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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Not welcome here: City Council wants end to militia gatherings in Spokane

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 3, 2020

An armed man attempts to mingle with demonstrators protesting peacefully on June 7 in downtown Spokane.  (Libby Kamrowski)
An armed man attempts to mingle with demonstrators protesting peacefully on June 7 in downtown Spokane. (Libby Kamrowski)

Citing state law, the Spokane City Council asked police Monday to prevent armed militias from marching in Spokane.

The City Council approved a nonbinding resolution Monday calling on police to step in when gun-bearing men and women line downtown streets.

The resolution is a response to the militia members who gathered in Spokane during protests over police brutality, racial injustice, and the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor earlier this year.

“This is not acceptable,” Councilwoman Karen Stratton said of the militia presence.

“The City Council believes that the appearance of armed private militias marching with firearms, including rifles such as AR-15s, during the protests in May, 2020, were crimes under state law,” the resolution states.

The resolution does not create a new law; it is only a resolution asking Spokane police to enforce an existing state law. Still there were lingering questions Monday about the law’s enforceability.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has voiced reluctance to charge anyone with violating the state law. He’s noted that Washington also allows licensed people to openly carry weapons and the First Amendment protects their right to assemble.

The Washington law referenced in the resolution dates back more than a century, and Meidl has said he is unaware of its use in any city to rein in militias. It prohibits private militias from bringing “themselves together as a military company” to “organize or parade in public with firearms.”

Although he did not voice support for the resolution, Meidl has also called on militias and armed people to avoid protests and said their presence is unwanted.

The resolution passed by a 6 to 1 vote. Councilman Michael Cathcart was the only opponent.

Cathcart attempted to defer the resolution Monday, noting that he and every other council member had already joined numerous other area officials and signed a public statement condemning the militia presence in June.

He again condemned white nationalists and anyone who comes downtown to intimidate others with firearms, but added, “I condemn criminal rioting and looting and other forms of violence that have also taken place.”

Cathcart expressed concern that it would be difficult for police to determine if a person is part of a militia. He argued that the resolution does not provide police with a “clear path” to enforce the law, which is being reviewed by city attorneys.

Council President Breean Beggs said police do not have to prove a person is a registered member of an organization.

“You just have to prove that they are marching with other people with firearms downtown in an organized manner,” Beggs said. That was clear at the May protest.

“We saw it, and people weren’t apologetic about it,” Beggs said.

Cathcart’s efforts to stall the vote were shot down as several council members felt the community needed to hear from the council, pointing to concerns around election security on Tuesday.

“While people have the right to carry weapons in public, I think that’s different than what their conduct is,” Stratton said. “If I’m downtown and there’s somebody standing on a street corner with a rifle, that’s intimidating to me, and that is going to force me to leave downtown afraid and intimidated.”

Although militia members told members of the media, and posted on social media, that their presence was only meant to deter theft and damage to downtown businesses, the Spokane City Council believes they may have violated the law.

In response, several downtown businesses spoke out against the militias.

The Downtown Spokane Partnership supported the resolution, according to President and CEO Mark Richard. He wanted to dispel “very damaging rumors” that the business organization supported militia gatherings downtown.

The organization “in no way, shape, form or fashion engaged in supporting or soliciting” an armed presence downtown.

Emily Peters, a member of the Human Rights Activist Coterie of Spokane, said the “armed people downtown are not effectively protecting property.”

“We saw one store looted, one time, in all this time with all these protests. I will never support anyone who chooses to harm another person for the sake of my belongings,” said Peters, a business owner.

Peters noted she is a registered gun owner and wanted the council to ensure that the law would not empower officers to harass people who are legally and openly carrying a gun.

At Beggs’ request, the police department has asked the city’s legal department for a review of its enforcement options.

“They will sift through all of the nuances and come up with some good answers. We can’t stall, we can’t not move forward because we don’t have every answer in place right now. We’re running out of time,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

Adam Shanks can be reached at adams@spokesman.com

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