By now, we’ve probably all heard or read the statements from state Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, where he appeared to threaten law enforcement officers for writing fishing tickets last Sunday at the “Hazardous Liberty” rally at the Capitol in Olympia.
“When we go fishing, they’re going to send their guys with guns, and they’re going to write us tickets … Governor, you send men with guns after us when we go fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like. … You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves,” the Snohomish County lawmaker told the crowd.
Now, while I too have lots of questions about fishing and hunting restrictions in our state, as a child of a law enforcement family, threats are where I really draw the line.
So I started pursuing the issue to learn more. Did Rep. Sutherland really think it was okay to use force against an officer who might issue him a ticket for a civil infraction?
Just a day or two later, Sutherland appeared on KIRO Radio’s “Gee and Ursula” program to further discuss his comments. I expected him to at least denounce violence against law enforcement, but after 10 minutes of Gee Scott making him squirm multiple times, the representative would not.
“When I referred to, uh ... I think I said ‘rebellion’ and then ‘revolution’ … those are radical terms, but I qualified them in the most benign way saying we just wanted to go fishing with our children. … If he (the governor) wants to continue in his stubborn ways and not letting us go fishing, then anything bad that happens, it’s not a result of us going fishing, it’s a result of him saying we can’t do it. … As far as defending ourselves, that’s exactly what I meant,” stated Sutherland
It was honestly painful to listen to. I reached out to Sutherland for further comment. After the initial contact, I was finally able to pin him down on the finer point.
I asked him in an email: “Sir, with all due respect, you don’t seem to walk back your threats of lethal force. You seem to double down on them. Yes or no question: Do you believe you have the right to use lethal force against an officer for writing you a fishing ticket?”
“No, that would be excessive use of force, not protected under law. Only when a person feels their life is in danger can they defend themselves with the appropriate use of force to protect themselves,” Sutherland replied.
That answer is the key point that I think is lost in his original comments. You cannot, under any circumstances, use force against an officer for writing you a fishing ticket. Did his audience truly understand that? While we were talking, I asked if he would publicly clarify that specific point.
But even after that, Rep. Sutherland still refused to admit any guilt or blame that his comments could be seen as a threat. He flat rejected any belief that his original words were inflammatory. He continued to say that anything bad that might happen would fall squarely on the governor’s shoulders, regardless of Sutherland’s statements, and continued to find ways to qualify his words.
Later, Sutherland and I connected over the phone. He continued to assert that orders that restrict fishing (among other things) were wholly unconstitutional, despite not being declared so by any court of law or judge. And, it’s worth noting that, last year, Sutherland actually voted “yea” to bolster the governor’s powers in an emergency (SB 5260, 4/17/19).
Despite that, Sutherland told me: “I’m not saying they (state government) can’t shut down ‘a’ lake, but they’re using broad strokes under the guises of public safety. They do not have that power. They are in violation of the law as it’s currently written. … I don’t promote violence against peace officers, but any human being has a right to defend themselves.”
When I pressed him further, asking him to publicly make a statement denouncing violence against officers who might write him a fishing ticket, he acknowledged the intensity of the situation — but in his mind, that is the fault of the governor, not his own words.
“They’re gonna be writing tickets left and right. It feels like it’s getting to a boiling point. … We’re the ones being oppressed right now,” Sutherland said.
I asked what he would say to those who believed his statements were inciting unnecessary violence rather than a peaceful stand.
“I would take issues with that. I would use Rosa Parks as an example,” Sutherland replied. When asked I asked him if he thought that was a fair comparison to himself, he said: “I do.”
Later that day, after I talked with him, he posted an updated statement on Facebook expressing his regret at the use of the word “goons,” but in my opinion, he did not sufficiently clarify his comments. He states that he does not encourage violence against officers, but waters this statement down with additional qualifiers about self-defense that are confusing on the very point I’m concerned about. He attached the updated statement with a presumably older photo of himself and Sheriff Fortney of Snohomish County. It’s worth noting that Sheriff Fortney had already told me that same morning that he did not agree with Sutherland’s comments, despite Fortney’s own public stance.
And, the problem with Sutherland posting a photo with the sheriff in his county? Well, the sheriff doesn’t enforce fishing regulations. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) police do. Rep. Sutherland’s original comments don’t threaten sheriff deputies nearly as much as they affect WDFW.
I’m not sure Sutherland’s statements and re-statements have sufficiently taken the unnecessary target off WDFW officers’ backs.
I liked Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer’s statements in response to Sutherland’s comments the best: “Rhetoric is one thing. Inflammatory, mindless rhetoric is another and puts people in danger.”
It’s fair to be frustrated. Not fair to threaten lives.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at firstname.lastname@example.org.