On Saturday, May 15, two groups came together outside the Bellingham Police Department precinct to voice their opinions on policing. One group came to show their appreciation and support for BPD officers, the other came to counter and advocate for the defunding of the police department. The First Amendment was on full display as both sides exercised their rights as American citizens to hold signs on sidewalks and shout at each other.
While the event was mostly peaceful, with both sides screaming and chanting from the sides of the street, there were tense face-to-face altercations on several occasions, with protesters meeting in the middle, shoving and pushing people off their sidewalks.
Anti-police protesters held up signs and chanted “They protect property! We protect people!” and “Black Lives Matter!” as pro-law enforcement demonstrators waved the American and Blue Lives Matter flags.
Cars drove by honking and cheering, throwing fingers in support with protesters on their side of the issue. Each group had about 40 people in attendance.
Scott Simmons, with an American flag resting on his shoulder, said he had come out to support the local police department.
“I understand the counter-argument that sometimes they don’t always make the best decision in a certain situation,” Simmons said. “It all boils down to officers needing more training; well, then, defunding the police is the opposite of what we should do.”
Simmons said he thought the city should give the police department more resources to provide training and help officers be more effective at their jobs.
“I’ve never personally encountered any kind of situation where I felt an officer was out of line or made me feel unsafe,” Simmons said. “I think ultimately, they are here to keep the peace for the citizens of Bellingham, for everybody, not just us, for them as well.”
No uniformed law enforcement was present at the demonstrations, located at the intersection of Girard Street and Grand Avenue, yards away from the police precinct.
“I believe in what they do. I believe in the law, in the protection of the law,” Simmons said. “They’re here for a good reason and that’s ultimately to keep us safe.”
Another protester, who asked for anonymity to protect their identity because working in the public service sector made them recognizable and visible, said they had come out because they figured it would be a confrontational event and were interested in actually starting a dialogue.
“Right now, we see both sides super-entrenched in their positions and, let’s be real, my sympathies are with abolishing the police and Black Lives Matter,” they said. “We need to reform, essentially reimagine a society — where everybody can live together, and feel safe and protected — that doesn’t rely on settler colonial law enforcement and laws upholding an unfair, unjust system.”
This advocate said they had been walking across the street and engaging with Back the Blue protesters, starting conversations and handing out magazines and literature because people needed education on the issue.
“I came over in the Hawaiian shirt so that the pro-cop people might be more open to having a dialogue, and it’s kind of worked,” they said. “I was having a long discussion with some of the youth over there as well as with a live-streamer who was coming at me with questions.”
While some protesters tried to engage with the people on the other side, both groups mostly stood their ground and cancelled out each others’ voices, discouraging some people, who decided to start leaving.
Graham Davis said he had come out to support the people’s right to protest the police because he believes the current system of policing allows for corruption to flourish and power to be unchecked.
“It’s a free country and in order for it to stay that way, people need to have the right to protest law enforcement agencies,” Davis said. “Especially considering the recent article The Western Front put out yesterday, concerning a homeless person that died in police custody.”
Davis said people needed to be aware of those issues and that he was very disappointed to learn that that happened in his own community.
On Friday, May 14, The Front reported that the City of Bellingham had denied a claim filed by the family of an unhoused man who died in police custody in 2018. In body camera footage, the man can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe'' 11 times. Now that the claim has been denied, the family’s lawyer has indicated that a lawsuit will follow.
“I think that our city’s funding should be going to mental health help, as well as fixing the housing crisis, as opposed to going to the police budget,” Davis said. “I was at the homeless camp clearing and it was very dystopian.”
Julie Schaber, a Bellingham resident holding a Blue Lives Matter flag, said the goal of the demonstration was to show support and appreciation for the Bellingham Police Department.
“We want to show appreciation for all they do. The protesters are allowed their free speech but they are wrong,” Schaber said. “Police don’t just protect property, they protect us.”
The “back the blue” element of the protest was organized by the local chapter of Turning Point USA, a right-wing organization that promotes conservative values among college students. The group is known for running a “Professor Watchlist,” which lists the names of professors the group claims are discriminating against conservative students. Turning Point USA has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center for associations with figures in the alt-right.
Saturday’s protest was announced in a May 6 Instagram post that called on people to show support for BPD by writing chalk messages and bringing Woods Coffee gift cards for officers.
The counter-protest was organized by Bellingham Occupied Protest, a mutual aid group that has been active in protests against the city’s encampment sweeps. A May 12 Instagram post called on people to show up with noisemakers to drown out the Back the Blue protest and signal that police are not welcome in Bellingham.
A protester in the Black Lives Matter demonstration said they wished the pro-police advocates would agree that police don’t protect citizens or provide appropriate services for the community.
“We should have mental health and social workers taking care of many of the issues that cops are trying to take care of,” the protester said. “Frankly, it’s not fair to the cops that they should be doing that work anyway; they’re not trained to do that.”
The protester, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of targeting by law enforcement and the Blue Lives Matter protesters, said they weren’t sure this kind of event would further the discussion around the policing system in Bellingham.
“I think that it helps this side of the community, the side that is anti-cop and pro-Black Lives Matter,” they said. “We at least know that we have one another and that we’re going to support each other. This is the community that I trust is going to protect me, not the cops, not those people.”
Larry McDonough said the purpose of the Back the Blue demonstration was not to engage with what he called the “Antifa protesters” but to honor and support the work of the police.
“We want them to know that they do have a community that seriously appreciates what they do, we appreciate them for who they are and what they do for us,” McDonough said. “Keeping law and order in place in our community, keeping our community safe from illegal and criminal behavior, that’s their job and it’s really difficult. We just wanted to come out today and say thank you.”
While most of the event was a peaceful screaming match, several altercations in the middle of the street needed other protesters to step in and deescalate the situation. At one point, McDonough was confronting other protesters on the road.
“We were just trying to exchange opinions, I went up to a guy and I said we don’t want physical interaction,” McDonough said. “You came here to express your viewpoints, we came here to support the police. Let’s keep the physical out of this. Go back to your side of the street and peacefully protest.”
When asked what they had responded, McDonough said the reply was “Fuck you.”
Around 2:30, a counter-protester told Front reporters that two Black Lives Matter protesters were shoved and punched by people on the pro-law enforcement side after they had been standing face-to-face and shouting at each other for several minutes. The Front was unable to confirm the incident.
Both demonstrations ended by that time as most protesters had already left. Both groups were able to step in and defuse the situation before anything else occurred.
Caroline Brooks is a journalism student and a reporter for The Front. Her work includes local features and Bellingham-based news.
Cliff Heberden is a journalism student and reporter for The Front. His work focuses on local news and coverage of ongoing issues and legislation. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Nicola Wasmuth is a second-year at Western and enjoys writing about social justice and the arts. When she is not reporting, Nicola enjoys making photos and plans to become a photojournalist through the Visual Journalism track at Western. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.