People are angry. There’s anger in the streets of Bellingham like I have never seen before. It almost feels like the city has reached a boiling point, and a whole lot of ugliness is about to bubble up and spill out. Several times it looked like violence would erupt on March 13, 2021 during a march from Lowell Elementary to the house of Seth Fleetwood, the current Mayor of Bellingham.
Many of the protestors are the same people who showed up to protest the clearing of Camp 210 back in January. In fact, the protesters had three demands which they posted on the Bellingham Occupied Protest Mutual Aid Instagram account (bopmutualaid). First they demanded amnesty for everyone arrested at the Camp 210 sweep on January 28. Second they demanded permanent housing for the homeless, and third an end to all sweeps of homeless camps.
Two of these demands are quite reasonable. Activists have been arguing for years that sweeps are a serious waste of money, and put the homeless in an even worse position than they were in before. A much better use of that money would certainly be to invest it in permanent housing in the form of affordable apartments, tiny home villages, or communal housing.
On the surface, BOP Mutual Aid has a lot of good ideas, and they’re out to make a positive change, but the way they’re protesting and carrying themselves isn’t helping their cause. Most protestors I’ve encountered at the Camp 210 Sweep and the March on Seth Fleetwood refuse to speak to journalists. The only people who will talk to us are average college students who come to hurl insults at police officers and wealthy homeowners who they believe represent a system of oppression.
But the turnout to help the homeless pack their things and move is always smaller than the turnout to protest. I will make the claim that many protestors are more interested in raging against the machine than they are in fixing the machine, because let’s face it, the machine is broken. The City of Bellingham has failed to meet the needs of its homeless population. Seth Fleetwood has not done the best job he could have during the pandemic, but protesting at his house does nothing to solve that.
On March 13, Seth Fleetwood wasn’t at his home where protestors gathered to spray paint and draw in chalk phrases like, “F— Seth Fleetwood” and “Seth Fleetwood is a murderer” on the street in front of his house. According to Janice Keller the mayor had a “fairly full schedule of city business” that took him to Central Library, Bellingham Technical College, and the Whatcom Museum. Instead, protestors were met by an angry coalition of neighborhood residents, many of whom were unmasked and/or over 65. Police did not show up during this protest.
Despite a lack of police presence, several protestors were dressed for war, one man wore a gas-mask and carried a makeshift baton that appeared to be a made of a wooden table-leg, while another man wore a ski mask and rode a bike, carrying a black curtain between two poles which he used to block people from taking pictures. This second man also stopped at one point to pick up a large rock a bit bigger than the size of his hand, and put it in his pocket.
The second man with the rock in his pocket was the main instigator of chaos in front of Fleetwood’s house. He couldn’t stop himself from getting up in people’s faces and screaming at residents, at times even putting his hands on people, knocking a man’s hat off, and smacking a woman’s phone out of her hands. At one point I heard a resident yell “If I was you guys, I would be embarrassed by the way my friend is conducting himself.” It was bad. At one point a man pulled out a taser, at another point it looked like the man in the gas-mask was going to brain a resident. Frankly I’m surprised that violence didn’t erupt. There are claims that a herald reporter and several others were punched, but myself and another reporter from Whatcom were there the whole time, and though there was a lot of shoving, and a few close calls, we saw no punches thrown that day.
Despite the fact that blood did not literally flow in the streets, the protest at Fleetwood’s home left a really awful taste in my mouth, and honestly made the BOP protestors look bad. You have people showing up armed to a protest in a residential neighborhood, getting physical with residents, and walking around in crowds smoking weed, and hurling obscenities in the unmasked faces of septuagenarians. Behavior like this is dangerous, ugly, and hypocritical.
Bellingham Occupied Protestors have been very critical of the police. At the March on Fleetwood plenty of BLM chants and tags found their way into the protest. “F— The Police” “All Cops Are Bastards” “Justice for Breonna.” This switch from protesting for the homeless, to protesting against the police made the impression that protestors are disorganized and don’t know what they want. And what they do want isn’t always good. One of the demands that the protestors made was amnesty for everyone arrested on January 28th. Why do they want this? I understand sticking up for your own, but the people arrested at Camp 210 are not political prisoners. They are angry people who got carried away. They were arrested for acts of violence. One of them even bit a police officer. Standing up for these people as a protestor is no different from law enforcement protecting their own when an officer commits a crime. People need to hold their friends and peers accountable. Not simply defend them blindly because they are on what they perceive to be the same side.
Bellingham Occupied Protestors are angry. That’s understandable. I’m angry too, but I realize that yelling and screaming in people’s faces accomplishes nothing. We are all on the same side, and fighting amongst ourselves isn’t going to change anything.
One woman we spoke to at the protest said something that stuck with me. “This neighborhood is well-known for being the home of lawyers, mayors, councilmen, all the activists from years ago, and now they’re being protested by the activists of today.”
There’s a disconnect here. A generational gap. Young people today have inherited a world that is becoming increasingly difficult to live in. Housing costs are rising, the cost of living is rising. And birth rates are going down. It is harder and harder every year to just grow up, move out, and start a family. The American dream, essentially, is becoming harder and harder to live.
So there is a lot of resentment between the young people of today, who see this world as a byproduct of the previous generation. We’ve inherited a mess, and it’s come down to us to fix it.
And we can fix it, and we need to fix it, and we need protest movements to fix it, but this isn’t the way. Bellingham Occupied Protestors need to learn from the activists of previous generations, rather than blindly railing against them. I recently read a fascinating interview with Martin Luther King Jr. conducted by Alex Haley, and published in the January Issue of Playboy Magazine back in 1965. In this interview, Haley asks King if he has ever made any mistakes or errors in judgement during his time as a civil rights activist. King responded, “Yes I do. In Albany Georgia in 1962. If I had to do that again, I would guide the community’s Negro leadership differently than I did. The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”
This is the exact effect I saw at Seth Fleetwood’s house. The protest left people more angry and confused than before. The whole thing was a vitriolic hate-orgy. Nothing more than a chance to scream, and yell, comparable to the tantrums of a child. These protestors aren’t angry about housing prices, the rising cost of living, or the disenfranchised living and dying in the streets. They are angry at the world. They are distracting from the real issues.
This is the way I see BOP Mutual Aid. This is the image they put out to the world, and it’s a very ugly image. I don’t want to write about armed anarchists invading the suburbs. This is the Horizon, not Fox News! I agree with the protestors, I want what they want, but the way they’re going about things is just wrong. Their actions make people dislike the protest movement. Their actions drum up sympathy for Seth Fleetwood, make the organizations that work to help people, like Homes Now and the Lighthouse Mission look bad.
Homelessness isn’t a problem that can be solved with spray paint and baseball bats. We need new ideas and new policies. In this case, the pen is mightier than the sword. Protestors need to hold each other accountable, and put the homeless first, because their antics make themselves and the homeless look bad.
I want the lives of the homeless to improve. We all want to see Bellingham change for the better, and for that to happen, there needs to be protests. That’s a right that I support, and that is protected by the constitution. But Bellingham Occupied Protestors need to change as well. They need to do better to not support violent people. To focus on real, achievable, visible change. To put the homeless first, and really work to improve their lives. That’s where the protest movement needs to improve. Because until they do, they will just continue to embarrass themselves, and that distracts from the real problems that the city of Bellingham will continue to face in the years to come.
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