Amid rumors that protesters against Napavine’s Uncle Sam sign intended on blocking roads, and concerns after the sign was vandalized earlier this month, a crowd of about 100 people gathered Tuesday night at the billboard, many saying they wanted to protect it.
Protesters also cited a rumor of a presentation of a petition to have the sign taken down at Napavine City Council based on an early petition that has circulated.
Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza addressed the crowd in the parking lot of Bethel Church in Chehalis to cheers from the crowd.
“We do allow peaceful assembly, it’s a first amendment right,” Snaza said. “So these signatures come and they’re going to go to city hall today and they’re going to protest and they’re going to ask the sign be taken down … that’s not going to happen.”
Close to 80,000 people signed the original petition created by Nicholas Baum. Now, a second petition created by a Centralia resident has received just over 35,000 signatures, while petitions calling for the sign to remain standing and for it to be considered a historical landmark are also garnering modest attention.
Lewis County Chief Bruce Kimsey said none of the rumors were confirmed and although he saw nothing on an agenda, the speculation that a group would be presenting to the Napavine City Council and the possible protest began to swirl on social media.
“We don’t have a name for anyone coming into city hall, this is the rumor that created,” Kimsey said. “They’re (Bethel Church goers) here to make sure that nothing happens.”
Napavine City Clerk Sherri Salyers confirmed that the only group in attendance for Tuesday’s city council meeting was in support of the sign. She continued by saying the City of Napavine hasn’t received any word or documentation of a petition, only rumors.
Among the crowd at the gathering was Chehalis resident Stephen Greer, who said he had to leave work halfway through the day due to concerns surrounding the closure of the highway. He said he was unable to concentrate on work.
“I didn’t want to be stuck in traffic while my town was being burnt to the ground,” Greer said.
Greer said he was born in Chehalis and he’s read the sign’s messages for his entire life, even before it was relocated. He said he’s never seen any hate speech positioned on the sign.
“Only opinions or eye-openers for corrupt politicians, little things like that,” Greer said. “No one is saying anything hateful against anybody. These groups are saying it’s all hate speech because they only know what they’re told.”
Like many of the attendees, Greer brought his own guns to the event. He said he hoped the demonstration would remain peaceful and the guns wouldn’t have to be used.
Following the event, users took to Facebook, commenting about snipers on water towers positioned to protect the sign and a man jumping from a car and hitting someone at the sign with a bat before ultimately being arrested. Both reports are unconfirmed responses to a posting by The Chronicle.
Candidate for Lewis County Commissioner District 1 Sean Swope also attended the event, citing the First Amendment as the reason.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start to allow any suppression of the First Amendment,” Swope said. “I think it’s important, no matter what it says, good, bad, or ugly, that the person and their rights are super important. So is the Second Amendment rights.”
He continued by calling for those on both sides of the argument to respect each other.
“I’m not always going to agree with you, you’re not always going to agree with me, but if we respect one and other, that’s the biggest thing we can do,” Swope said. “If we can listen to one and other, hear one and other and meet in the middle on things, that’s the best place to be.”
During his remarks, Snaza said sign owner Mike Hamilton was grateful for the support of those in attendance. He also pointed to the situations unfolding in Seattle and Portland before stating that nothing similar would be happening in Lewis County.
“I can assure you that we’ve planned for this event, we have contingency plans and all that I would ask is that you trust us and allow us to do our job,” Snaza said during his speech. “I’ve made it very clear that if someone goes onto the property, on the Hamilton property, without permission, they’re going to get arrested.”
Sheriff Snaza continued by reaffirming his support for peaceful protests on either side of the argument, but he would not be allowing any violence or disobedience.
Following his speech, Snaza pointed to the number of signatures on the original petition.
“80,000, that’s the population of Lewis County,” Snaza said. “We know that a lot of these people signing this petition are not from the local area. I think the frustration you’re seeing is that locals are saying, we still believe in our First Amendment rights.”
He said as of Tuesday, he said he hasn’t heard of any requests by any groups to protest the sign.
“We were dealing with some unknowns and so we had to work with that,” Snaza said. “We’ve planned for worst case scenarios, so we have systems in place, we’re ready to deal with big crowds, we’re ready to deal with medium crowds and we’re ready to deal with small crowds.”
According to Snaza, those who attended the gathering at Bethel Church on Tuesday are residents of Lewis County who “really care about where we’re at in today’s society.”
“We just don’t want people coming in, telling us how we should run our communities,” Snaza said. “I think it’s challenging, because we’re in challenging times. Those are the most hard things as law enforcement because you have to understand both sides. I take no sides.”