The surge of social activism has inspired a dozen events in the Methow and Okanogan County in the past month. While all the events have been peaceful, they haven’t been without tensions, and some worry that things could turn violent.
In addition to the almost 500 people who came out to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in Omak on June 4, 100 to 200 armed community members showed up, saying they were there to protect businesses.
After postings on social media referred to the anti-racism demonstrators as “target practice,” rally organizers contacted Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley, said Jordan Williams, an organizer of the BLM 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, since there was a real possibility of violence, she said.
Hawley spoke with representatives from both groups before the rally. He instructed the armed individuals, who lined up in front of businesses and positioned themselves on rooftops, to step aside so that the marchers could walk on the sidewalk unimpeded.
Many people are uneasy when untrained individuals with firearms decide to take the protection of the community into their own hands, rather than leaving it to professional law enforcement, Williams said.
Some people felt intimidated by the presence of armed civilians. People on rooftops with guns are not protecting businesses — they could have linked arms to protect the businesses, Williams said.
“It raises tensions and puts stress on the community. If one thing had gone wrong, it could have turned into an awful, awful situation,” she 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.