A group of protesters holding signs calling for Snohomish Mayor John Kartak’s resignation walk down First Street on Friday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A group of protesters holding signs calling for Snohomish Mayor John Kartak’s resignation walk down First Street on Friday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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100 armed vigilantes rouse fear, soul-searching in Snohomish

Self-appointed guards saved the city from looters, the mayor said. A chorus of citizens saw the opposite.

SNOHOMISH — It was a festive night of tailgating and celebratory pleasantries, with “no really harsh terms or anything,” the atmosphere you expect at the start of a parade, Snohomish Police Chief Keith Rogers said.

But over two nights of heated and heartbroken comments at public city council meetings last week, Snohomish city leaders endured four hours of scathing criticism from citizens, teachers, students and business owners who saw something far more sinister last Sunday.

“I can’t imagine someone could’ve said that with a straight face, because what I saw was the farthest from festive tailgating,” said Terry Lippincott, a longtime resident and president of Snohomish Friends of the Library.I saw intimidation. I saw people being afraid. I saw what looked like to me to be an absolute disaster waiting to happen.”

They said the mayor and police chief welcomed armed vigilantes — one waving a Confederate flag, some flaunting patches of a hate group’s coded insignia on tactical gear — as they occupied First Street’s historic downtown with military-style rifles to “protect” local boutiques from alleged leftist looting threats that never materialized.

In meetings held over the video app Zoom, the police chief and Mayor John Kartak faced a chorus of citizens calling on them to resign for allowing a gun-carrying crowd to publicly drink alcohol, intimidate citizens and tarnish the city’s reputation. Some in the armed group were later identified as members of the alt-right. It “hijacked the narrative” of what was supposed to be a night of protest against racism, said council member Judith Kuleta.

Many of those expressing shame, anger and sadness this week were teachers and students at Snohomish High School, who have been a constant presence at nightly local rallies against police brutality toward African Americans in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.

Some said the events in Snohomish brought an undercurrent of bigotry to the surface, painfully highlighting experiences of people of color in a town where the mayor is white, the police chief is white, all but one city council member is white and, far too often, white peers have tolerated racism or been insensitive, or worse.

Gabrielle Wilson, 26, grew up in the city. Being biracial, she said, she no longer feels safe in her hometown. Through tears, Wilson described her terror of the gathering of armed people. She’s afraid, she said, when her brother goes for a run in the city. Racism isn’t new here, though it wasn’t always out in the open quite like this.

“In some ways, this has been a long time coming,” Wilson told The Daily Herald. “I know a lot of people haven’t really recognized any racist elements in Snohomish because overall it is so homogeneous and white. But growing up here, it’s not like I didn’t receive racist comments in school.”

Her hope is that with race and justice now at the forefront of conversation, the problem can be dealt with to make Snohomish “safer and more inclusive for kids today and tomorrow.”

Kartak spoke to two local conservative talk-radio hosts last week about the protests in his town, acknowledging there was some ugliness — the Confederate flag, for example, which he sees as a symbol of racism — but that the size of the alt-right contingent was distorted by the media. It was much smaller than it got credit for, a few people among a crowd of hundreds, he said. He said racists do not represent his town. He had harsh words for critics, too.

“Some of these people have been teachers, who teach our children, and it shows an ignorance and a hubris that also upsets me, you know, just to be so far out of touch,” Kartak said on KVI-AM, “that you don’t understand the rights and the laws of the land. The First Amendment, it’s been said, it wasn’t created to protect agreeable speech, it was created to protect disagreeable speech. As much as it might be distasteful and disagreeable, and it certainly is, they have a right to be here.”

No property damage or physical assaults were reported Sunday, but on Monday a teenage boy was punched in the face in front of a bridal shop on First Street, in a scuffle caught on camera. According to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, the report came in later that evening, and an investigation remained active days later. No one had been arrested for the violence.

The teen addressed Kartak at an online public meeting Thursday. He said he’d actually met the mayor weeks earlier at a local skate park and that Kartak gave him his card, saying if he needed anything to just let him know. He called the mayor the day he was beaten downtown, he said.

“Well, I let you know, and you didn’t get back to me, and that shows the type of person you are,” the boy said. “So I don’t have nothing else to say. You should step down.”

‘Opportunistic punks’

Hundreds of people attended a peaceful protest downtown in the rain on Saturday, May 30.

“This is who we are as a community,” Kartak wrote in a letter to the city. “Resolute in our belief that racism and violence is never okay.”

Then on Sunday, police took secondhand reports of a then-deleted social media post claiming to be from an anti-fascist group, suggesting “opportunistic punks had chosen Snohomish as a target to deploy mayhem and violence,” Kartak wrote.

Rogers told the council last week that the “destructive protest” post had listed a start time and a plan “to descend on the downtown corridor.” However, a leftist group accused of sending the threat denied responsibility, and a white nationalist group was caught posing as antifa in hoax social-media posts in small towns all over the country, for example: “Tonight we say ‘F— The City’ and we move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours … ”

The true source of the threat still has not been confirmed, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, the agency that has a contract to police the city of Snohomish.

