Two groups of demonstrators -- one supporting police, the other supporting the Blacks Lives Matter movement and protesting police brutality -- clashed in downtown Aberdeen on Sunday afternoon.
There were a number of tense exchanges and some shouting, but no arrests. Police remained nearby and stepped in to quell confrontations that threatened to escalate to violence.
"Both sides, I believe, got to speak their mind as to their positions," said Deputy Police Chief Jay Staten.
Many of those who were there to support police wore tactical gear and carried rifles and holstered handguns. But Staten said they were in the minority among the 100 or so police supporters, most of whom held signs and American flags and waved at honking cars passing through town on Wishkah Street.
About 40 anti-police brutality demonstrators were far outnumbered by the police supporters. Some of the armed individuals reportedly followed them around and shouted at them as they moved to other locations in the downtown area.
The encounters started near Zelasko Park. As the anti-brutality demonstrators moved west toward the Aberdeen Library parking lot, then again toward City Hall and the police station, armed men and women followed and shouted at them.
The Rev. Sarah Monroe, an organizer of anti-police brutality group, had this statement Monday:
"We planned a peaceful protest and vigil in support of Black Lives Matter, to remember people who have died in Grays Harbor by police violence, and to call for more accountability in our community. Many of us have friends and family in law enforcement and were not there to wish any harm to police. We hope to continue to call for more resources and funding for treatment and housing in our community, instead of leaving the fallout of homelessness and mental health to police.
"Our understanding was that there was another peaceful protest planned at Zelasko Park to support law enforcement. I know many people who were planning to join and we planned to peacefully coexist.
"What actually happened was, when a group of us walked to the park with our signs, a group of armed men claiming to be militia rushed us from a block away. They screamed, 'We don't want you here! Get the f*** out of this town. Go home!' I understand that people have the right to open carry, but this group surrounded us, screamed in our faces, and at least one threatened to shoot us. Some were clearly drunk and had open containers of alcohol. Perhaps some of these men were local, but it was my impression that the guys with III% symbols and tactical gear were from out of town.
"We intended to find a space in the park away from the group, but it was clearly too dangerous. People were yelling 'white power,' calling people 'niggers' and a bunch of other slurs. I had multiple armed men screaming and spitting in my face. I was afraid for my safety and for the safety of the people with me."
It wasn't clear who organized the rally in support of police, although one woman who helped spread the word on social media said beforehand that the intention was to "wave signs and flags in a show of support for our friends and neighbors in local law enforcement. This will be a peaceful gathering and any behavior besides that will absolutely not be tolerated." She could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Staten was in the area of the confrontations. He said the demonstrators from both sides were mostly cooperative, but "at times it got a little bit hostile." Demonstrators were present downtown for several hours Sunday afternoon, he said.
April Obi was one of the anti-police brutality demonstrators. She said at one point they were confronted by several large men and one of them chest-bumped one of the demonstrators. She said she called 911. "As I was talking to the dispatcher somebody said, 'I'm going to stick this gun in your face and shoot.' That's when the dispatcher lady said, 'April are you OK?' I said, 'You need to get here now.' Finally ... aid showed up and detained them so Pastor Sarah could keep walking to the library."
Obi said the demonstration moved to the sun sculpture on Wishkah Street behind the library, then back to City Hall; and men with guns followed, staying across the street shouting, with police sometimes deployed between the groups.
"I don't know who called in militia groups," said Monroe. "All I can say is I am very glad I did not get shot. And there were moments that I believed that I was going to be."