Mayor calls Olympia hotel occupation “domestic terrorism”

By Brandon Block

The Olympian

Olympia city officials on Tuesday roundly condemned the actions of the group Oly Housing Now, which staged an occupation of the Red Lion Inn hotel on Sunday afternoon that ended in seven arrests.

Council member Dani Madrone said she was “appalled.” Mayor Pro Tem Clark Gilman said he was “disappointed” and confused.

Other adjectives included “reckless,” “uninformed,” and “infuriating.”

The latter term came from council member Renata Rollins, who co-founded a homelessness advocacy group and has been vocal about supporting harm reduction approaches to homelessness. She called the group’s actions “short-sighted, ego-driven, and counterproductive.”

Rollins said that several of the group’s demands were for policies that that city is already practicing — such as providing bathrooms and dumpsters and not sweeping encampments — and that the county has already put a significant amount of federal aid money into homeless response. ($12 million, according to Thurston County Public Health Director Schelli Slaughter.)

“The group’s demands made no sense,” Rollins said. “They read like they were copy pasted from some other community’s struggle because whoever penned them had no context for what’s actually going on in Olympia and Thurston County.”

“This wasn’t activism, this was nihilism,” Rollins added. “And it caused so much unnecessary preventable harm.”

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby had more pointed words.

“I’m calling this crime an act of domestic terrorism,” Selby said at Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Selby said the organizers “exploited and victimized the very group they claim to want to help” and “should be held accountable to the furthest extent of the law.

“This created an active crime scene that necessitated a police response appropriate to the scale of the actions of these terrorists,” Selby said.

Selby and other council members also expressed sympathy for the hotel staff and appreciation for the hotel management, noting that the county and local nonprofit Family Support Center have paid for rooms at the hotel to house homeless families during the pandemic.

This is the second time Selby has used the term “domestic terrorists.”

The first was over the summer, when a group vandalized her house with spray paint. She later apologized for those comments, calling them an “overreaction” after the quote appeared in FOX News and other national media outlets.

Several members of the public responded to Selby’s characterization, calling it inappropriate.

“I don’t appreciate how the mayor called them terrorists,” said Nolan Hibbard-Pelly, who said he participated in the action earlier in the day by holding a sign outside the hotel. “I don’t think calling housing activists or people that spray paint your house [terrorists] is really appropriate.”

Tierra Watkins said that while she understood why the council condemned the group’s actions, she thinks the protest centered the urgency of the housing crisis and compared the verbal and police response to recent violent events at the state capitol in January.

“Why is it treated like domestic terrorism when actual acts of domestic terrorism like at our governor’s mansion at the state capitol take place and don’t get the same type of treatment,” Watkins said.

More on the FEMA Funds

Rollins also noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding referenced by the group’s demands only recently became available. The program, which county officials have said they’re looking into, is actually a reimbursement program that was recently expanded.

In December, the state of California obtained 75% reimbursement for purchasing hotel rooms to house high-risk homeless individuals, according to The Hill. Last week, President Biden issued an executive order that directs FEMA to reimburse municipalities for 100% of certain COVID-response expenses, including hotel vouchers, but White House officials have not answered questions about whether the reimbursement will be retroactive to the entire pandemic or only cover future spending on shelter.

When the pandemic began, the city of Los Angeles rented hotel rooms for as many as 4,300 homeless individuals out of 15,000 in the city identified as especially vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the Los Angeles Times.