“As law enforcement, we responded as if the threat was credible — we really have no other option,” said a sheriff’s office statement released Friday.

According to Kartak’s radio interviews, easily identifiable members of antifa were spotted in town. But days later the sheriff’s office said deputies had not confirmed any antifa presence. Deputies estimated 1,000 people in all gathered Sunday, and perhaps 100 of them had guns. There was no count available of how many were suspected members of far-right hate groups.

“Snohomish is not a racist town in my opinion,” council member Tom Merrill told The Herald. “But we do have racism in it.”

On Sunday, May 31, police rolled into Snohomish from Arlington, Edmonds, Everett, Marysville, Mukilteo and the Washington State Patrol, converging on an emergency operations center north of downtown. An armored tank-like Bearcat lumbered through the streets.

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney arrived around 4 p.m. Sunday, speaking with two groups of armed locals on opposite sides of the Snohomish River bridge. Those people were Snohomish parents and business owners, “not white nationalists, they were not extremists,” the sheriff told the Snohomish County Council. Fortney, an outspoken supporter of Second Amendment rights, advised them to leave protecting the city up to the police, according to the sheriff’s office.

“I said, ‘Look, I can’t make you leave, you have a right to be here, I’m asking that you not get involved. If you want to be our eyes and ears, then feel free to do so, and call 911,’” Fortney said. “If you see something, say something, basically.”

Deputies were not aware of the presence of any far-right groups on Sunday evening, the sheriff said.

“We acknowledge that the following day photos surfaced online highlighting displays that show and/or symbolize hate or racism,” read a sheriff’s office statement Friday. “We are very saddened that this occurred, and we do not support actions that show or symbolize hate or racism. None of this was brought to our attention or reported until it surfaced on social media the following day.”

About 10 plainclothes officers patrolled the streets, Fortney said.

At a city council meeting, Rogers told elected leaders: “Reports of other organized groups, beyond the antifa group that I mentioned, were also observed in town. We are aware of who these groups are.”

State Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, was among the civilians who took up arms.

“Antifa showed up in little groups, saw everyone was armed and waiting, and they decided to move on,” Sutherland wrote in a Facebook post shared more than 186,000 times.

‘Afraid to live here’

Last weekend, Seattle weathered fiery protests during which police shot tear gas and flashbang grenades into masses of protesters. Media broadcast images of looting and vandalism in Seattle, Bellevue and elsewhere.

A group of alleged looters struck in Snohomish County, too, at the Tulalip casinos and outlet stores. Similar threats led to the shutdown of Lynnwood streets around Alderwood mall. But the vast majority of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the region and the country have been peaceful.

In Snohomish, there were no broken windows, Kartak wrote, because “the men and women of our community came together to protect the city they love.”

“There will always be some bad actors on all sides trying to hijack an opportunity for their own motives,” Kartak added.

Some Snohomish council members have since distanced themselves from Kartak’s letter.

People armed with guns both brought alcohol and were served by local downtown businesses Sunday, in apparent defiance of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order closing drinking establishments amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogers said. Multiple alcohol violations were under investigation by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Snohomish police made one arrest Monday when a driver recklessly drifted and fish-tailed a pickup truck past a crowd of teenage protesters, as captured on a witness’ video.

A city council meeting began Tuesday night with a short briefing from the police chief, who is also a sheriff’s lieutenant. At the outset, elected leaders congratulated Rogers for deescalating the tensions. And then, three minutes at a time, citizens painted a different picture, late into the night. Some speakers wept.

The Snohomish City Council meets online last Tuesday. (City of Snohomish)

The Snohomish City Council meets online last Tuesday. (City of Snohomish)

“I went Sunday night for a walk, and I was scared, honestly,” said teacher Rochelle Feil Adamowsky, her voice cracking. “I saw what was going on downtown, and I was scared. I live here, I teach here, and I thought, ‘What mistake did I make moving to Snohomish?’ I bought a house here. I’ve started a life here, and I’m afraid to live here.”

Some open-carrying residents stood armed in downtown through the week. Adamowsky said she returned to Second Street and Avenue D on Monday to support protesting students and didn’t feel safe leaving them alone to walk the town’s main street.

“I was afraid one of us was going to get shot, because somebody was trigger-happy and wanted to just shoot somebody,” she said. “And I stood across from people blocking the sidewalk with their guns.”

Rachel Escoto said she was extremely disappointed in Kartak for encouraging gun-carrying defenders in his letter.

“I would like to understand why our law enforcement officers would cede security to armed vigilantes,” Escoto said.

She said the mayor “belittled” the protest’s purpose, and many people were now questioning their choice to live in Snohomish.

Tex Page, owner of Looking Glass Coffee, called what he saw on Sunday a terrorist occupation.

“If our police force can’t rid our streets of armed, known hate groups who are threatening our children, and have put a lot of us, I think, out of business — wait till the end of summer,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of doors closing. Our city may never recover from this.”

By the end of the evening, some council members were sobbing, too.

“I’m going to tell everybody that this is way more difficult than I ever imagined,” council president Jason Sanders said, fighting back tears. “… I have to tell you, I’m really questioning my ability to remain as a leader of this community. So I appreciate everybody’s comments, and I hope you know from my heart how hurt I am, and how much I denounce … what has occurred in this community.”

