Protesters gather in Olympia amid heightened tension, added security

The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — Protests at the state Capitol in Olympia remained peaceful and largely calm as of Sunday evening, amid heightened tensions and bolstered security in the wake of the pro-Trump assault on the nation’s Capitol last week.

One event on Sunday, billed as a protest against COVID restrictions and “vaccine discrimination” was small, with a crowd of about 100 people shortly after 1 p.m. Protesters began to disperse after about an hour of peaceful and uneventful speeches.

A second Olympia protest, this one for Black Lives Matter, began soon after the right-wing protest ended.

After the attack in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer, one conservative organizer canceled his planned protest in Olympia. He had planned on an ongoing demonstration with the goal of entering the state Capitol, which has been closed for months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But another right-wing protest, featuring Republican legislators, carried on, and another was scheduled for Monday, when the state legislative session kicks off.

Gov. Jay Inslee, last week, authorized up to 750 members of the National Guard to protect the Capitol, and chain-link fence has been put up, circling the building. Several hundred National Guard members stood guard behind the fence Sunday afternoon, along the entire perimeter of the Capitol. Other state and federal law enforcement agencies were also present.

Since COVID-19 restrictions went into place this spring, there have been 149 unpermitted demonstrations or events at the Capitol, Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis said, ranging in size from 10 to 2,500 people.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who was scheduled to speak at both Sunday’s and Monday’s demonstrations in Olympia, said the protests were about the governor’s policies, and discouraged protesters from bringing guns.

Not all of them listened. A number of participants carried handguns and semi-automatic rifles and some wore fatigues and carried other tactical gear. But organizers repeatedly stressed that this was to be a peaceful protest.

“Free speech shouldn’t have this effect on the government,” Walsh said Sunday, expressing disgust at the fences blocking foot traffic around the Capitol. “We want them gone, we want the people’s house open to the people.”

Walsh and other protesters were pushing for limits on the governor’s authority, which they said he had abused as he tried to limit the spread of COVID-19.

While Walsh was speaking, one man wearing camouflage and carrying a rifle called out: “It’s not working, boss. It’s not working. Let’s go in there and show them.”

Joshua Keaton, 22, of Centralia, called the virus “a little overblown flu.”

The virus has killed about 3,700 people in Washington and more than 370,000 in the United States. A UW Medicine study showed that hospitalized COVID-19 patients were twice as likely to die compared to patients hospitalized with severe influenza.

“While Jay Inslee sits in his little home oasis, a lot of us are out there losing our jobs and starving,” Keaton said. “Open us up. We’re sick and tired of it.”

Others complained about the state’s mask mandate, claiming, falsely, that masks are ineffective.

Later, Black Lives Matter protesters, some of them also armed, held their own event at Heritage Park, adjacent to the Capitol complex, with speeches against racial injustice and police brutality.

“We are nonviolent at times, but there is no peace,” said Tyshawn Ford, an activist from Portland.

One man, who said he was from the Olympia area, carried an AR-15-style rifle, dressed in black.

“We are really not going to try to clash with National Guard or alt-right-wingers,” said the man, who said he was providing security. “We’re just here to support people who are in Olympia trying to protest.”

Another man, who identified himself as a street medic, said he was trying to keep people safe and that protests would continue.

“We have no interest in storming the Capitol like some right-wing people do,” he said. “It’s not going to end just because we get a new president.”