A far-right rally meets backlash in Seattle

Violent clashes in Virgina over displays of Nazism set the stage for conflict in Washington state.

 

This article was originally published on Crosscut, and is republished here with permission.

A day after scores of torch-wielding, pro-Confederacy protesters shouting racist and neo-Nazi slogans gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, more than 1,000 counter-protesters marched through downtown Seattle in an attempt to shut down a rally of dozens of far-right “Patriot Prayer” supporters in Westlake Park.

Where Charlottesville descended into violent clashes between white supremacist groups and counter-protesters — resulting in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer, who was allegedly run down by motorist James Alex Fields Jr. — in Seattle, police largely kept the opposing groups apart.

The scene was tense for most of the day and police several times deployed pepper spray and non-lethal “blast balls” to disperse the crowd. But the afternoon wound down without anywhere near the violence that erupted on the other end of the country.

The Patriot Prayer group bills itself as an evangelist for the individual — an up-by-your-bootstraps narrative embraced by the men and a few women who gathered Sunday, many of them wearing camouflage and riot gear. “The West Coast has slowly been infected with communist ideologies throughout our entire culture,” read the Facebook announcement for Sunday’s rally, an event that was planned before the Charlottesville violence. “It is a belief that the individual is weak and that we are all victims. These liberal strongholds run off of hatred and negativity. Patriot Prayer will bring in a positive message to Seattle that the people are starving for. With light we will change the hearts and minds of those who are surrounded by darkness.”

The Patriot Prayers are increasingly becoming a presence in West Coast cities: Several of their members rallied in Seattle last May Day and again in March, with the March Against Sharia. They have also often shown up at marches in Portland. “Seattle is very liberal,” said Romanov Gulin, 28, a waiter who wore a black T-shirt that read “cisgendered straight white male.” “It’s just nice to be surrounded by like-minded folks.” Gulin, interviewed at Westlake Park, denounced the violence in Charlottesville and noted that there were “bad seeds in every group.”

  • Romanov Gulin during a Freedom Rally Seattle event at Westlake Park in Seattle, Washington on Sunday.

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut
  • An anti-fascist protester holds a cone in the middle of a protest march opposing a Freedom Rally taking place in Westlake Park, Seattle on Sunday.

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut
  • Seattle police use pepper spray against protesters who joined in a Solidarity Against Hate march on Sunday in downtown Seattle. The march was scheduled to counter a Freedom Rally Seattle event by the Patriot Prayer group.

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut
  • A woman joins an estimated 1,000 people in a Solidarity Against Hate march in Seattle, Washington on Sunday, August 13, 2017. She helped carry a 200-foot long replica of the U.S. Constitution.

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut
  • The Solidarity Against Hate march in Seattle on Sunday.

    Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

Across town, however, in Denny Park, more than a thousand protesters saw the Patriot Prayers’ cause as an extension of the more explicit, Nazi-era messaging visible in Charlottesville, which was sparked by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. 

Eva McGough said she wanted to “show solidarity with the folks in Charlottesville.” McGough, who also protested Trump’s travel ban at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport earlier this year, said she supports the removal of the Confederate statues but is “concerned about the direction of the country.”

Charmi, a woman who declined to provide her last name, came out to be a part of something larger in the wake of Charlottesville. “I can’t just sit here feeling terrible,” she said. And while she was nervous, especially after Heyer’s death, she said, “Just because I’m afraid, that’s all the more reason to show up.”

Where the Patriot Prayers were stationary, occupying the concrete stage in Westlake across from Nordstrom, the counter-protesters swarmed en masse from Denny Park, south on Westlake Avenue and west toward Second Avenue, shouting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” and “Say it loud, say it clear, Nazis are not welcome here.”

There were hand-scrawled signs denouncing fascism and Nazis, as well as larger signs. One banner, made to look like the U.S. Constitution, stretched horizontally over 200-feet long and displayed thousands of signatures and messages, collected at protests from around the country. 

Along the way, police officers, clad in riot gear and armed with pepper spray and batons, blocked most of the southbound streets, making it difficult for the counter-protesters to arrive at their planned destination: Westlake Park, where they could confront the Patriot Prayers. That was apparently no accident. Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who was marching with the protesters, said Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole told him police would not allow the bulk of the protesters to confront the Patriot Prayers.

A police spokesperson did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

The blockades set up the tensest moments of the march: At Fourth Avenue and Lenora, protesters shouted in the faces of police. At Second and Pine, police responded by spraying several protesters with pepper spray and tossing blast balls that emit huge booms meant to scatter crowds.

Still, some protesters did make it to Westlake, leading to tense standoffs between the two groups. A well-recognized leader of the Patriot Prayer group, Joey Gibson, told the crowd that they were not fascists. “We have to find a way to come together, stop the fighting, stop the yelling,” Gibson said, denouncing the violence in Charlottesville. “There’s good and bad people on the right. There’s good and bad people on the left. We need to get the good people together.”

But despite what Gibson and others said on stage, many of the counter-protesters in the crowd remained unconvinced that many of the rally-goers weren’t white nationalists or Nazis in disguise. Throughout the afternoon, many booed at the speakers, shouting, “Black Lives Matter,” and “no conversation with Nazis!”

Both rallies began to wind down by late afternoon, with the counter-protestors arriving back at Denny Park and trickling away. At Westlake, the afternoon ended with Black Lives Matter supporters, with little opposition, taking the stage, shouting “Say her name, Charleena Lyles,” referring to the African-American mother of four who was shot by police in June.

At 4:56 PM, the Seattle Police Department tweeted “The scheduled event at Westlake Park has concluded. Police will remain in the area for the time being.”

This article was originally published on Crosscut, and is republished here with permission.