As Protests Spread, States Tread Carefully to Avoid Inflaming Extremists

By: - April 21, 2020 12:00 am

Hundreds of protesters gather around the Capitol in Olympia, Washington, to demonstrate against coronavirus-related restrictions. In the Northwest, where anti-government militia groups have long had a presence, states have largely ignored outspoken activists who are openly defying stay-at-home orders. Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/The Associated Press

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SEATTLE — As enraged protesters swarm state capitols and prominent militia leaders boast about gathering in large numbers, states are doing little to crack down on the anti-government groups that are defying stay-at-home orders.

Trackers say extremist groups of all types are using the pandemic to foment misinformation, stoke anger against the government or prepare to take advantage of breakdowns in society. Many of the protesters don’t belong to such groups. Nevertheless, state and local officials fear that any action to stop the demonstrations on public health grounds could inflame radicals who have a broader anti-government agenda.

“That sure is a delicate (or volatile) topic,” Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, wrote in an email. 

Faulk directed specific questions about suspected violators to law enforcement agencies, but he added that Inslee, a Democrat, “has said it isn’t really the powers of government that will slow the spread as much as the choices of each individual.” Faulk added that an already dysfunctional political climate has hampered the response to the pandemic, and called on President Donald Trump to “tamp down” misinformation.

Trump has tweeted calls to “liberate” some states that are under stay-at-home orders.

Chris Loftis, communications director for the Washington State Patrol, said last week that the agency prefers education to active enforcement when possible and said he hoped protesters would follow the guidelines of public health experts. News reports indicate Sunday’s 2,000-strong crowd in Olympia, many of them armed, mostly disregarded safety measures such as masks and social distancing, but state troopers did not intervene.

“It is a tightrope that has to be walked,” said Randy Blazak, an extremist group researcher who is chairman of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime. “It’s Waco all over again, but with an added viral component.”

The 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas, resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and 82 members of the religious sect.

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.