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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Police should rein in assembly of armed militias, Spokane City Council proposal says

An armed man who asked to be identified as Connor, debates the issue of open carrying weapons to a peaceful protest with a woman who asked to be identified as Katie during a Black Lives Matter march on Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Spokane. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police last month in Minneapolis has sparked nationwide protests for police reform.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

In response to weapon-carrying people at recent protests, a new Spokane City Council proposal would ask police to stop armed militia groups from gathering in the city.

Though nonbinding, the proposed resolution would request that Spokane police enforce existing state laws against the public assembly of private militias.

The proposal follows several protests, which began following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year and drew armed militia groups into downtown Spokane.

“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.

At the time, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl did not condone the militia groups but said they have the right to bear arms. They moved along when asked to by police, he said.

Washington law prohibits private militias from bringing “themselves together as a military company” to “organize or parade in public with firearms.”

City Council President Breean Beggs told The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday it appears police were not aware of the state law.

“We’re bringing it to their very public attention,” Beggs said.

Meidl asked the city’s legal department for an interpretation of the law, according to police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys. She said police have discouraged militias from responding to protests, but that people have the right to bear arms unless they are specifically threatening someone else.

“SPD does not interfere with the lawful exercise of a citizen’s liberty regarding the second amendment, just as we would not interfere with the lawful exercise of other liberties such as free speech and peaceful assembly,” Humphreys wrote in an email. “SPD has interacted with armed individuals in the past at large gatherings and has emphasized the desire for citizens to be prudent and judicious in their decisions regarding the carrying of firearms.”

In a statement to The Spokesman-Review, Meidl said he is unaware of any cities that have charged people with crimes based on the law cited in the council’s resolution.

The tension between protesters and people carrying weapons has not resulted in serious violence in Spokane, but it has in other cities.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two people during protests on Aug. 25.

This would not be the first time the City Council has questioned Spokane police over the latter’s response to protests. Earlier this year, the City Council passed a new law that demanded local police enforce existing protections for health care clinics under state law.

Council members argued that the police were not enforcing state law when The Church at Planned Parenthood routinely gathered outside the Indiana Avenue Planned Parenthood clinic to protest abortion.

In a joint statement in June, several local elected leaders, including Mayor Nadine Woodward, condemned the assembly of militias in Spokane during two major demonstrations.

“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.”

The entire Spokane City Council, state Sen. Andy Billig, Rep. Timm Ormsby, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, and several others signed the statement. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich did not, nor did any of the three county commissioners.

Knezovich did not encourage the militia members following the May 31 protest that escalated into chaos downtown.

“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 on June 1. “That’s just not what we need.”

At the time, Three Percenters militia member Jered Bonneau said in a series of Facebook posts that the group’s purpose at the May 31 protest was to “render aid” to police and injured protesters.

Several downtown businesses spoke out following protests. The Globe, a Division Street restaurant and bar where armed people were seen congregating during one demonstration, wrote on Facebook that it stands with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“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.

The proposed resolution states that the city’s police department is “fully capable of keeping the peace and addressing crime.”

The presence of militias, it argues, “undermines civil order, reduces the actual and perceived safety of all people, and sows distrust and undermines the public confidence in the sworn, uniformed women and men who serve our community as police officers.”

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution Monday.