Militia Group Plans to Occupy Legislative Building in Olympia When Session Begins


A right-wing militia organization is planning to enter and occupy the state Legislative Building when the 2021 session begins, saying keeping the Capitol closed while the Legislature works remotely is unconstitutional.

The Washington Three Percenters, a militia group whose name originates from the debunked notion that only 3% of Americans fought in the Revolutionary War, sent out an email blast last week calling for a daily occupation of the Legislative Building beginning the night before Jan. 11, when the online session is scheduled to begin, until the building is reopened to the public.

“For every person that makes their way into our gauntleted entrances, we will attempt to go right along with them inside,” the email reads. “Once inside, we will proceed to occupy the gallery areas in each chamber while the session continues.”

While the message says the group will not engage in violence, recent similar events have led to violence. In Oregon on Dec. 21, armed members of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer smashed windows and broke into the state Capitol building in Salem, where state legislators were convening for a one-day special session that was closed to the public.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Washington Legislature will operate a hybrid session — most staff and lawmakers will work remotely, but the buildings will be accessed by select staff and a limited number of lawmakers to conduct voting, according to a Senate plan approved on Nov. 5. Capacity limits for the Senate floor will be aligned to the Department of Health’s current recommendations, though at least a quorum of senators (25) need to be present on the first day of the session to adopt emergency rules, according to Senate Secretary Brad Hendrickson.

The House of Representatives plan to have an almost “fully remote” session, with just speaker Laurie Jinkins and one floor leader from each caucus at the rostrum to preside over voting sessions.

Jinkins and Senate majority leader Andy Billig both defended the validity of the remote proceedings and said the session will be both fully accessible to the public and actually have the potential to make the process more democratic through virtual testimony.

“The motivation behind a remote session is stopping the spread of COVID-19 and keeping the public, staff and legislators safe during the pandemic,” wrote Billig in an email to The Olympian. “I very much hope that this is the one and only time we do session this way, but the reality is we’ve developed several innovations that will increase transparency and accessibility.”

Jinkins added that all floor sessions will be broadcast by TVW, as they have been in the past, and legislators will “still be accessible for meetings the same way they always have been, by calling the office and requesting a meeting.”

Jinkins said that other states where in-person sessions were held led to legislators falling ill, which would not only put lives in danger but grind lawmaking to a halt. She condemned the Three Percenters’ threats to occupy the building as counterproductive and questioned their rationale of accountability.

“It feels a little bit anti-democratic, actually,” Jinkins said. “I think if people want democracy to happen, then they should let the session operate.”

Billig added that while everyone has the First Amendment right to protest, that’s not the same as “intimidation.”

“There is no place for violence, intimidation and property damage,” he said. “Those actions simply are not protest.”

The continued closure of the Capitol buildings to the public as the session nears, however, presents a slightly new grievance to hang under the banner of the Washington “reopen” campaign, whose rallies have previously centered on Gov. Inslee’s orders closing certain businesses and other COVID-19 lockdown measures.

State capitals have recently become a target for armed ring-wing groups to express anger at Donald Trump’s presidential election loss, the legitimacy of which they dispute despite multiple courts’ rejections of election challenges.

Two recent clashes in Olympia have led to guns being fired, with one shooting sending an Olympia resident to the hospital for surgery. The Thurston County Prosecutor’s office recently declined to press charges against a 25-year-old Bellingham man arrested the day of the shooting, who was found with a gun matching the bullet found at the scene.

The Department of Enterprise Services, which manages the Capitol Campus, declined to share specifics on how they would respond to the threats posed by the Three Percenters or other extremist groups, but said that both DES and the State Patrol are “constantly monitoring and adjusting” their presence on the campus to “protect both public safety and free speech.”

“We do not discuss many of the details regarding security measures publicly, for obvious reasons,” said DES spokesperson Linda Kent, but she added that “unlawful acts that endanger public safety will have a full and firm response from law enforcement.”

This is the first time that a group has openly announced a plan to break into the Legislative Building, Kent confirmed.

Jinkins said the protesters should consider other options to show their concern.

“We are a nation of law,” Jinkins said. “And if somebody thinks that it’s not constitutional for us to do this, there is a way to challenge it, which is to go to court and assert that it’s not constitutional. That’s how this nation operates and that’s how the state of Washington operates.”