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Hundreds protest stay-home order at courthouse, shout down politicians hoping to reopen economy

Hundreds of protesters with signs and flags and protesting against the statewide COVID-19 shutdown walk toward the Spokane County Courthouse from the Kendall Yards development behind Washington State Rep. Matt Shea, third from left, Friday, May 1, 2020 at the Spokane County Courthouse. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rebecca White and Jared Brown The Spokesman-Review

Several hundred protesters led by far-right religious leaders and state Rep. Matt Shea, of Spokane Valley, converged Friday afternoon on the Spokane County Courthouse to call for the economy to reopen.

While there was no counterprotest, some elected officials gathered at the request of Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who said they deserved a chance to address what they had been doing to help the economy.

The protest happened the same day Gov. Jay Inslee called for an extension of the stay-home order until May 31 and announced a framework to reopen the economy.

The crowd roared when protest leaders broke the news.

Shea called the stay-home order unconstitutional, downplayed the risk of COVID-19, called Inslee a tyrant and demanded that the economy and churches reopen.

“This is a low risk for the majority of America,” Shea said. “Let’s recognize that fact and let’s get us back to work.”

There are 367 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County, and 22 people have died of the disease. The coronavirus is most dangerous to older adults and people who have underlying health conditions, but young people and children have become seriously ill and some have died from it.

Medical officials, including county Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, have called for the entire state, even rural areas, to stay the course to keep case counts low and to keep the disease out of long-term care facilities where outbreaks have swept through and killed dozens.

Many of the protesters who were with Shea held signs or yelled that they were out of work, facing financial trouble and didn’t want a stimulus check or unemployment benefits. Most did not wear masks and were not following social distancing rules on the crowded courthouse lawn, including numerous children.

Some of the group demonstrated more extreme views. A few carried handguns and assault-style rifles.

Members of Eastern Washington’s Lightfoot militia marched with protesters to the Spokane County campus from a parking lot near Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. One leader said the group was providing security.

A number of people from American Patriots the III%, a group that advocates for gun rights and resistance to the federal government, were also present.

“This is Eastern Washington. We don’t care what Inslee says,” said John Valle, one of the local group’s leaders, who added that Knezovich has challenged stay-home protesters in the news media. “We’re here to support Matt Shea. … We’re here to answer that challenge.”

Many protesters wore “Make America Great Again” hats and had merchandise associated with President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign. Others had shirts referencing the American Redoubt movement and Infowars.

People opposing the state’s comprehensive sex ed bill also gathered signatures for a petition during the demonstration. A number of protesters carried signs about the Liberty State movement to split Washington in half.

But the rallying cry for them all was the same: “Freedom is the cure.”

Derek Babcock said he had about 500 small banners printed with the slogan to have some uniformity among protesters. He sold them for $5 each to cover his costs.

“I just feel that the government is really overstepping its bounds,” said Babcock, who believes officials are lying about the death toll from COVID-19. “We have the right to move about freely.”

Neal Davis, owner of Davis Tool Inc., brought about 10 signs to pass out to demonstrators with slogans about reopening the economy and getting taxpayers back to work.

“We need to start thinking like Americans again,” said Davis, who laid off an employee for the first time last week. “Businesses are going into bankruptcy every day.”

He said he has his own three-stage plan to reopen the economy: “Ready, set, go.”

People who are vulnerable to COVID-19, Davis said, should stay home while the rest go to work and exercise caution.

“I’ve had my life,” said Doug Sticklemeyer, a 66-year-old from Spokane whose sign claimed the economic tradeoff was for the lives of senior citizens. “I’m worth taking the risk.”

Sticklemeyer said he wants to see the stay-home order lifted so people can go back to work, but social distancing would still be a “common sense” precaution for gatherings. He said people should wear face masks if they want to.

“We didn’t know the governor had so much power to shut down our world,” said Jennifer Crews, a nurse who provides intravenous infusions to people in their homes. “The numbers and the data is not adding up in our community.”

Emilia McGuire, a 16-year-old from Deer Park, stood with a group of young people holding signs claiming that COVID-19 death counts aren’t accurate and that the novel coronavirus is a hoax.

Stay-home orders should be lifted “just so we can go back to work,” said McGuire, who agreed with another protester that people have the freedom to move freely and accept the risk of contracting the virus.

Shea accused elected leaders of inaction and of pursuing continued state funding instead of following the Constitution. He also called for more protests.

“We know those protests are working, we know they are,” he said. “We have to keep standing for liberty every single day of every single week until finally the leadership catches up with the people.”

Speakers at the courthouse included Joey Gibson, founder of the Portland-based, far-right group Patriot Prayer; Caleb Collier, former Spokane Valley city councilman; Marty McClendon, a Republican candidate for Washington lieutenant governor; and the Rev. Matthew Cummings, a right-wing pastor from Marble in Stevens County.

“Every single generation is asked to stand for liberty. It’s our hour right now,” said Shea, the final speaker. “Are you ready to stand for liberty?”

At the end of the protest, Knezovich called for protesters to stay a moment and listen to him, state legislators and county commissioners who had gathered to ask questions. He was at first shouted down, and protesters called him a traitor and booed him.

“We gave you a chance to talk,” he shouted at Shea, who left soon after his speech ended.

After the crowd quieted down, Knezovich said local leaders have been advocating for businesses to reopen and that religious organizations were still closed because pastors themselves were trying to keep their congregations safe.

“The reason that they haven’t opened up is because they care about people,” he said.

Knezovich said he wants the economy to reopen but through the work of the courts and legislators at a special session. He also addressed protesters’ concerns about being arrested.

“We have decided – period – that our enforcement methods are educational,” he said. “We will not issue citations, and we will not arrest people. However, I can do nothing when they pull your business licenses.”

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, who represents Spokane, also addressed the crowd, calling for a health-first approach to reopening.

He also told the crowd that he had been listening to the protesters, who booed him loudly and interrupted him, and that he wants to be cautious when reopening the economy so businesses don’t close down later due to another outbreak.

“I sat here and listened to everything you said,” he told those assembled. “I want to tell you public health should lead.”

Knezovich, SpokaneCounty Commission Chair Al French and Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, all called for protesters to call their legislators and ask them to advocate for reopening the economy.

“We’re on the same side,” said Graham.

Knezovich also told the crowd that the gathering had likely put everyone assembled, including him, at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Knezovich said he took issue with Shea’s approach, noting that the Spokane Valley lawmaker hasn’t been involved in regional COVID-19 recovery efforts and saying Shea’s rhetoric during the event “nudged right up to outright rebellion.”

“That type of rhetoric just has to stop,” he said.