The US military will have to think twice before it ever again tries to use Olympia, WA as a launching point for war.
For 13 unforgettable days in November, people in this small community engaged in a courageous and spirited campaign of resistance to the war in Iraq. Sixty-six arrests were made and untold numbers were assaulted by police during a campaign which made national and international news. Day after day, and night after night, people put their lives on hold and their bodies on the line to prevent movement of military equipment from the Port of Olympia to nearby Fort Lewis.
The campaign was organized primarily by the Olympia Port Militarization Resistance (OlyPMR), a coalition of peace groups, students, and individual community members. As well, there were student groups such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and non-affiliated folks, all of whom have worked together in recent years to oppose shipments of war materials through the ports of Olympia, Tacoma and Grays Harbor.
Early in November activists learned that the USNS Brittin would arrive on Nov. 5, bringing Stryker combat vehicles and other equipment back from Iraq through the Port of Olympia to Fort Lewis. The equipment belongs to the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, whose roughly 3,600 soldiers returned home in October from a 15-month deployment to Iraq except for the 48 who died from injuries sustained in Iraq.
OlyPMR was founded in May of 2006 when activists attempted to block outgoing equipment in advance of the deployment of that same 3rd Stryker Brigade. Activists then united under the banner of Port Militarization Resistance, declaring a common mission to “end our community’s participation in the illegal occupation of Iraq by stopping US military use of the Port of Olympia.”
Thirty-seven arrests were made for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience during that campaign, which was preceded by two years of marches, vigils, forums and petitioning of public officials through multiple avenues to protest the use of Olympia’s port for war-related shipments.
Just as in May of 2006, when activists blocked shipments directly supplying the war in Iraq, they resolved in November to block the same equipment now returning to Fort Lewis only to be refitted and redeployed to the war.
On Nov. 6, the group released a statement saying, “We oppose Olympia’s complicity in a war whose disastrous effects have been felt worldwide and we will actively resist the use of Olympia’s port to further that war. Through nonviolent actions we intend to stop the Port of Olympia from becoming a revolving door of military machinery furthering illegal war.”
In another press release later that day, OlyPMR reaffirmed its commitment to a nonviolence statement written in February of 2007, including a pledge to refrain from physical assaults, verbal harassment and malicious sabotage.
The USNS Brittin arrives
The campaign began with a candlelight vigil of more than 60 people on the evening of Monday, Nov. 5, as military cargo including Strykers began offloading from the ship onto the port quay. The next day, roughly 200 people participated in a “Family Friendly March and Rally.”
At the rally on the Port plaza, OlyPMR member Phan Nguyen delivered a speech in which he provided context for the ship which was docked in close view from where he stood. He spoke about the war’s impact on Iraqis and US soldiers. Among other stories, he read from the journal of a philosophical 36 year-old soldier from the 3rd Brigade who had been killed during his second tour while standing in his Stryker. To illustrate how the war had come home to Olympia, Nguyen pointed to the ship and added, “… one of those Stryker vehicles that are now being unloaded.”
He also made a confession: “I’ve never stopped a war before, so I don’t know how it’s done. But that’s not a reason not to try.”
Civil disobedience: the blockades begin
Once military equipment began to leave the Port, war resisters engaged in several days of civil disobedience to prevent its return to Fort Lewis. They held frequent meetings for discussing strategy, tactics and logistics and maintained a nearly 24/7 presence at the Port, alerting others when it appeared that equipment was about to move.
Nov. 7: As Stryker combat vehicles and other equipment began exiting the Port on Wednesday evening, dozens of protesters blocked the road with their bodies as one convoy after another exited the Port of Olympia. In each case, the convoys eventually passed after police shoved and struck protesters with batons and dragged them from the road in order to clear the way. Large numbers of police in full riot gear soon marched onto the scene. Participants observed that the police officers’ riot gear and demeanor seemed to expect and even provoke confrontation. One demonstrator was injured when, according to witnesses, police struck him in the face with a baton.
Witnesses also reported that police later that night doused a cluster of about 20 people with pepper spray and used batons in order to grab one man in their midst. Two people were arrested that night and several reported injuries.
Nov. 8: Thursday, a PMR activist who works at the Port of Tacoma was arrested for trespassing on Port property after being allowed in by Port security. That case was later dismissed.
