The Patriot Prayer group held a rally on 13 August 2017 at Seattle’s Westlake Park. It was bound to be a tense day even on a normal Pacific Northwest weekend. But this was not a normal weekend. On Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields killed Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd of people who were protesting white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism, and racism. I’m not sure how many were injured or how badly, but Ryan Kelly’s photograph depicts a horrifying scene of bodies thrown into the air by the speeding vehicle.
That terrible incident followed a night-time torch lit parade of white males who claimed to be defending their cultural heritage by protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park. I used the word claimed here intentionally. Discussing responsible, compassionate ways to acknowledge difficult chapters in our shared history is something we can and should do. Marching with torches against a backdrop of red bricked buildings with white columns is not. Those men knew exactly the image and message they were conveying. The only things missing were the white hoods and robes.
Fast forward to Sunday in Seattle. People opposed to the Patriot Prayer group’s rally met at Denny Park before marching towards Westlake Park. I went straight to Westlake Park. I thought I’d gotten accustomed to the increased militarization (and paramilitarization?) of protestors and police at previous marches and demonstrations in Seattle. But as I made my way out of the metro station and over to Westlake Park, it felt more like walking through the Green Zone in 2007 than Seattle. The police were in full riot gear armor and carrying large sticks. I can’t blame them, especially not after seeing the militia members rolling into Charlottesville carrying long guns and wearing camouflage and body armor.
During the short walk from the station to the park I heard several people express dismay and some confusion about what was going on. I didn’t find that surprising. The police looked like they were gearing up for a siege, and I think it would have been easy to not hear about the rallies. I only heard about them through The Stranger. My other news sources were all understandably focused on Charlottesville.
The scene at Westlake Park was calm. Joey Gibson and his Patriot Prayer group were on stage, surrounded by militia members, Proud Boys, and metal barricades. It looked like some opponents of Patriot Prayer were walking around inside the barricaded perimeter, but for the most part, counter-protestors filled in around the perimeter.
I couldn’t hear the Patriot Prayer speakers very well. One individual explained how he found his way to the Patriot Prayer group and pro-Trump rallies. Counter-protestors were vocal in their opposition throughout, criticizing Nazis and white nationalism.
Militia members manned the barricades. Some engaged in heated discussions with protestors. Others acted as sentries, scanning the crowd and checking the perimeter. I don’t know any of them. I don’t know what led them to the militias, but I got the sense that they believed, and perhaps wanted to believe, that they were on a Forward Operating Base in hostile territory. I’ve read a few statements indicating that the Patriot Prayer group called for a peaceful, non-violent rally, but that’s difficult to reconcile with the paramilitary uniforms and gear. Knee protectors, helmets, military rucks, Camelbacks, first aid kits, and labels noting blood type and No Known Allergies. It’s a stark contrast to the images I’ve seen of Martin Luther King’s marches and rallies.
I heard a few counter-protestors ask why there were not more opponents of the Patriot Prayer rally at the park. It turns out the counter-protestors who had mustered at Denny Park were stalled at the intersection of 2nd Avenue and Pine Street, where police were blocking their access to Westlake Park. The counter-protestors were frustrated with the police and accused them of restricting their right to free speech. Some of the protestors challenged the police by chanting “Who do you serve, who do you protect?”
As the protestors waited to hear whether they would be allowed to advance, a group carrying what looked like an extremely long rolled up carpet unfurled it to reveal a massive We the People banner. I asked a few people what it was and who they were with, and they pointed me toward the Backbone Campaign. Shortly after they rolled out the banner cheers went up as word spread that the Patriot Prayer group (frequently referred to as “the Nazis”) had left Westlake Park. That information ultimately proved incorrect. Stymied in their attempt to move east to Westlake Park, the counter-protestors turned around, walked north/northwest along 2nd Avenue, and then turned right on Virginia Street. I walked with them for a while before heading home.
For more comprehensive coverage, I recommend checking out photojournalist Alex Garland’s Twitter feed and Seattle Weekly article. He always covers a lot of ground and manages to send out frequent updates that include commentary, photos, and video.