s streets during back-to-back Sunday demonstrations over police brutality as “armed vigilantes” in a joint statement.
“Their presence did not contribute positively in any way to the protest,” the statement reads. “In fact, their presence made the situation more tense and our city more dangerous for all involved.”
Officials who signed the agreement include Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, the entire Spokane City Council, State Sen. Andy Billig, Rep. Timm Ormsby, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, and several others.
They join the owners of several downtown businesses who have publicly spoken out against the presence of armed people at their storefronts and in their parking lots during weekly Sunday protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
John Waite, the owner of Auntie’s Bookstore, posted a letter to city officials on Facebook Tuesday that argued the presence of militia members downtown is not conducive to operating a business, and called on city leaders to condemn their presence.
Likewise, The Globe, a Division Street restaurant and bar, posted a statement on its Facebook page that it stands with the Black Lives Matter movement and did not ask for the militia presence spotted outside its doors.
“They have come in response to the powerful, peaceful protests that have taken place in downtown Spokane. Video footage reveals their malicious intent to agitate, disrupt and intimidate. We have no affiliation with these individuals nor do we condone their activities,” The Globe said in the statement.
Waite welcomed the statement from local officials on Thursday, calling it a “step in the right direction.” He said he received unanimous support from other businesses after publishing his letter on Tuesday, adding that he had yet to hear from any who had asked for armed militia members to guard their establishment. Waite said he was forced to close Auntie’s on Sunday, despite the protests being peaceful , due to the presence of armed men on city streets.
“If some of those guys think they’re doing us a favor, I’m trying to explain to them that they’re not,” Waite said.
The city has faced criticism for its handling of militia members and armed people during protests. Officials, including Woodward and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, have argued that there is little the city can do to remove armed people from the street because Washington permits the open carrying of firearms. During the May 31 protests, when a curfew was enacted and several businesses were damaged by rioting and the police response , Meidl said armed people complied when asked to leave the streets.
In an interview with The Spokesman-Review last week, Meidl compared their presence to bringing fuel to a fire, but defended their right to carry a firearm in Washington.
City spokesman Brian Coddington said the city’s first effort will be communication, but that plans regarding how armed people will be addressed this weekend “are being finalized.”
A man who would identify himself only as “Connor” stood Sunday with an assault-style rifle and pistol across Spokane Falls Boulevard from protesters, who derided him with chants . He told The Spokesman-Review he was there to keep the peace and supported the crowd’s right to protest.
None of the members of the Spokane County Board of Commissioners signed the statement, nor did Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
Al French, the board’s chairman, said he was asked to sign, but declined because it did not also condemn the actions of those who caused unrest and rioting on May 31 and lamented “outside influences on both sides trying to hijack the protest.”
But French stopped short of endorsing the armed presence downtown.
“While they had the legal right to be there, I don’t think it was constructive. It was a challenge for law enforcement to deal with that,” French said. “I understand their motivation for doing it, the reasoning behind why they wanted to show a presence, but I’m not always sure that’s the appropriate action in this kind of situation.”
It was not clear whether French’s fellow county commissioners or Knezovich knew of the statement.
Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton and four members of the Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors also signed on to the statement.