by Austin Bowen
The City of Bellingham cleared the homeless encampment on the morning of Thursday, Jan 28th.
It was located between city hall and Bellingham Public Library. Camp 210 began as an occupied protest in November 2020 against a lack of resources and shelter available for the homeless population of Whatcom County. Besides providing space for an estimated 90 to 120 homeless people, the camp became a grassroots hub arranged by residents, volunteers, and advocates to collect and distribute donations as well as raise awareness of their issue.
However, regulating the space proved difficult and a tent was set on fire on Dec. 5, and two propane tanks exploded near the library. Because of this, the city created a 25-foot safety barrier around the library which was initially complied with. Eventually more fire pits were created, plywood structures were built near City Hall, and Bellingham Police responded to many calls related to the camp.
“BPD officers have had to respond to over 60 calls, many of which were safety, hazard and crime related. These reports included several felony assaults with suspects from the encampment using weapons like hatchets, broken sticks and pieces of wood against each other and members of the public. There also have been numerous fights, misdemeanor assaults, domestic violence incidents and other dangerous behavior.” Bellingham Police Chief Flo Simmons said in a Thursday evening press conference. All this led to another attempted clearing of a 25-foot safety zone around city hall on Friday Jan. 22. This was met with resistance by camp residents and protesters and escalated to a standoff between them and police that garnered local, national, and international media attention.
Tensions flared further during a confrontation last Friday, when intentional agitators joined peaceful protestors as we tried to clear a safety zone around City Hall. The actions of these agitators, many of whom we believe came from outside of Bellingham, were a disservice to people who are experiencing homelessness and put them at increased risk. “Incidents requiring police, fire and emergency medical responses continued over the weekend, thus our decision to entirely close City Hall and the Library for the week.” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood in the Jan. 28 press conference.
These incidents were also the basis for ultimately clearing the area by 4 p.m. on Jan. 29. However, city public work crews accompanied by law enforcement arrived Thursday morning with dumpsters, bulldozers, and trucks to clear the area of residents and left-over debris.
“We initiated the clean up early because we received credible information from multiple sources that caused us to accelerate our plans. Our civic center was becoming the target of agitators far more intent on mayhem than working toward any social good. More specifically, we received information regarding certain groups known to have a history of confrontation. They put out a call throughout the Northwest to gather in Bellingham on Friday.” Said Mayor Fleetwood.
Fearing violent clashes and destruction of property, the show of force was intense. Over 100 officers from the Bellingham Police Department, Washington State Patrol, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were present in tactical riot gear. An armored Sheriff’s vehicle was parked in front the courthouse and was flanked by officers spread out down Grand Ave. Police could be seen on the roofs of the courthouse and Whatcom County Civic Annex Center and a news helicopter swirled overhead as protesters began arriving and arranging pallets to block city workers from entering the area.
It is unclear at this time how a new site was chosen, but volunteers began helping residents gather their belongings and set up a new camp in the lower parking lot at Geri Fields next to Civic Field, while protesters held off police and workers. Four people were arrested and three police officers were assaulted during this standoff. By 3:30 p.m. the majority of residents were at the new location, protesters began to fade away, and the cleanup effort began in earnest. Wooden structures were torn down, garbage and debris were removed, graffiti scrubbed from the walls of city hall, and its broken windows were boarded up for future repair.
Despite the relocation of Camp 210, its future remains in flux. The city has indicated they intend to clear that site as well, but protesters seem equally determined to remain. “We are also resilient and believe that housing for all isn’t just a wild dream but an attainable goal. We won’t stop until we see all of our friends and their friends housed, and after that we will keep going so that no one falls through the gaping holes the government has created…” the Bellingham Occupied Protest group said in a post on their Instagram page on Saturday.
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