Protests spread beyond port into downtown Olympia

Chaos erupted Saturday in multiple areas of Olympia as protests of military-cargo shipments moved from the Port of Olympia to downtown and an Interstate 5 entrance. At least 12 people were arrested, and protesters vowed to continue their resistance.

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Late Saturday, a train entered the port, port spokeswoman Patti Grant said. She would not confirm whether it would be used to haul military equipment.

Olympia police arrested at least three protesters at Fourth Avenue and Plum Street just after noon. Protesters on foot blocked traffic by jumping in front of 18-wheelers towing cargo containers that carried military equipment bound for Fort Lewis. Protesters also tried to build a blockade in the road from garbage cans and plastic newspaper boxes.

Olympia police in riot gear moved in quickly, spraying pepper spray in the faces of protesters, pushing them with batons and dragging them away from the road to make way for the cargo shipments. Shortly thereafter, about 10 protesters partially blocked Plum Street near Union Avenue in an attempt to keep the shipments from reaching Interstate 5. They linked arms through PVC pipes and sat in the road, but several convoys drove around them. Police shot the line of protesters with pepper spray pellets from a paint-ball gun. When they refused to move, officers sawed through the PVC pipes, handcuffed the protesters and dragged them to a police vehicle.

Police arrested nine people there on suspicion of violating the city's pedestrian interference ordinance, Olympia Police Cmdr. Tor Bjornstad said. All were released Saturday afternoon from the Olympia City Jail, and no one was cited, Olympia Sgt. Ken Carlson said. During the half-hour confrontation at the I-5 entrance, traffic backed up in both directions, with a single lane occasionally open.

Supporters also chanted "Whose Port? Our Port!" and other phrases and provided water to people who had been hit with pepper spray.

Earlier, about 9:45 a.m. Saturday, Olympia police officers in riot gear used pepper spray and physically removed protesters who were blocking the entrance to the port.

There, a larger number of protesters also stood by and shouted at police. A smaller group that included some of the truck drivers who were waiting to move military equipment to Fort Lewis stood in quiet support for the police actions.

Paramedics treated several protesters hit with pepper spray, including one young woman screaming in pain. The line of protesters at the port's gates, some wearing goggles and other protective gear, withstood several sprays. Officers also picked them up and threw them away from the road they had blocked.

Protesters decry treatment

After being pepper-sprayed, Olympia Port Militarization Resistance member Eran Rhodes said, "My face is on fire right now because I was holding a peace sign. Not a single attempt of an arrest was made. They came in beating people up."

OlyPMR member Matt Lester also criticized the police tactics.

"If this isn't fascism, I don't know what is," he said.

Protesters appeared to be ready for pepper spray, with a group they call "medics", who used water as an eye rinse, as well as vinegar and a diluted Maalox to help lessen the effects for those hit.

Many also wore goggles and handkerchiefs to protect themselves.

"I knew what I was doing was going to get me arrested or attacked with chemical weapons or batons," said Evergreen State College student Davi Rios, who was among those arrested for attempting to block the Plum Street entrance to Interstate 5.

OlyPMR member Andrew Yankey, however, said that during the police action at the port Saturday morning, police ripped off protesters' protective goggles and sprayed them directly in the face.

"I was dragged and sprayed in the face repeatedly," he said. "My goggles were ripped off my face and stolen."

James Steele, an Evergreen student who was also arrested from the I-5 blockade, said he was hit with a pepper-spray pellet that caused him to cough and throw up.

Another person was cut, but not badly injured, when officers sawed the PVC pipe, he said.

"We were trying to be humans to them, and they were not respecting us at all," he said after being released from the Olympia City Jail at about 4:30 p.m.

Police defend actions

Bjornstad said officers tried to talk to the protesters to get them to move. The use of pepper spray and batons was "based on what we get from the crowd. We gave them lots of warnings and lots of time, but there comes a point where that's our only option," he said.

Law enforcement officials with Lacey, Tumwater and the Thurston County Sheriff's office assisted Olympia police, Carlson said.

"It was a long day for a lot of people who were called in on days off. A lot of people had to be reassigned," he said.

Carlson said law enforcement officials were set to meet this morning to decide where resources are needed.

Port officials thanked police for their forceful response. Port spokeswoman Grant said once the barricades were gone, cargo was able to move steadily until the end of the day shift at 4 p.m.

"The port would like to commend the Olympia Police Department for removing the barricades and clearing the streets so that cargo could leave the port today. This was important so that truckers, longshore workers and military staff could do their job," she said, relaying a comment by port Executive Director Ed Galligan.

The protests were part of a weeklong series of demonstrations by the group Olympia Port Militarization Resistance. OlyPMR has been protesting the use of the port by the USNS Brittin, which landed at the port Monday to unload equipment that was used in Iraq by the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team).

Saturday's actions by police came a day after protesters were able to halt two trucks from removing military equipment — including a Stryker — that had been unloaded from a ship coming from Iraq.

Olympia police said the department did not have enough officers available to remove the protesters Friday, and that they were unprepared to physically remove several small children who were among about 40 protesters.

Edited 11/13/07 to correct the name James Steele, and clarify the role of the protester's "medics"