Olympia peacekeepers prepare for results of police shooting investigation

Protesters march in downtown Olympia on May 30, 2015.
Protesters march in downtown Olympia on May 30, 2015. Courtesy photo

Olympia officials and community groups are preparing for the reaction when Thurston County prosecutors release the results of an investigation into a racially charged police shooting.

The May 21 shooting of stepbrothers Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin by Officer Ryan Donald has already sparked protests — both peaceful and violent — in downtown Olympia.

Results of an investigation into the shooting are expected in early August.

Thompson and Chaplin are black men shot by a white policer officer, a situation echoing other high-profile police shootings in the United States. Both men survived the shooting, but were seriously wounded.

So far, most local protests have consisted of passionate but peaceful sign waving, marching or blocking the street in front of City Hall. However, violence erupted May 30 in downtown Olympia when a late-night brawl broke out between protesters and white supremacists. The clash included broken windows, baseball bats and pepper spray.

“We, as a community, can do better than we did last Saturday night,” according to a June 4 guest column in The Olympian by Olympia-based Unity in Community, which will call on peacekeepers for help when more trouble breaks out. “While our viewpoints vary greatly, the vast majority of us agree that we do not want our city to devolve into violence, hate and bigotry.”

The tension has been heightened by unanswered questions over what happened the night Donald responded to a call about two shoplifting suspects at the Safeway supermarket in west Olympia. Video showed two suspects attempting to steal beer. At one point, they appear to throw a case of beer at a store employee.

Officer Donald, who encountered the men outside the store, has told investigators he was attacked by one of the men with a skateboard.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Department has concluded its investigation into the incident, but has not released a report because the department is still waiting for crime lab results. The deputies’ work and the lab results will be sent together to the county prosecutor’s office, which will determine whether anyone involved in the incident should face criminal charges.

Neither the sheriff’s office nor the prosecutor have given a firm timeline, but officials have said this is likely to happen the first or second week of August.

Regardless of whether the investigation leads to criminal charges, the city and some community groups anticipate another round of protests.

Unity in Community formed in 1992 after biracial teen Bob Buchanan Jr. was murdered by neo-Nazis in downtown Olympia. The coalition focuses on developing diversity events and appropriate responses to hate groups in the area. Unity in Community also does an informal “call out” to volunteers for peacekeeping duty in these instances, said Reiko Callner, one of the coalition’s coordinators.

“It’s not a physical bodyguard neo-police thing,” she told The Olympian. “It’s more of a responsible, calm adult presence in a circumstance where such a presence might be helpful.”

But those who are willing to take that peacekeeper role most often prefer anonymity because they fear retaliation or harassment from some of the extreme factions that join in protests.

“If these groups feel they’ve been disrespected or challenged, they easily can identify and turn on someone they’d like to hold responsible,” Callner said.

Glen Anderson, who founded the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation, has provided training for local volunteer peacekeepers over the years for tasks such as directing traffic or de-escalating small conflicts. The volunteers are loosely organized, but will help when called upon.

“A lot of it is sort of keeping an eye open and being alert if trouble is coming down the street,” said Anderson, emphasizing that “we’re not the police.”

Peacekeepers may guide people toward informally designated safe places, which have included downtown businesses such as Obsidian and Psychic Sister. In fact, much of the response and communication during civil unrest has relied on an informal network of phone trees or social media.

Sky Cosby, co-owner of Last Word Books and Press, offered safe transportation and refuge for anyone who needed it during the May 30 protest — especially racial minorities and the LGBTQ community who might have been targeted by hate groups that joined the protests.

“I saw that palpable fear in several individuals,” Cosby told The Olympian, noting that his business will continue to serve as a safe place.

City officials also are planning ahead for the possible response to the investigation results. The Olympia City Council has begun working on a community outreach plan and the formation of a citizen task force.

Olympia police have handled plenty of protests before and are typically “ready to go” on short notice, said Lt. Paul Lower.

Protests can be more challenging for police when “confrontational groups” come to town, Lower said, but the department’s priority remains the same — regardless of the groups involved.

“Our job is to monitor safety,” he said. “Our goal is to guard everyone’s First Amendment rights.”

Lower said officers tend to stay on the periphery of peaceful protests while ensuring safety in the area. When protests heat up, officers will move closer to the source of confrontation to “make their presence well known.”

Olympia has dealt with the threat of hate groups such as neo-Nazis since the early 1980s, including a notable series of Nazi rallies in 2006. In response to white supremacists groups in the Pacific Northwest, Callner and local activist Anna Schlecht wrote an essay titled “A guide to responding to hate groups” that focuses on the need to mobilize support and plan for safety.

Likewise, the role of the neo-Nazis as “outside agitators” could be seen as one reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement that has developed in response to recent police shootings in the United States, said Hilary Bernstein, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.

Bernstein said the Internet acts as a powerful organizing tool for such groups. And the Black Lives Matter movement coupled with the nation’s changing racial dynamics has “put them on edge as a group.”

“White supremacists in general aren’t really growing in numbers per se, but they are growing in levels of anger or irritation,” Bernstein told The Olympian. “Their way of life is being threatened.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869