A planned “Freedom Rally” in Seattle Sunday took on a heightened sense of importance after Saturday’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a large gathering of white supremacist groups devolved into a brawl and resulted in the death of a counter-protester, allegedly caused by a Nazi sympathizer.
Officers from the Seattle Police Department were prepared for confrontation as ralliers and counter-demonstrators descended on downtown Seattle. Before the end of the day, officers had deployed pepper spray and blastballs and made three arrests, but reported that there were no serious injuries or property destruction.
Hosted by Portland-based group Patriot Prayer, the Westlake Park rally was planned well before the events in Charlottesville took place and was not directly affiliated with the “Unite the Right” organizers responsible for that rally. Yet, the group has espoused a reactionary far-right message at events throughout the summer, attracting counter-protesters in tense stand-offs that have devolved into violence. The group was positioned to do the same at the Freedom Rally. “The West Coast has slowly been infected with communist ideologies throughout our entire culture,” a description of the event read, in part. “ … These liberal strongholds run off of hatred and negativity.”
The event, led by Joey Gibson, an organizer with Patriot Prayer and Warriors for Freedom, attracted between 40 and 50 supporters by midafternoon, including members of Oathkeepers and Proud Boys, as well as alt-right adherents, some sporting KEK flags and wearing Pepe shirts.
Not far away, a group of nearly 1,000 counter protesters, including anti-fascists and local union members, as well as families and religious groups, gathered in Denny Park and began marching toward Westlake Park.
Here is how it went down.
The march, which included Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and mayoral candidates Cary Moon and Nikkita Oliver, left Denny Park and traveled West on Westlake Avenue. There, Seattle Police blocked any southbound route, preventing the protesters from an intended confrontation with the Westlake group. Marchers, diverted to Lenora Street, were guided past the Amazon Biospheres. The lead group attempted to make its way through an alley behind the Westin, but were stopped by a wall of SPD on bikes. Pepper spray was deployed for the first time.
The massive counter protest, which grew in numbers as it moved, continued under the Monorail and once again attempted to head south, this time on Fourth Avenue, but was blocked by a phalanx of SPD officers, some on bikes, many on foot, and all wearing riot gear. A small group attempted to walk down the sidewalk and were again met with a wall of SPD on bicycles. The officers again pepper sprayed the crowd, this time arresting a man, pushing him down and against the wall of Cinerama.
Eventually, the officers allowed the march to move south on Second Avenue, but stopped any easterly progress. At Pine, the crowd grew frustrated with the constant blockades and let loose with silly string and glitter, lightly coating a few SPD blocking the street. SPD responded with more pepper spray, this time adding in a few blast balls containing pepper gas. At least two blast balls were deployed, one towards the middle of the crowd.
A dispersal order was given by SPD not long after the second blast ball was deployed, but the protesters refused to leave. Minutes after the dispersal order, a voice came over a megaphone and told the crowd, “the Nazis have left.” A cheer went up throughout the crowd.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away in Westlake, the Patriot Prayer group had in fact not yet left. The group was surrounded by upwards of 500 counter protesters, some of whom said they were prevented from meeting with the larger march after arriving from other parts of the city.
Speakers took their turns at a microphone connected to a modest P.A. system. Ralliers and counter protestor took turns speaking, although with such small numbers, Trump supporters, Proud Boys, and street preachers were quickly overwhelmed with boos, shouts of “bullshit,” and chants of “Nazi.” Cheers and claps were in no short supply when a speaker denounced white supremacy or declared that “black lives matter.”
Small groups of Proud Boys and counter demonstrators gathered throughout the park, some attempting discourse, while others shouted and cursed at each other. Make America Great Again hats were ripped off Proud Boy heads, the crowd surged forward, moving the metal barricades out of their way, surrounding the Patriot Prayer group. Eventually SPD moved in, struggling to separate the two groups.
It was minutes after SPD formed a protective line between the two groups that the few dozen remaining Patriot Prayer group members were escorted between two lines of police out of Westlake Park and down Fourth Avenue. The crowd soon broke apart and dispersed.