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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Zero tolerance for insurrectionists in Bellingham

With inauguration less than a week away, city and county officials aim to keep community safe

Flags in front of Bellingham City Hall are back to full-staff after flying half-staff for three days to honor those who died in the insurrection attempt on the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Bellingham City Hall flags are back to full-staff after flying half-staff for three days to honor those who died in the insurrection attempt on the Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. // Photo by Riley Young.

By Lauren Gallup

On Wednesday, Jan. 6, the nation and state capitals were attacked by rioters, resulting in the second impeachment of President Donald Trump on a charge of inciting insurrection. Bellingham city and Whatcom County flags flew at half-staff to mourn those who died during the insurrection. 

With the inauguration less than a week away, uncertainty of when Trump’s second impeachment trial will begin and fears about more violent actions in the country, what are Bellingham and Whatcom County doing to prepare?

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the FBI has “released information regarding possible illegal action associated with protests associated with the inauguration and that all 50 states are vulnerable to such activity.” He said they have not received anything specific to Whatcom County. 

Bellingham Police Department Public Information Officer Claudia Murphy said the police have not seen any concerning actions this past week in the wake of these riots. 

“We are prepared to respond to unrest should it arise,” Murphy said. 

The Bellingham Police Department uses information from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, social media and the news to stay informed and prepare for potential threats, Murphy said. 

City and county officials have yet to see local reactions to the events which unfolded last Wednesday. 

“We have heard a lot of anger from many different sides of the issue — however, we are not aware of any plans for illegal actions in our community at this time,” Elfo said. Elfo said he was not referring to any particular group or individual.

Whatcom County Councilmember Todd Donovan said he was disgusted by the events which took place in Washington D.C. and Olympia on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Donovan called out the importance of recognizing who was part of this mob, including Republican officials, and said, “it’s more mainstream than I think people really want to admit.”

Donovan said the radical right groups will probably feel more empowered after last week’s events, “when they could watch their compatriots just act with impunity essentially.” 

Locally, impunity is not an option. 

Elfo said the sheriff’s office has plans in place to “maintain peace and free speech rights at public assemblies and to prevent and control riotous or other criminal behavior,” within the county. He said these plans were made, “long before the deplorable and murderous rioting [in D.C.] and the illegal actions at the Governor’s Mansion.” 

The sheriff office’s Special Enforcement Team, which is composed of law enforcement and corrections deputies, is in charge of these plans, Elfo said.

Elfo said that while there have been no actions locally, he is “cognizant that there are a number of individuals and groups with a penchant for committing crimes during protests.” Again, Elfo said he was not referring to a particular individual or group.

Many have pointed to social media for being the gathering space for groups that perpetuated violent actions at the Capitol. Both Elfo and Murphy confirmed that the sheriff’s office and BPD monitor social media sites.

When asked what he would say to constituents who are worried about community unrest in the coming weeks, Donovan said, “I think we have highly capable law enforcement, and we have a very civil community. So, if those radical elements feel empowered, I think there are plenty of things to check them from being destabilizing or violent.”

Indivisible Bellingham formed just after the 2017 inauguration of President Trump with the mission of justice, tolerance, fairness and to hold elected officials accountable, said Kevin Leja, a member of the organization’s “Core Crew.” The group had rescheduled their Protect the Results rally from November 4, 2020, to Jan. 22, but announced Jan. 13 they were canceling the event. 

Leja cited guidance from the national Indivisible organization to not hold events because of concerns for safety, both because of COVID-19 transmission and information from the FBI about the potential for armed protests in all 50 states on Inauguration Day.

Now, with President-elect Joe Biden to take office in less than a week and Democrats in the majority in both the House and Senate, Leja said there is also reason to be hopeful and celebrate even amidst the violent events of this past week.

Leja said the majority of Indivisible Bellingham members agreed with the choice to cancel their rally to ensure community safety.

Murphy pointed to BPD’s “commitment to the community” and how protests have been handled by police in recent years. 

“We are consistent in our approach, taking into consideration a person’s right to peacefully assemble and balance that with unlawful behavior [such as] rioting,” Murphy said.

While Murphy and Elfo were clear on the obligation of law enforcement to respect a person’s right to protest peacefully, they said violent or illegal behavior is unacceptable.

“We will not tolerate rioting, violence or property damage from anyone and will fulfill our obligation to maintain the peace,” Elfo said.

Donovan said he is more concerned about actions in states’ capitals. 

“I want to assure you BPD is committed to the safety and well-being of our community by staying prepared as the nation moves through Inauguration Day,” BPD Interim Chief Flo Simon said.

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