The decision by Olympia Port Militarization Resistance to block military equipment used in Iraq from returning to Fort Lewis reflects a heightened level of frustration with the war and the growing role of the group's younger voices, members say.
The change in tactics — from the group's initial strategy of a passive protest — was met with a stronger police presence and the use of batons and pepper spray.
Police have arrested 17 people over seven days this month at the Port of Olympia and on downtown streets. Some protesters have accused the officers of using excessive force, spraying pepper spray into protesters' eyes and repeatedly hitting them with batons.
Kelly Beckham, one of the protesters, said police sprayed the irritant directly into her eyes.
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"I was in agony because I didn't know what was happening," she said in a statement released by OlyPMR. "I couldn't see anything and they had to carry me away. I was really angry. They wouldn't let the medics approach anyone who had been hurt."
Olympia police Cmdr. Tor Bjornstad responded: "I think we're being accused of escalating the situation, but we escalated in accordance with what we faced."
Protesters who block roads have been given up to four orders to remove themselves.
If the orders are ignored, the police have used pepper spray and, if that's not successful, have dragged protesters off the roadway or used batons to push them off, Bjornstad said.
The city responds
Early last Wednesday night, uniformed police officers guarded the entry into the port and the demonstration was confined to the corners of a nearby intersection. By the weekend, police were outfitted in riot gear, employing pepper spray and dragging protesters off the street when they used their bodies, Dumpsters and debris to prevent the equipment from moving out.
Bjornstad said the pepper spray fogs once it's sprayed from an aerosol canister so officers can't target a protester's eyes. He said he was unaware of any instances where an officer had swung a baton and hit a protester; officers used them with two hands held crosswise to force protesters off the road.
Mayor Mark Foutch said he had no way of judging at this time whether the officers used excessive force because he hasn't witnessed the protests firsthand. He said it's his understanding the pepper spray, while painful, is not injurious, and officers were not striking people with the batons but using them to push people away from the street or force them to the ground.
In a statement released Sunday, the mayor called upon all concerned to obey the law and not block roads for unreasonable periods. He said all claims of excessive force would be investigated "thoroughly and impartially" and said during an interview Monday evening he has full confidence in the professional standards officer who investigates the complaints.
At a meeting called by Councilman TJ Johnson at City Hall Sunday night, complaint forms were made available to the crowd of about 100 people.
On Monday, as the nation observed Veterans Day, the scene was calm as military vehicles remained parked at the port. The Army could resume transferring vehicles to Fort Lewis as early as today, raising the potential for more confrontations between police and protesters.
Initially, there weren't going to be any confrontations.
It was more than a week ago that OlyPMR learned from Olympia city Councilman TJ Johnson that a military ship would dock at the Port of Olympia to unload equipment used by the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, which spent 15 months in Iraq.
During a hastily called meeting on Nov. 2, the group agreed it would demonstrate at the port to raise awareness of what it considers an illegal and immoral war but it would not block equipment returning to Fort Lewis.
"That statement in retrospect was premature obviously," said Sandy Mayes, one of the group's founding members.
But it was born of a singular consideration: How can a group that demands the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq successfully protest the return of their equipment without sending a mixed message to the public?
That question was the source of debate when OlyPMR met again on Nov. 4. The group was larger, and there was a stronger representation of younger people, including students from The Evergreen State College.
Some wanted to stick to the welcome-home strategy; others wanted to prevent the equipment from being unloaded from the USNS Brittin.
With the lingering concerns of some members, OlyPMR voted for a "containment" policy to stop the equipment from returning to Fort Lewis. Mayes attributed the change in tactics to the presence of the younger members that night.
"It satisfied both needs or both ideas," said Phan Nguyen, an OlyPMR member who attended the meeting. "... We could welcome it back now but then we would have to keep it from being sent out later. So why wait?"
Andrew McFarland, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois who studies American social movements, said he doesn't recall any instance of protesters blocking military equipment from returning home during the Vietnam War, the last time the U.S. engaged in prolonged ground combat.
"Probably most people would regard this as a bit weird and not be very impressed by it," he said. "It seems to me there must be something else that could be done."
But local protesters say they have exhausted viable options. They say port commissioners aren't listening and that Congress isn't listening. They've been angered by the change of heart by U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, the Vancouver Democrat who opposed the invasion of Iraq but recently spoke against the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, citing progress in Iraq.
"He's all the sudden become a member of the Bush administration," said Rob Whitlock, another OlyPMR member.
Both Mayes and Whitlock initially opposed blocking the equipment but now fully support it, saying all those who shared their concerns also have come around.
"This is the equipment that was used to invade and occupy a sovereign people," Mayes said. "If we allow it to get through here, it will be used in the same way again."
She said soldiers riding in passing vehicles have given the protesters thumbs-up and peace signs. She recalled one incident on Thursday when a soldier pulled over to thank and shake the hands of some of the protesters.
"If the soldiers get it, I think everyone else ought to be able to get it," she said.
Another point of view
But at least one military family is fed up with the group's practices, saying the protests aren't going to make a difference in stopping the war.
"Fort Lewis is a big part of our area and provides many services to these communities," Darcy Mugartegui, an Olympia resident whose husband is a military veteran and has twice deployed to the Middle East as a contractor to support a Stryker brigade, said in an e-mail. "It is the business of the port, not the protesters, to say who should access the port."
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.