Later that afternoon, OlyPMR held a vigil at a busy intersection not far from the Port. Several people, including TJ Johnson, Austin Kelley, Stanley Stahl and myself, were standing at the outer edge of the gathering when a Non Commissioned Officer in uniform pulled over, got out of his car, came over, shook our hands and said, “I just want to thank you people for what you’re doing.” He told us that he had twice been deployed to Iraq and found it to be a “hopeless mess.” He said that he and other soldiers wished that they could speak out against the war, but military regulations prohibited them from publicly opposing the war. He asked us to please continue with our efforts.
That evening, approximately 200 demonstrators gathered outside the Port and were prepared with a plan to block every potential exit. The military made no attempt to move equipment that day.
Nov. 9: Friday afternoon, approximately 60 people sat down near the main gate, blocking two tractor trailers: one carrying two Stryker vehicles, the other filled with military cargo. Police arrived on the scene and, after failing to persuade the demonstrators to allow one truck through, ceded control of the entrance. The two trucks were forced by these circumstances to back up returning inside the Port gate. Another group later built a structural barricade on a side entrance. At this point, war resisters declared control over movement into and out of the Port.
Police violence escalates
Nov. 10: Saturday morning as police arrived on the scene and after maintaining these blockades overnight, lines of demonstrators held hands and linked arms in front of the two Port gates in nonviolent resistance. Police repeatedly attacked them with close range pepper spray. As video and witness accounts clearly show, after thoroughly dousing demonstrators with pepper spray, police then wrenched them apart, shoved them with batons and roughly threw many to the side of the road. Shocked onlookers who rushed forward to help the blockaders were attacked. “Street medics” trying to gain access to wounded demonstrators were also pepper sprayed and forced back with batons.
At noon, a group of demonstrators moved to a more visible downtown intersection. As military vehicles flanked by police in full riot gear approached, several people pushed garbage bins, newspaper boxes and chunks of concrete into the road. Drivers at the intersection got out of their cars and angrily shoved these objects back out of the road. Police stepped in and following verbal confrontations with the protesters, some of whom had attempted to block the road with their bodies, heavily pepper sprayed, shoved and kicked protesters as well as street medics, legal observers, and bystanders.
Three were arrested, including a woman who was denied treatment for pepper spray. Patricia Hutchison reported that while in handcuffs her repeated requests for first aid were ignored. “I thought the skin was literally peeling off my face. I was begging for help and no one would help me.” When her identical twin, Kathleen, tried to reach her sister to help her, she was physically subdued and arrested. Both are college students in Olympia.
At another location near a freeway entrance, a group of people carried out two “hard blocks” in which their arms were linked together with hardware inside of large PVC tubes, making it more difficult for police to remove them from the road. During the second of these two actions, the hard block was reinforced by a “soft” blockade of people not linked with hardware. The soft block dispersed before arrests were made, as originally planned. At this point, police shot those who remained standing in the road at close range with rounds of painful *pepper balls, causing them to drop to their knees, and continued shooting at them once they were down. Police then removed protective goggles and masks, cut through the PVC and hardware, and arrested the hard blockaders.
*Projectile non-lethal weapon, a ball which breaks upon impact and releases an extremely effective super irritant made up of a powdered chemical that irritates eyes and nose (see pepper spray).
Nov. 11: Several witnesses report that while standing on a sidewalk along with other demonstrators at the corner near the Port entrance occupied by war resisters all week, two men were singled out for unprovoked abuse and arrest. Both are college students and are well-known to police for acts of civil disobedience during the OlyPMR campaign in May 2006. Witnesses report that one of them was pulled from the sidewalk into the street where he was pepper sprayed and beaten. The other man yelled at police from the sidewalk as this was happening and was then shot in the chest with pepper balls. Both were charged with pedestrian interference.
Later, in honor of Veterans Day, a group of women laid flowers in the road in front of the Port entrance in memory of the 48 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade killed in Iraq. As the women were laying their memorial, the police moved in, trampled the flowers and shoved the women back to the curb with batons. Wes Hamilton, a Vietnam veteran, was shot repeatedly in the groin with pepper rounds as he spoke out against the brutality. Patricia Imani, a longtime Olympia resident, was shocked by what she experienced. “It’s unimaginable that police will come in with full riot gear and respond with such violence to women with flowers and shoot a veteran during a Veteran’s Day memorial.”
OlyPMR sent out a press release earlier that day with the following statement:
“As the nation begins its annual observance of the Veterans Day holidays, OlyPMR says they stand with the men and women of the military by demanding an immediate halt to the war and the return of all the troops.
‘We want the troops to know we are glad they are home. We also want them to know that we will do everything we can to make sure that they never have to go again,’ said SANDY MAYES.”
