SNOHOMISH — On May 31, hundreds of people — most of them men, many of them armed and some representing far right-wing groups — descended upon a stretch of this small town where restaurants, antique shops and flower pots line the street.
They were drawn by rumors of a looming threat: Antifa activists were planning to bring chaos to their community and damage businesses as days of massive protests decrying the death of George Floyd, police brutality and racial injustice swept cities, including Seattle just 30 miles to the south.
Some in the crowd socialized and drank while carrying assault rifles, handguns and other firearms. At least one Confederate flag flew from the back of a pickup truck. As the hours passed, the predictions of mayhem never materialized.
It was an evening the local police chief later described as “festive” during an emergency City Council meeting later that week. The comment drew outrage from some residents as the self-declared protectors’ militia-style presence and the local, nightly protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have underscored stark divides in the community.
For Tabitha Lewis, a treasurer for the nonprofit Snohomish for Equity, and numerous others who have gathered to call for racial justice here since the May 25 killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police, the scene that Sunday night downtown and a similar one that came the following evening were deeply unnerving.
“It was like tailgating with an excessive amount of large military-style rifles — lots of guns, open alcohol consumption, Confederate flags,” she said. “I felt very uncomfortable and I’m a white woman.”
It was all perhaps especially disheartening because just a day earlier her organization helped organize a peaceful protest in downtown Snohomish, with at least 200 people marching. A mother of two biracial children who have faced racist comments in a community where she also grew up, she was heartened by the turnout at that gathering.
“We thought, ‘Hey people are getting on board now,’ and then Sunday came,” she said.
A day after the armed crowds took to the streets, the sense of discomfort only deepened as a man the protesters say was associated with the group of armed citizens was caught on video punching a teenage demonstrator as he and others walked past a bridal shop.
What unfolded in Snohomish in the days after Floyd’s death followed a pattern that has since played out in numerous rural areas: A post emerges on social media warning that rioters plan to target the area. Local leaders and law enforcement in some cases react by telling the public they are monitoring the potential concern, and then fear spreads.
As was the case in Snohomish, the rumors of threats in towns in Utah, Idaho and elsewhere in Washington, including Yakima, have not resulted in rural riots from agitators on the left. But they continue to stoke tensions — and frightening circumstances for some.
In Forks, Clallam County, authorities said that people had approached a multiracial family of four Wednesday outside a local store and asked them if they were antifa activists, before felling trees along a logging road to trap them at their campsite later that night.
Eventually, a group of teenagers used a chainsaw to help free the family, who had also called 911 for help, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.
Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, which tracks far-right movements, said the response in many rural areas to false threats have been troubling and chilling, especially for communities of color. Gatherings like the ones in Snohomish also could prove consequential.
“Part of the problem is people are thinking this is another good-old-boy activity. But it’s become a breeding ground for far-right groups to look for additional recruits,” he said. “Some local elected officials have been rightly concerned about the dangers of these untrained, unelected, unaccountable right-wingers with guns in their communities. Others have embraced them. I think that is dangerous on a number of levels.”
In Snohomish, Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, said he had joined the armed group on First Street that Sunday after hearing about a warning that the town, where he once lived and where two of his children had graduated high school, was going to face destruction. He had seen the damage that had taken place in Seattle the previous day on the news and said he was worried the same could happen in Snohomish, a town of about 10,000 residents.
A friend had told him about the threat, he said. So they drove to Snohomish, where Sutherland described finding a block party with firearms out, instead of the tension he had expected. “I didn’t think I was going to get out of my truck, to tell you the truth,” he said. “But we ended up getting out of my truck and staying.”
He returned the next day, citing lingering concerns about what he believed to be a credible threat to the town. He said he witnessed a brawl on the street when he arrived around 7:30 or 8 p.m.
Matt Marshall, a leader of the Washington Three Percenters, a far-right activist group, said the group sent 10 or 12 members to Snohomish that Sunday after seeing online that a large group was gathered there. He rejected suggestions that his group may have stoked the response to the rumors of a threat.
In an interview, Mayor John Kartak, who was downtown that Sunday, said that some 50 police officers had been staged at an emergency operations center “ready to converge if necessary” in response to any attempts of destruction.
He also indicated the city had positioned officers on the roof of City Hall. The one-story, brick building is situated just around the corner from First Street, where the crowd largely proclaiming to protect Snohomish had gathered.
“It was described to me as a viable threat and we took it seriously,” Kartak said.
He wrote on the city’s website that over 500 people had come together in town to deter “violence and vandalism.” Kartak said he saw “one Confederate flag on a truck,” though he could tell from photographs that there was more than one Confederate flag at one point.
He called the flag’s presence “really unfortunate” and “sickening,” while criticizing portrayals of his town as racist because of the armed people who showed up to guard the downtown.
Video shared on Facebook of the scuffle the following day, June 1, shows a man trying to trip a demonstrator as a group of mostly teenagers marched past a bridal shop shouting “Black Lives Matter!” A second later, another man with a baseball cap moved swiftly through the small group of protesters, throwing punches.
An 18-year-old, who did not want to be identified out of concern for his safety, said he had been punched in the face that night while protesting with friends. Julien Crawford, a 21-year-old protester, said he had been pushed to the ground before two people choked and hit him.
They had been walking down First Street, where he said people had been carrying rifles in front of businesses.
The 18-year-old ended up going to the hospital to seek treatment for a concussion, he said. He also suffered some short-term memory loss, he said. He still doesn’t know who punched him, and he and his family had not received a call back from an investigator in several days, he said.
Courtney O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies were aware of the video and were investigating the incident. She said deputies had been in the area when it occurred but had not been notified about it until later in the evening.
“Quite frankly I just think those people were looking for trouble,” said the teen who was punched. “I’m sure there were some people truly down there for the sake of protecting property but when I was there Sunday and Monday, a lot of people were just being racist.”
A photo on Twitter from downtown Snohomish last week showed two men appearing to flash the “OK” hand gesture associated with white supremacist groups. Both had pepper spray in tactical belts and one wore a ballistic vest that had “Proud Boy” across the top, referring to the far-right group of men who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists” and are known for brawling at rallies.
“As a person of color, and there aren’t many of us here, it’s really scary,” said Mahllie Beck, a 21-year-old who has been protesting.
Snohomish High School teacher Tim Fraser-Bumatay, who had joined demonstrators downtown on Friday, said the teenager who was punched was one of his students. He criticized the mayor and police chief for not taking concerns about armed groups more seriously.
Inspired by his students, he has participated in three protests this week, he said.
“This is a defining moment for Snohomish,” he said.
His comment came as he and some 60 other protesters capped a week of demonstrations in the community on Friday evening, calling for change in their small town and nationwide.
Staff reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.