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The incident at the Red Lion Inn

What happened during…and after?

In December 2020, a group named Oly Housing Now (OHN) formed to organize an action at the Red Lion at the end of January. Days before, President Biden had signed an executive order extending FEMA’s Public Assistance Reimbursement policy to states that provide safe housing for people struggling as a result of the pandemic.

That night and the next morning

On the night of Saturday, January 30, 33 homeless people, along with some community organizers, went to the Red Lion Inn and Suites on Capitol Way. They had booked 17 rooms online a few days before. The next day, Sunday, approximately 40 activists returned to the hotel just before noon checkout time. They issued a statement insisting the homeless guests be allowed to stay in the Inn while the city searched for a more tenable solution.

At 6:15 pm, as the rain poured and the temperatures dropped, two Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams, Washington State Police, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, and OPD arrived.

They then occupied the lobby and attempted to speak with staff members about working with the City to house the folks already legally there. They were first assaulted and then completely ignored. The management called police, and later collaborated with the Olympia Police Department (OPD) on spinning a story that people were held hostage by the housing activists.

A ferocious response, arrests and charges

At 6:15 pm, as the rain poured and the temperatures dropped, two Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams, Washington State Police, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, and OPD arrived. These forces, numbering over 100, stormed the hotel, deploying flashbangs and pepper balls inside rooms. They forced everyone outside into the freezing rain, including one person without a jacket or shoes which she’d left under her bed. Seven people were arrested.

Five of those involved were charged with burglary in the first degree, including two unhoused people.  A black homeless veteran with PTSD was tasered twice, entered into a seizure, and was severely injured for allegedly obstructing the raid. His bail was set at $40,000 and he spent over a month in jail, largely in solitary confinement, confined to a wheelchair. He has since been released but is left with restricted movement that requires him to use a cane.

One of the homeless people involved, Tiger, had bail set at $50,000, based on prior charges and the court system’s criminalization of houselessness. After being labeled “ANTIFA” by Corrections Officers, he was forced to go into administrative segregation with Chris Guenzler, an “anti-antifascist”, the first Trump supporter who fired into a crowd of Leftists in December.

The three OHN activist supporters were jailed but with their bail set at $10,000 or less, they were soon released to await trial.

First Degree Burglary in Washington is a Class A Felony that carries a lengthy prison sentence. In this case it does not accurately describe what happened during the event, but instead serves as a political deterrent. Everyone involved in the action entered the Inn legally, demonstrated only peaceful intent, and exercised their right to possess survival tools as they would any other belonging.

The disproportionate response to leftists, in contrast to right-wing violence

At a City Council meeting, Mayor Selby called the people involved in the incident “domestic terrorists’’ echoing previous comments she has made about progressive social activists.

Right-wing militia members shot two antifascist community defenders in December at anti-democracy “Stop the Steal” rallies.  In January, a Trump-supporting mob broke through the gates protecting the Governor’s Mansion and no immediate arrests were made.

Judge Murphy (one of two judges assigned to the Red Lion trials) set bail for Chris Guenzler at $50,000 for shooting into a crowd of protesters and attacking someone with his gun in a Dec 5 rally at the Capitol. Thurston County declined to press charges against Forest Machala, a King County resident who traveled to Olympia for a Proud Boy-led rally on Dec 12. Machala shot a young counter-protester and was jailed only briefly.

Where do we go from here?

The City claims that they lead the way on the response to homelessness. This is contradicted by a census of the homeless population, conducted by Thurston County Public Health and Social Services on the evening of January 21, 2021. They compiled a list showing that half of the nearly 1,000 homeless residents are unsheltered, and that since the 2019 survey, the number of unsheltered folks has increased from 49 percent to 54 percent.

If City officials have any concern for the homeless people involved in the incident, they would urge the county to drop the charges and focus on finding options and partnerships to provide housing through FEMA funding.

Trial dates for the Red Lion 7 are coming but the City continues to push things out. Some members of City Council suggested that the people affected by the police response should be let off without charges. However they have done nothing to convince the Thurston County Superior Court judges James Dixon and Carol Murphy, to that effect.

Housing as a human right

There are a myriad of cities, Minneapolis, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Vancouver BC, that have adopted progressive measures to dramatically increase housing for people who did not want to live outside in camps. Led by nonprofits and activists (especially supporters in the Movement for Black Lives), there is a large movement for Housing as a Human Right.

Daniel Mootz is a WIP contributor and advocate for equity. Miguel Louis is a journalist, writing for the Cooper Point Journal, an activist, and student of political economy, based out of Olympia. They have reported on protests and the Movement for Black Lives since the death of George Floyd. 

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