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 is 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.
On the same day that a mob stormed the Capitol last week, protesters in Olympia got through a gate to the governor’s residence and chanted slogans on the lawn during a brief standoff with the Washington State Patrol.
Loftis said that in about one-third of the protests this year, people would go in front of the governor’s mansion “and shout and scream.”
“And I don’t think we allowed ourselves to think that [a breach would ever happen],” he said. “Because after 100 years nobody ever had tried to reach the gate. Well, we learned a lot. We’re in a new world.”
He said the gates at the mansion were being changed out and security was being added. “The level of mobilization, both seen and the unseen resources, are being greatly amped up because of this, and I would imagine that those types of changes will endure” after the pandemic, Loftis said.
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.
Inslee, speaking shortly before the demonstration began, said that “acres and acres” of space at the Capitol complex remained open to protesters.
“Protest is one thing, and insurgency is another. We welcome the First Amendment, but we cannot accept an insurgency that prevents democracy from functioning here in our state’s Capitol and we will not allow this,” Inslee said. “And so I’m looking forward to hopefully a very peaceful couple of days.”
The added security, Inslee said, was a response to the events in D.C. but also a response to “some of the intelligence that we have.”
“That suggested that there were people in the state of Washington who were intent on disrupting the Legislature and essentially preventing it from functioning in the state Capitol,” he said. “Given the nature of the insurgency that has been precipitated by the president, all of us have to stand against that and be prepared.”
One man, who attended the rally with his wife and three young children, waved an American flag and said he was there to object over the fairness of the presidential election and Inslee’s COVID restrictions.
Asked his impression of Wednesday’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol, he said: “I wasn’t there, so I can’t say what happened.” He declined to give his name.
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.”