This message seems to resonate with many soldiers. Activists involved in PMR actions in Olympia and Tacoma report overwhelmingly positive gestures such as “thumbs up” from troops as they drive by in their Strykers and other vehicles (as I have witnessed repeatedly myself).
Emergency forum on police violence
On Sunday evening, Olympia City Councilmember TJ Johnson opened City Hall for an emergency community forum where a packed City Council chamber heard compelling testimony from more than 60 citizens who experienced or witnessed police brutality over the preceding several days. Television and other mainstream media were present and over three hours of testimony is documented on YouTube.
Witness after witness reported acts of violence by police against nonviolent, mostly young, protesters. People reported that police sometimes prevented street medics from reaching injured people, pepper sprayed street medics, pepper sprayed journalists and photographers, and pepper sprayed, shoved and kicked legal observers and bystanders alike. Demonstrators reported police removing their protective goggles in order to expose their eyes directly to the chemicals the police were using. (All of which is supported by numerous videos and photographs available on the internet not only on YouTube and Flickr, but also on commercial sites such as the Olympian website.)
The final speaker of the evening was Councilmember Johnson who himself had been pepper sprayed. He testified to the multiple accounts of police violence he witnessed at the Port. He summarized by saying, “This war is so incredibly unpopular that the only way they can continue to wage it is with a significant crackdown on dissent here in this country. So, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but we’re going to see more of this, not less of this, as this thing continues. That’s the short term. The long term is we’re gonna win. Because we’ve got truth, we’ve got commitment, and we’ve got power and solidarity on our side and they can’t beat that.”
A powerful day for war resisters
Nov. 13: Things were fairly quiet on Monday. But Tuesday, Nov. 13, was a day which older, longtime Olympia activists describe as the most hopeful and empowering day of resistance they’ve ever experienced in this community.
Once again, military shipments were prevented by human blockades from leaving the port that morning, and the blockades were maintained throughout the day.
That evening, in what they described as an act of solidarity on behalf of human rights and with women in Iraq, over 40 members of the OlyPMR Women’s Caucus sat in the road blocking the Port’s main gate. A huge gathering of supporters amassed, standing behind them.
The positive sense of solidarity and determination amongst the women was met with verbal harassment and violent threats from a cluster of pro-war counter-protesters gathered on one side of the road. One of them had displayed a gun, the only point at which police confronted the group, simply telling the gun owner to put his gun away. Eventually, about two dozen male protesters stood between the women and the counter-protesters, as requested by some of the women. These men were then themselves subjected to harassment and threats.
Nevertheless, energy remained high as the women chanted things like, “Ain’t no power like the power of the sistas cause the power of the sistas don’t stop,” with the men and others in the crowd playfully answering back, “Say what?” Later the women chanted, “No force is necessary. We are non-violent.” All of this went on for about two hours.
Early on, as the women were forming their blockade, a soldier from Fort Lewis walked out of the Port. Witnesses report that he said he was against the war and refused to transport the war equipment. Shortly thereafter, he was driven back to Fort Lewis by one of the activists in the crowd. The soldier’s name and other details are not public at this time.
As the women and their supporters held their ground, a large assembly of police in full riot gear repeatedly threatened over a bullhorn to pepper spray the women and, based on police tactics used throughout the week, the women had every reason to expect that they too would be pepper sprayed. Yet, they bravely maintained their position in the road.
As it turned out, a number of factors intervened to compel police to temporarily abandon the tactic of brutalizing human blockaders. First, there were a lot of media present with cameras that night, and a couple hundred supporters. As well, the city council had been forced to address complaints of police abuse in a meeting earlier that evening. And finally, the women themselves made a powerful appeal over their own bullhorn that they were nonviolent and there was no justification in such tactics as pepper spray or other uses of force. So, instead, the police arrested them one by one. Forty-three people were arrested at this action, including four men who also sat in the road.
But midway through the process of arresting the women, police did begin spraying and beating back those who stood behind them. As this was happening, Strykers began to move on a side entrance about a block away. Protesters rushed in, forcing the convoy to a halt. Riot police moved in, used pepper spray on them, and dragged them away. Then another blockade formed, and police used pepper spray and batons, dragged and shoved protesters out of the street, and shot beanbag rounds and pepper balls at the crowd.
Roughly a hundred people endured at least two concussion grenades and an onslaught of beanbag and pepper rounds as they chased after the convoy now headed for the center of town. People who were already downtown and saw the Strykers coming pushed newspaper boxes and garbage bins into the road to block the way. Those people, along with bystanders caught unaware, were struck with batons and hit with pepper rounds from police.
