SPOKANE — Law enforcement officials, as well as leaders of Spokane’s black community, blamed Sunday night’s unrest on outside agitators in the wake of the civil unrest on Monday.
But the scope of involvement from organizers outside Spokane, as well as armed counter protestors who lined up outside downtown businesses, in Sunday’s turmoil remains difficult to quantify.
Sunday’s peaceful protest was “definitely hijacked,” Kurtis Robinson, president of the NAACP Spokane Chapter, said on Monday.
“What we saw here was some fringe groups ... some of them were bused in, some of them were planted here, and maybe even some of them might actually be some Spokanites that were kind of talked into it,” Robinson said. “Don’t really know, wasn’t there.”
At a news conference and a Spokane Council Meeting on Monday, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said the level of organization that went into Sunday’s protest was clear early on to police, who noted jugs of milk assembled to counteract the effects of tear gas. One group carried baseball bats and clubs, and one person carried an umbrella with a spike on top of it, Meidl said.
“We thought this was a group that had experience in committing riots and disorder, and we knew that they brought that equipment for a reason,” Meidl said.
The use of tear gas, and institution of a curfew, is profoundly abnormal for Spokane.
“This is such an unusual occurrence when we have individuals from outside this city pre-staging different things that show they have experience with what happens in these types of events…they’re going to continue to do what they do all night long, like you see in these other cities,” Meidl said.
A woman who did not identify herself confronted Meidl during the news conference outside the Main Avenue Nike store.
“I was kneeling in the street praying and I was tear gassed. I’m a lifelong Spokanite, I’m not an outside agitator. I was kneeling in the street, praying, and I watched other people demonstrating peacefully with their hands up, and I watched them tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. How can you justify that?” the woman asked.
Meidl said he would love discuss the incident with the woman if he had “more information on your incident.”
About 15 people were arrested Sunday as a result of violent disturbances Sunday in downtown Spokane. Most of them were booked into jail on disorderly conduct charges.
Meidl said police are reviewing video to find more people responsible for looting or other violence Sunday evening.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said she has not instituted a curfew for tonight.
“We have not received information that we would need to do that this evening,” Woodward said. But she stressed that that could change.
Woodward and Meidl were joined by a group of Black leaders and clergy as they addressed Sunday evening’s looting and touted the progress made by the peaceful protest earlier in the day.
“Another group showed up — the rioters and the looters who broke business windows, tagged many buildings, looted the Nike store behind us, and refused police orders to disperse.” Woodward said. “That is not Spokane.”
Officers arrested one man trying to start fights near the Red Wagon in Riverfront Park, Meidl said.
After the protest moved to the Public Safety Campus, a small group of protestors threw rocks and water bottles toward law enforcement officers, Meidl said.
After the protest at the courthouse began to break up at the Public Safety Campus, a group of 400 to 500 protesters moved to the streets downtown in front of the Federal Courthouse, Meidl said.
The courthouse was tagged multiple times, Meidl said, along with a police car.
“Our intent was to allow them to march, not to stop this,” Meidl said. “Let them take over the streets while we could keep them and traffic as safe as possible.”
Meidl said preparations began “quite a while ago” for Sunday’s event. Police had intelligence that “antagonists coming into the area with the intent of provoking law enforcement into a confrontation,” Meidl said.
Once businesses were broken into, Meidl said police engaged, hoping to avoid the dramatic scenes of property damage seen in other cities across America.
“Once they decided they were going to break in and start looting the businesses we immediately engaged and we gave a dispersal order,” Meidl said.
Not long after, at 6:45 p.m., police used tear gas on rioters in front of the Nike Factory Store downtown to get them to disperse.
Some protestors lingered on Howard Street, where minutes later a second round of tear gas was launched. Later a third round of the chemical was sent into Riverfront Park to further disperse people.
As the gathering escalated, Spokane police called in law enforcement from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane County Detention Services, Kootenai County, Coeur d’Alene Police, Cheney Police Department, and the Tri-Cities.
Protesters would move up a few blocks and then reassemble, Meidl said.
“Throughout the night we continually tried to push them out of the city,” Meidl said.
The group was cleared by about 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m., Meidl said.
There were “some Antifa” downtown on Sunday, wearing “masks that said Antifa,” and a woman with a bullhorn “espousing Antifa rhetoric, as well, trying to stir up the crowd,” Meidl said.
The Proud Boys were also present, Meidl said, as well as “some militia.”
“We had a number of different entities down here,” Meidl said.
Armed people downtown left as instructed once the curfew was enacted, Meidl said.
On Monday, Meidl acknowledged to city council members in a meeting of the Public Safety and Community Health Committee that many of those participating in the demonstration were “local, homegrown” residents of Spokane with “some from outside spinning things up.”
Julie Humphreys, a police department spokesperson, told the Spokesman-Review that of the 15 people arrested on Sunday night, “I’m sure there’s plenty from Spokane.” It’s not the department’s position that the unrest was caused solely by outsiders, though they played a role.
“At some point, no, it was people in our city, and we don’t want to discount that,” Humphreys said.
Video of the incident will play a key role, she added.
“We’re open to look at whoever it is,” Humphreys said.
A spokesperson for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital said the hospitals treated fewer than 10 patients with protest-related injuries on Sunday night, mostly for tear gas exposure. Some were treated for rubber bullet wounds and injuries related to a fall. All were treated and released from the hospital.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs asked how police were dividing peaceful protesters from those participating in violence and vandalism.
“The short answer is there is absolutely no way to separate those in that kind of environment,” Meidl answered.
Officers in the Riverpark Square area were outnumbered about 20 to one, Meidl estimated. At that deficit, there’s “no way you can go in and start picking out” the people commiting crimes, Meidl said.
The choice officers were left with, Meidl said, was to allow people to continue to loot, “using peaceful protestors as a shield,” or take more aggressive action.
The National Guard was requested by Spokane police and will be present in Spokane throughout Monday.
Notably missing was the Washington State Patrol Rapid Deployment Force, a Spokane unit that often responds to civil disturbances and helps with crowd control.
The team had already been deployed to Seattle to help with the protests Saturday, said Trooper Jeff Sevigney.