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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

'Let my people go.' Opponents of stay home order rally at Washington Capitol

For the second time in a month, opponents of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s extended “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order – many of them openly carrying firearms -- rallied at the state Capitol Saturday in an event that brought together sign-waving citizens, conservative state legislators, Republican and Libertarian candidates for public office and members of far right groups.

The unpermitted “Hazardous Liberty” event, which drew an estimated 1,500 people and stretched on for more than four hours, was smaller than a previous protest in April, but no less defiant in its message.

“How about, Governor Inslee, you stay in your nice little mansion there with your mask on all alone like ‘Bubble Boy’ and the rest of us are going to be brave Americans and love hazardous liberty,” thundered embattled Republican state Rep. Matt Shea before leading the crowd in a chant of “freedom.” 

The rally, which also featured Joey Gibson of the pro-Trump group Patriot Prayer and several gubernatorial candidates, was held in violation of Inslee’s ban on large gatherings and came even as the governor begins a phased reopening of the economy which he is calling his "Safe Start" plan.

To date, under Phase One, the Democratic governor has given the green light to a range of businesses and activities, including curbside retail, car washes, landscaping, existing construction and outdoor recreation. On Friday, Inslee also announced that five smaller population eastern Washington counties with low COVID-19 rates could advance to Phase Two which allows, among other things, for restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity. Inslee has said the state could advance through his four-phase plan on an every-three-week schedule, presuming the virus doesn’t flare up again.

But for many at the rally, the governor – who several speakers lambasted as a "king" -- isn’t moving quickly enough to restart the economy, even as the state continues to combat the virus that causes COVID-19.

“It’s not fast enough,” said Charles Eakins, a software engineer and two-time Mukilteo city council candidate who carried a “FIRE INSLEE” sign. “I don’t want to see my fellow Washingtonians without work, it’s getting ridiculous.”

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Charles Eakins, a software engineer who was briefly laid off, was among those who attended the "Hazardous Liberty" rally. He said Gov. Jay Inslee isn't moving quickly enough to reopen the economy.

Inslee’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the event at the Capitol. On Saturday, the state reported an additional 286 COVID-19 cases and 16 more deaths.

Also among those protesting was Terrisa Remmers, a dog groomer from southwest Washington who carried a sign that read, “I’m a non-essential Business. I’m Still WORKING.” Remmers said she has kept her business open, while taking extra precautions, in violation of Inslee’s orders.

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Terrisa Remmers has been operating her dog grooming business in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee's order shuttering nonessential businesses. "I will not lose my business of 31 years," Remmers said at Saturday's rally.

“When he said the marijuana stores and liquor stores were essential, I knew right then that this isn’t about essential businesses,” Remmers said. “I will not lose my business of 31 years because he’s telling me I’m nonessential.”

Liquor stores that sell food and cannabis retailers, which also serve medicinal marijuana customers, are included in a list of businesses deemed essential by the state. 

A strong anti-Inslee sentiment pervaded the rally. At one point, one of the speakers paused and the crowd cheered as a small plane flew overhead pulling a banner that read: “INSLEE IS NONESSENTIAL.”

On the ground, pro-Trump signs and signs like “INSLEE IS AN IDIOT” and “LET MY PEOPLE GO” were ubiquitous, but face masks were not. Nor did many protesters practice social distancing. In fact, hugs and handshakes were a common sight and, as a long roster of speakers clambered onto a makeshift stage, they held a mic that was not sanitized between speeches.

A common theme among attendees was that COVID-19 does not pose a significant threat, despite nearly 80,000 deaths nationally and more than 900 in Washington in just a matter of months.

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Patrick Frees, a union lineman, attended Saturday's rally with his young family. Frees said he thinks the COVID-19 threat has been "blown out of proportion."

“Personally, I think that this whole thing has been blown out of proportion,” said Patrick Frees, a union lineman with a pistol on his hip who brought his young family to the event.

That view was shared by Jordan, who wouldn’t give her last name, of Puyallup who attended the rally with her husband and four children. None of them wore masks.

“We’re not wearing masks at the store either, we’re flying to Florida next week for a wedding. I think the young and healthy people are who need to create herd immunity,” Jordan said.

The concept of herd immunity to COVID-19, which public health experts have warned is a “dangerous misconception” at this early stage in the virus, was also touted by Republican state Rep. Vicki Kraft, who has a background in business, but not healthcare. 

“The majority of people in Washington, if they get coronavirus, they will recover. They will have the antibodies and most likely will be immune from any coronavirus in the future. That is herd immunity,” Kraft said to applause. “So why are they keeping everybody isolated? What absolute garbage.”

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Republican state Reps. Vicki Kraft, in pink, and Matt Shea, in the blue blazer, were among the speakers at Saturday's "Hazardous Liberty" event.

Most public health experts say the safest way to achieve herd immunity is through the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, something that could be months away. Scientists also say it’s unclear how long antibodies might protect someone from the coronavirus. 

Other speakers and participants warned of forced vaccinations and mandatory contact tracing -- something that has not been discussed by Washington state officials.

On the lawn of the state Capitol, one man in a red "KEEP AMERICA GREAT" hat who wouldn’t identify himself set up a sprawling display of brown cardboard signs. One read, “SAY NO TO GATES VACCINE AND QUANTUM TATTOO,” which were references to billionaire Bill Gates’ effort, through the Gates Foundation, to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and to an MIT-developed under-the-skin tattoo that could carry a person’s vaccinations records. 

Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
This man, who would not give his name, set up cardboard signs on the Capitol lawn warning of government tracking to stem the spread of COVID-19.

While fierce opposition to Inslee’s orders and rhetoric about government overreach were the overarching themes of the event, the hours-long rally featured a mashup of issues and pet causes, including support for term limits, opposition to mandatory sex education and warnings of a potential state income tax.

The rally also featured an intriguing political dynamic. One of the co-organizers and the emcee of the event was Matt Marshall, an Eatonville School Board member and leader in the Three Percenters militia movement, who is running against House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox. Several of the speakers Marshall invited to the stage, which was adorned with his and other campaign signs, were members of Wilcox’s caucus, although not Shea who was suspended from the caucus last December. 

Wilcox has previously said his members are independently elected and free to make their own decisions about participating in public events, including those held in defiance of the governor’s orders.

While not permitted and in clear violation of Inslee’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, the Washington State Patrol, which had an extensive presence, allowed the event to take place and made no arrests, according to an agency spokesperson.

This story has been updated. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."