Police, protesters clash in downtown Olympia over Artesian Commons Park closure

Update: At least one lane of Fourth Avenue East is open and traffic is moving again. Police and about 20 protesters are still facing off, and police are asking people to avoid the area.

Four weeks after the city closed a popular downtown Olympia park, protesters occupied it and a city street Saturday afternoon.

The protest turned volatile when Olympia police tried to clear the protesters from the park starting about 3 p.m. At least three people were arrested, according to Kellie Purce Braseth, a spokeswoman for the city of Olympia.

Later, protesters occupied the block of Fourth Avenue East between Jefferson and Adams streets, jumping rope in the street and chanting “Open the well.”

Police appeared to fire smoke grenades near the crowd. Thurston County Sheriff’s deputies, Tumwater police and Washington State Patrol also responded.

Traffic was stopped on Fourth Avenue and affected other downtown streets.

The city closed the Artesian Commons Park indefinitely in late August due to reported threats to park staff. Since then people — including groups that advocate for homeless people — have called for it to reopen.

Starting about 12 p.m. Saturday, 50 to 60 people took down the fence blocking the park and went inside, according to police dispatchers.

“I just happened to be downtown and I saw the park was open so I went over,” said Jill Severn, who stopped to talk to people at the park.

Fliers handed out earlier in the day advertised food, music and games. They called the park a “sanctuary” for homeless people: “It is impossible to capture in words the cultural significance of the commons ... to the Olympians who have depended on it for years.”

Orion Canning was in the park when police arrived. He saw two people get arrested and described the police response as “disproportionate.”

“It was just people hanging out ... It was pretty peaceful. There wasn’t anybody being confronted or anything,” he said.

Afterward, protesters shouted at police and Olympia parks staff as the fence blocking the entrance was put back.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869