The Strykers eventually made their way from the Port of Olympia to Fort Lewis that night, but not for lack of effort by the people in this community who tried to stop them.
Four more days
Nov. 14: Some military equipment was transported by rail. On Wednesday, Nov. 14, the Olympian reported: “Earlier Tuesday, port maintenance workers had found concrete on the railroad leading out of the property and removed it. Railcars carrying military equipment and vehicles moved from the port to Fort Lewis on Wednesday morning.” (On Nov. 28, the final train of military equipment left the Port, carrying, among other things, M1 Abrams tanks with depleted uranium armor.)
Nov. 15: Five people were arrested while attempting to blockade at the main gate. Pepper spray and batons were used and injuries were reported. Later that evening, over 100 people joined in a candlelight vigil at a downtown location near the Port. The vigil was originally organized by OlyPMR to protest the war, but many participants held signs decrying the recent police violence.
Nov. 16: As reported in the Olympian the following day:
“More than 200 high school and community college students walked out of class Friday to protest the war in Iraq. [They] … marched to the Capitol Campus, where they lined Capitol Way for an hour, holding signs and chanting, then participated in a ‘die-in’ on the Capitol steps. … The protest was part of a national call for students to demonstrate.”
More like a victory march
Finally, on Saturday November 17, over 400 people of all ages came out in the pouring rain to march through the streets of Olympia to protest the war in Iraq and the police violence in Olympia. But by the time they got started the rain had subsided and to most participants it felt more like a victory march than a protest. People had devoted incredible personal resources to the two week campaign time and energy, physical and financial and now shared a collective sense that something hugely significant and powerful had just happened in their town. And it happened because they made it happen.
Carrying banners proclaiming “Not in Our Port,” the crowd marched through downtown, directly past the Port gate, and back to the Port plaza where Phan Nguyen had given his speech on Nov. 6. On this day Nguyen said:
“We understand that the road that leads to Iraq goes through Olympia. The fact that this road goes through Olympia is a warning to us, and it reminds us that we are complicit. But it also empowers us to do something about it.”
Wearing complicity like a badge
Throughout the 13-day campaign, the demonstrators were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Nevertheless, a couple of windows (a bank window and the window of an OPD squad car) were broken on the night of Nov. 13, and reportedly a rock hit a police officer in the knee that same night. Mainstream news media were quick to emphasize those isolated episodes, erroneously holding OlyPMR accountable; such actions clearly ran counter to OlyPMR’s principles of nonviolence. As well, there was grossly disproportionate emphasis placed on the newspaper boxes and garbage bins blocking the streets.
Nearly every commercial media report on the protests began by stating that police had no choice but to use forceful means such as batons and pepper spray on protesters. At no point did mainstream media mention the option used by the Olympia Police Dept. on May 24, 2006 when they simply arrested rather than brutalize a group of people who blocked a Stryker convoy with their bodies in an act of civil disobedience virtually identical to those taken in November. Nor did they address the contradiction between the arrests of the Women’s Caucus blockade and police claims that the only way to handle such situations is with force.
In a scathing editorial on Nov. 14, the Olympian asserted that the paper’s editorial board opposed the war, but that OlyPMR had gone too far. They said, “When police repeatedly plead with protesters to clear the streets and are met with stubborn refusals, they have little option but to resort to batons and pepper spray.” Protesters had “clearly crossed the line” and “tarnished the anti-war effort” and they must be held accountable.
In a Dec. 6 op-ed in the Olympian, Phan Nguyen stated:
“As long as the road to Iraq goes through Olympia, we will be there to block it. … The Olympian editorial board wants us to be held accountable for our actions, but it is precisely because we take accountability that we act. Those who fail to act should be held accountable for their complicity, and those who criticize us should exit the peanut gallery, take the stage and lead by example.”
A call to action
Olympia’s resistance to war has inspired peace activists throughout the US and the world. OlyPMR has issued a call for people everywhere to find the ways that their own communities participate in the war, and to join together to creatively resist that participation:
“We are ordinary people who have found a way to organize ourselves in resistance to this unjust war. We call on all people of goodwill to find their own methods of creative noncompliance. In so doing, we will be joining together to dissent from unlawful and unjust authority, which should be considered the essence of democracy. In this way we will act in the interests of the Iraqis, the soldiers, our children, and ourselves.”
SANDY MAYES is a longtime resident of Olympia and a member of OlyPMR. She can be reached at email@example.com.