VANCOUVER, Clark County — On Saturday evening, racial injustice protesters stood on the sidewalk bordering a downtown park to express their outrage over law enforcement’s fatal shooting of a young Black man last week.
Just across the street assembled a crowd of right-wing demonstrators and supporters of President Donald Trump. Some were armed and bristling with anger over what they viewed as an unwelcome intrusion of Portland protesters into their city.
For more than an hour, the scene was largely defined by invectives hurled back and forth across the pavement amid the tense run-up to Election Day. Then, in a Southwest Washington city increasingly on edge, there was a moment that offered a glimpse of something else — the difficult task of finding common ground in this deeply divided nation.
A burly bearded white man from the right-wing group stepped into the middle of the street.
“I can’t speak for everyone on this side of road. I just want to create some dialogue with you guys … I just want to talk,” he said.
A Black man came forward from the other side, and urged the protesters from his camp to accept the invitation. “These people are not our problem. These people are not the police,” he screamed. “We are yelling insults at them. They are yelling insults at us. Please stop … cross the [expletive] street and talk to these people … Solve the problem.”
The détente did not last long. Another Black protester strode forward, and he was cool to the idea of dialogue. So was a white protester, Dustin Brandon, who described how he had a weapon pointed at him the night before.
“You guys showed up with guns. You are not here to talk,” Brandon said.
Soon, the protesters took off for an hourslong march through the streets of Vancouver, where some storefronts were guarded by armed men who kept a wary watch.
Black man shot by law enforcement
For more than 130 days, Vancouver has been largely a place apart from the protests that have unfolded each night in Portland, just across the Columbia River.
Vancouver and surrounding Clark County is a stronghold of Patriot Prayer, a Christian, pro-Trump group that has attracted some right-wing extremists. Since Trump’s election, Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson and the group’s supporters have repeatedly come to Portland to take a stand against the city’s protesters, and sometimes to brawl with them.
On Aug. 29, after a Trump rally that Patriot Prayer participated in, there was a deadly confrontation: One of Gibson’s friends, Aaron “Jay” Danielson, was killed on the streets of Portland by a bullet to the chest. The suspect was a left-wing anti-fascist activist, Michael Reinoehl, later killed by law enforcement near Lacey, Thurston County.
Through this turbulent summer and fall, Portland activists have rarely gone to Vancouver to demonstrate.
Those dynamics changed last week.
On Thursday, shortly before 6 p.m., 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr., a Black Camas resident and father of a 4-month-old daughter, was fatally shot by Clark County law enforcement in a bank parking lot in Hazel Dell, to the northwest of Vancouver.
In a Friday statement, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said detectives conducting a narcotics investigation pursued a man with a firearm who reportedly fired at them, and they returned fire. But in additional information released Friday evening, law enforcement officials said only that Peterson had a weapon — a Glock 40-caliber pistol — and did not say he had fired it during a foot chase.
Friday evening, hundreds of people — many from the Portland area — gathered along Highway 99 for a vigil for Peterson, with some mourning in front a candle-filled memorial set up in the bank parking lot where he was shot. “Scream his name”, “Kevin Peterson Jr.”, “Black Lives Matter,” said three signs posted on a close-by chain-link fence.
“I am tired of this,” said Peterson’s friend, Jay Jones, early Saturday morning as he stood by the memorial to share hugs with two tearful young women who were also friends of the slain man. “I don’t know if it’s my time to go next week. I hope to God I’m not next.”
Protest crosses Columbia
After the Friday night vigil, several hundred people went to Vancouver, where they marched, and some vandalism occurred, including rock throwing that pierced some courthouse windows.
Counterprotesters from the right, some of them armed, took up position earlier Friday evening near the vigil, and later joined in a show of force in downtown Portland.
There were some edgy moments.
In a scene captured by a videographer, two vehicles rammed each other. There is a cloud of spray from what appears to be Mace. Some yells, “Shoot those [expletives]!” Two shots are fired from a truck driven by what Mason Lake, who took the video, described as “far right extremists.”
2nd Vancouver march
On Saturday, there was a second Vancouver march spurred by Peterson’s death and another strong turnout of people from the right
They included a man who gave his name as Chris, and said he was a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq. He was concerned about the potential for a civil war.
Chris said he been recruited to come to Vancouver through a social media post by the Washington Three Percent, which, in a past Facebook post, described its goal as to “utilize fail safes put in place by our founders to reign in overreaching government and push back tyranny.”
Chris said the Three Percenters had said there was a need for help protecting businesses.
Gibson, the Patriot Prayer founder, also showed up.
Gibson said he was unhappy with the Vancouver police performance a day earlier that had not prevented the court windows from being smashed, and “patriots” needed to make sure the police did their job.
“Our city is relying on them. If they stand down and allow these guys to destroy a city the way they destroyed Portland, then either we have to all run and hide or we have to stand up and do something,” Gibson said.
Gibson’s entourage on Saturday included Chandler Pappas, a Patriot Prayer supporter who had been walking with Aaron “Jay” Danielson the night of his fatal shooting. On Saturday, Pappas wore a blue cap that said, “Justice for Jay.”
Gibson’s group followed the marchers protesting Peterson’s death in a zigzag course through Vancouver.
Along the way, a couple flags were pulled down from a pole and burned. The tops of parking meters got smashed by one protester who seemed determined to damage as many as possible.
Through the march, there were verbal threats and angry words exchanged between those on the right and those on the left.
But no one was shot.
And the bearded man who had come forward early in the evening did not give up his attempts to talk.
As late as 1:30 a.m. Sunday, he gathered with a small group of people from both sides of the political divide. The dialogue was respectful. There was agreement that poor people were disenfranchised in America, and the education system had failed, according to Michael Cholewa, a protester supporting the Black Lives Matter movement who joined in the discussion.
The talk ended after the Vancouver Police Department declared an unlawful assembly.