Includes support for constitutional rights
A denouncement of racism and social injustice and support for the rights to free speech, peaceful assembly, and to own and bear firearms are the focus of the proclamation currently under consideration by the Okanogan County commissioners.
County Commissioner Chris Branch read the first draft of a proclamation last Monday (June 15) that takes a stand against racism. The proclamation acknowledges violence across the country in response to excessive force in policing and mentions a peaceful demonstration in Omak.
The proclamation stressed support for people’s exercise of their First and Second Amendment rights, but noted that the presence of people with assault-style weapons had intimidated some individuals who were seeking to exercise their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly.
The presence of an unregulated and untrained militia could hamper a peaceful gathering, Branch wrote in the draft proclamation. The county commissioners believe that the presence of professional law enforcement officers is adequate, it said.
The proclamation referenced a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Omak attended by almost 500 people, where an additional 100 to 200 armed community members spread out along the street and on rooftops to protect businesses. Branch said he’d heard from people who’d felt intimidated by the presence of so many armed individuals.
After input from County Commissioner Andy Hover and Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley, the proposed proclamation was revised to remove references to intimidation.
“I fully agree with denouncing racism and social injustice,” Hover said. But Hover had concerns that the proclamation put the right to speech above the right to bear arms. “It’s tricky to decide which right is more right — the person carrying a gun intimidates a person who wanted to speak,” Hover said. The suggestion that “the right to carry a gun hampers the First Amendment right — I don’t agree with that.”
The proclamation is still “a work in progress,” Branch said in an email last week. He was willing to remove the language regarding intimidation because he believes it’s important for the commissioners to adopt a statement about racism and excessive force, he said.
Rumors had circulated before the rally that “bad people were coming to Omak to stir things up,” Hover said. Branch said it was apparent to him and to others that armed individuals showed up because they thought law enforcement couldn’t handle the situation. When Hover asked why people thought that, Branch said, “Because they watch TV.”
The Sheriff’s Office, working in conjunction with the Omak Police Department, made a big effort to have a presence in case there was a problem, Branch said in the discussion. These other people aren’t trained law enforcement officers, he said.
Commissioner Jim DeTro was not present when Branch and Hover discussed the proclamation, and was away on personal business the week of June 22, so it’s not known if he has weighed in on it.
All the folks at the demonstration were exercising their rights, Hawley said in an interview this week. Both groups have the ability to assemble and voice their concerns, and everyone did it without violating laws, he said.
Although it’s unlawful to carry or display a firearm with the intent to intimidate, “merely being there with a firearm doesn’t qualify as intimidation,” Hawley said. Even if some people didn’t attend the rally because they felt intimidated by guns, that doesn’t prove an intent to intimidate — they need to show an actual act, he said.
Hawley spoke with representatives from both groups before the rally — those protesting social injustice and police brutality and those wanting to protect businesses through an armed presence. He instructed the armed individuals to step aside so that the marchers could walk on the sidewalk unimpeded.
Hawley also instructed both groups in advance to clear the area and let law enforcement handle any violence or destruction of property. The event was peaceful and that wasn’t necessary.
Organizers of the anti-racism rally contacted Hawley before the event after becoming aware of postings on social media that referred to the demonstrators as “target practice,” said Jordan Williams, who helped coordinate the Omak rally. The organizers informed those who’d be attending the rally that there would be armed individuals and urged everyone to respect their presence and avoid escalating conflicts, she said.
Some people felt intimidated by their presence and, in particular, by the presence of armed individuals on rooftops, Williams said.
Hawley supports the current working draft of the proclamation. “I’m very thankful people in our community have been doing everything very peacefully and respecting each other’s opinions,” he said.
Commissioners’ draft proclamation
The county’s proclamation denouncing racism and supporting First and Second Amendment rights is still a work in progress. Here is the current draft, which has not been adopted or approved by the commissioners:
“Whereas, the Okanogan County Commissioners acknowledge that violence is escalating across this nation in response to the use of excessive force in policing; and
Whereas, on June 12, 2020, there was a peaceful demonstration organized and implemented in the city of Omak without violent incident; and
Whereas, the county commissioners support citizens’ right to peaceful assembly under the 1st amendment; and
Whereas, the county commissioners support the right of citizens to own and bear arms; and
Whereas, the county commissioners understand through social media and conversation that [there will be] additional efforts to raise awareness of racism and use of excessive force [and] that there will be future peaceful assemblies; and
Whereas, the county commissioners advocate for respectful and diplomatic forms of solving differences; and
Whereas, the Okanogan County sheriff is elected to office and holds the obligation and authority to ensure peace and safety in Okanogan County unencumbered by the desires and intent of the Okanogan County board of commissioners.
Now, therefore, the Okanogan County commissioners hereby resolve the following:
1. Denounce violent action and excessive force in enforcing the laws of the cities, county, and state; and
2. Denounce any form of racism and/or social injustice; and
3. Promote peaceful and respectful presentations and discussions that may help in resolving issues of social injustice; and
4. Will make every effort to participate in peaceful and respectful conversation in an effort to resolve social injustice and conflict.”