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Questions from all sides emerge after Olympia hotel protest action

A clearer picture is emerging over a hotel takeover in Olympia this weekend.



From Malcontentment Happy Hour, February 1, 2021

Activists question tactics in hotel raid over the weekend

WARNING: This report shows scenes of protest and police action against children. Viewer discretion is advised.

[OLYMPIA] – (Malcontent News) On the surface, the story is altruistic, and the visuals awful. Following in the footsteps of activists in Tacoma, an organization calling itself Oly Housing paid for 17 rooms on Saturday to place unhomed persons at a Red Lion Hotel in Olympia, Washington. Just as in Tacoma, the plan was to pay for one night and demand that city and county officials continue to pay for the rooms. On Sunday evening, a massive police response met activists where families, including small children, were removed by SWAT officers who threw flash-bang grenades into hotel rooms. As time has gone by, a clearer picture has emerged, raising questions from all sides.

On Saturday, activists engaged with some of the local unhomed in the downtown Olympia area to have them occupy the rooms. Thirty-three people, including children, agreed to accept the offer. Being unhomed is a challenge any time of the year, but rain, cold, harassment, and rats have made the encampments in Olympia untenable. 

As checkout time came and went on Sunday, the property appeared calm. Protesters made demands for better sanitary facilities at encampments, permanent government housing solutions for those making less than $26,200 a year, for Thurston County to use available FEMA dollars to continue paying for the hotel rooms, and an end to sweeping homeless encampments. In a report from the Olympian, about a dozen people were sitting in the hotel’s lobby looking at their phones and reading magazines. 

By the time sunset arrived, something had gone wrong. At about 6 PM, hotel staff called the police, reporting they had locked themselves in a basement room, were in fear for their safety, and armed protesters had taken over the lobby. There were unconfirmed reports of blacked-out windows and mattresses used for barricades. At 6:30 PM, Capitol Way in Olympia was closed, and SWAT teams rolled in with a heavy police presence. Law enforcement swept the hotel floor by floor, deploying multiple flash-bang grenades and making seven arrests. Video from the scene showed a woman with her two children, one swaddled in blankets, leaving the hotel under police guard while activists taunted officers. 

On Monday, a press conference about the events wavered between reality and absurdity. Officials initially danced around the police tactics questions until finally admitting the use of “a couple” of devices to clear the hotel. Eyewitness reports, including reporters on the scene, reported more than a “couple” of blasts coming from inside the hotel. The statements of blacked-out windows and mattress barricades didn’t materialize in the conference either (nor were they denied).

What has emerged in the 48-hours since the raid is universal outrage. Local advocates for the unhomed are outraged over the tactics of Oly Housing. Supporters of Oly Housing are outraged over what they perceive as a false narrative aligned with the police and mainstream media and a lack of focus on tactics. Some of the unhomed are outraged, feeling they were used and weren’t fully informed of the legal jeopardy they could face. City and county officials are frustrated because the FEMA dollars for emergency housing were just made available by the new Biden Administration, in place for less than two weeks, and they were already in the process of applying for the money.

Right-wing groups are outraged at the perception of “Antifa” (an ideology and philosophy, not an organization) going unchecked and police not responding with enough violence against protesters. Many are questioning the police response to unhomed persons taking over a hotel, in contrast to the police response on January 6, when about 100 right-wing protesters stormed the broke through a gate, assaulted a state police recruit on live television, and stormed to the front door of the governor’s mansion. No one has been arrested in that incident despite overwhelming evidence of multiple crimes.

Long time Thurston County area advocate Renata Rollins lamented the fallout in a Facebook post. In her post, she called out activists within Housing Oly who were arrested on Sunday being represented by private attornies, while public defenders represented the unhomed. Working for over a decade in housing, she pointed out that Olympia had ended sweeps of homeless encampment like those done in Seattle and Bellingham two years ago, and the county already provides trash dumpsters and sanitary stations at the encampments. Trash pickup and dumpsters are not offered to the unhomed in cities like Seattle. While recognizing not enough is being done she wrote, “The group’s demands made no sense. They read like they were copy-pasted from some other community’s struggle because whoever penned them had no concept or context for what’s actually going on in Olympia and Thurston County.

In contrast, activists engaged in direct action believe that not enough is being done to support the unhomed, which has grown in 2020 due to COVID and living in conditions that only further spread the disease. They believe the government establishment serves corporate America and the wealthy and views the unhomed as disposable. Representative of the political horseshoe formed versus a straight line, some within the direct action groups believe that only the use of force will change the system.

Established activists in the South Sound have expressed growing frustration with direct action groups’ tactics in January. A protest led by outside groups in Tacoma over a police cruiser driving through a group of people earlier in the month led to broken windows and graffiti in a Black neighborhood. In that incident, local activists blamed outsiders from Seattle, Olympia, and Portland for the damage. 

The challenges facing the unhomed are undeniable. The failures to address homelessness at federal, state, county, and local levels should not be thrown at local activists’ feet. Further north in King County, enough private and public funds are spent addressing houselessness to solve the problem, with little effect. The connections of addiction and mental illness to homelessness are undeniable. Despite campaign promises from the Trump Administration to address the opioid epidemic, 34-million Americans abuse or are addicted to dangerous drugs. King County just experienced its highest number of overdose deaths ever. Washington state continues to be one of the worst states in the country for mental health treatment. 

What is reality is that most of the 33 people who occupied hotel rooms on Saturday night are back out on the street, living in squalid conditions with minimal support.

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