Council member Judith Kuleta cried and half-shouted into her computer screen.

“These people have hijacked our narrative, and I want to say I’m sorry to the whole community, I feel like I’ve let you down,” she said. “I have a minority child. I’m just really kind of disgusted with myself right now, because I should’ve stood out more.”

Protesters walk by Cathouse Pizza on First Street on Friday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Protesters walk by Cathouse Pizza on First Street on Friday in Snohomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

At a follow-up meeting Thursday night, council members allowed one minute of public comment per person in a Zoom chat room of more than 120 people.

“This has been a wake-up call,” Sanders began.

The council heard another hour of impassioned calls for change before the meeting was hijacked by an intruder “zoombombing” the chat, spewing racial slurs and death threats against black people.

‘We hear you’

On Snohomish’s main drag, the owner of Roger’s Riverview Bistro said he appreciated the civilian efforts to safeguard the city.

“Any people that came to do anything violent, they were deterred,” bistro owner and chef Roger Eydt said Thursday. “I felt like the community came together to protect our town. We weren’t going to let what happened in Seattle or other cities.”

Police had found the threat credible, and Eydt thanked the armed citizens.

“I think the town is safe and the guys did what they had to do to keep it safe,” Eydt said. “I see both sides of it, but nobody wants the violence and the destruction.”

A few blocks away at Looking Glass Coffee, Page said he initially feared for his business because of looting threats, but the real threat was vigilantes.

“It happened real fast and they just completely took over,” Page told The Herald on Friday. “One walk down the street and it was clear they were turning our street into a battleground.”

Page criticized the lack of action by police, saying it felt like law enforcement “teamed up” with the armed men. He also called for the mayor to resign. He has heard some First Street businesses are considering closing up shop.

“There is no insurance for bad publicity,” Page said.

Sheriff Fortney released a statement late last week to The Daily Herald as a series of messages to the groups involved in the Snohomish protests.

To anyone bringing hate, violence or racism: “You are not welcome.”

To anyone looking to come out and protect their town: “Please stay home and let us do our job to protect our communities.”

To peaceful protesters: “We support the constitutional right to peacefully protest, and not only do we support you, but we hear you, we see you and we stand with you. We do not want the voices of our community members to be silenced through fear or intimidation.”

After the interrupted Zoom meeting Thursday night, the seven Snohomish City Council members went into an executive session to write a letter denouncing bigotry.

“We hear you Snohomish,” the letter said. “We heard the outpouring from your heart Tuesday night in the council meeting. We ache to hear the stories of racism in our town. We heard the fear and intimidation from our children, justifiably afraid at present to walk our downtown. We heard your anguish for our town.”

Armed citizens stand along First Street to protect businesses from possible looters on Monday in Snohomish. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Armed citizens stand along First Street to protect businesses from possible looters on Monday in Snohomish. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The council was seeking suggestions to turn words into tangible actions.

“I don’t know what to say about becoming a destination place for intimidators and the Proud Boys and the white supremacists,” said council member Tom Merrill. “This is not who we want in our town, and I pledge to you that I’m going to work to ensure that they are not welcome here. I don’t know what that looks like yet. I’m open to ideas.”

On Friday, police closed First Street to protesters for about an hour, then opened it up again. Marchers waved signs bearing slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement, in a loop around two blocks of Snohomish’s historic downtown. Some carried signs urging Kartak to resign. A white flag with “Kartak Resign Now!!’ was placed outside city hall.

“We think that Mayor Kartak’s promotion, framing and entire attitude toward the true open acts of white supremacy and racism are unacceptable,” said David Comeaux, 25, the event’s organizer.

Along the route, Nathan Vrentas relaxed in a lawn chair in the back of his truck, beside a sign reading, “No Justice, No Peace.”

“What really got me wanting to be involved was when the high schooler got knocked out an hour before I arrived,” Vrentas said. Protesting “is a constitutional right. … Little high schoolers, 15, 16, 17 years old, should be safe to hold their signs out here.”

Across the street, gun-rights advocate Matthew Schmuck sat with buddies on a tailgate.

“We’re out here because you can’t have a First Amendment without the Second Amendment,” Schmuck said, “and you can’t have the Second Amendment without the First.”

The group was there to “protect everyone, including the protesters,” Schmuck said. He said he’d heard through the grapevine that there had been more threats of looting.

The mayor did not respond to a Daily Herald request for an interview. He made a brief statement at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The fact that so many people can come and speak up and speak their passions and speak their love for the whole community, makes this a wonderful place to live,” Kartak said. “And it makes my job to represent this community a blessing.”

Saturday morning, in a Facebook post, Kartak called the week’s citizen feedback a “focused attack on our community, on our police chief, and on myself.”

“If 50 to 100 people in and around this community wish to paint me as disrespectful, a hater, a bully, and a racist, then so be it,” Kartak wrote. But he regretted the criticism of Chief Rogers, saying he handled the week’s events well and “may very well be the most exemplary and honorable man I know.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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