Content warning: violence, extreme racism. Updates and corrections: see end of article.
Ad hoc militia leader Dylan Tafoya stood alongside Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg this morning and vowed to protesters that his members would not come armed to this weekend’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Hours later, a member of Tafoya’s “Defend the Tri” group named Brandon Bourne was arrested by Richland police for intimidating protestors with a firearm:
"Richland Officers responded to a report of a male brandishing a firearm in John Dam Plaza during the peaceful protest. Investigation revealed the male allegedly brandished a firearm during a verbal disturbance with several individuals.
Former Richland City Council Member Dori Luzzo-Gilmour participated in today’s protest at Jon Dam Plaza and witnessed the incident. She said Bourne was among at least three people who showed up at the protest with weapons.
Luzzo-Gilmour said Bourne was antagonizing protestors and shouting, "White Lives Matter! All Lives Matter!" and growing increasingly aggressive. Eventually, she said, a protestor came over and began to shout back directly at him.
“Next thing you know, he holds his gun at waist level, drifting it back and forth,” she said.
“Then (someone) ran over and yelled, ‘Put your gun away! Put your gun away!’” said Luzzo-Gilmour. Soon after that she said Bourne was apprehended by the police.
Defend the Tri no longer lists Bourne as a member, but screenshots taken by a member showed he was still a member of the group hours prior to showing up at Jon Dam Plaza, where he was ultimately arrested.
Screenshots show Bourne asking the Defend the Tri group about state laws regarding carrying firearms and saying “I want to get down to business with y’all” mere hours before he was taken into custody by police.
Defend the Tri was started Monday afternoon by Tafoya with the intent to “(defend) local business(es) from violent protesting.” Today the group has 6,000 members.
The group emerged out of a discussion started by Tafoya in the Facebook group Reopen Tri-Cities, which was archived Thursday after a large number from that group joined the Defend the Tri group.
The group was created as a response to rumors emerging daily about people being bussed to the Tri-Cities to violently riot and loot.
One post shared read: “Friends and family, regardless of your personal beliefs, please stay home tonight/this evening. Confirmed there are protesters (likely violent protesters and rioters and looters) are being bussed over here to carry out the current BLM movement.”
When asked about how this was “confirmed”, the person who posted the message above said: “I spoke to my sister who has political friends and she let me know. I can not say 100% that these people are coming. But that is what I am being told...”
Earlier this week, a member of the Tri-Cities Justice for George Facebook group who lives in the small town of Sunnyside said, “I just went to Walmart and was told they are closing early. They got a call saying the rioters from Tri-Cities are on their way.”
At the time of this post, there had been no rioters in the Tri-Cities. There still have been no rioters in the Tri-Cities.
This constant rumor mill is not just happening here in the Tri-Cities.
“All over the Pacific Northwest, there’s been traveling ‘fourth hand rumors,’ as this piece from the paper in Sisters, Oregon, puts it, that roving bands of protesters (specifically: Antifa) are coming to towns to ravage the downtown,” said Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen, who has been researching the phenomenon, with no actual instances of rioters being bussed in to destroy small city downtowns.
But what has been very real is innocent people have been stalked, harrassed, and intimidated by people seeking to root out these mysterious roving rural rioters.
A biracial family from Spokane headed to camp near Forks was confronted at a store and asked if they were “Antifa.” Despite their denials, the family was followed, and later heard gunshots and chainsaws, only to find that trees had been cut down to block them from leaving the campsite.
Earlier this week, Javan Williams live-streamed a tense encounter with a group from Defend the Tri holding weapons, surrounding his car, and blocking him from entering a parking lot. Meanwhile, a car full of white people was allowed to enter the parking lot.
All week, social media, protestors, and community members have expressed grave concern about these militia groups and their behavior, which multiple anonymous sources said made them feel less safe in the Tri-Cities than they ever have.
One supporter of the protests described the chilling effect the militia groups are having on free speech: “I was planning on joining the protest for justice, tomorrow, but events of the last two days, and comments on this page, lead me to believe there will be violence perpetrated by opportunists, which will then involve law enforcement and more violence. In my younger years, I experienced tear gas, hand cuffs and jail, protesting inequality and police brutality, but I won’t do it now. I support the protests.” Other commenters said they felt the same.
Poet, author, and speaker Jordan Chaney created a video pleading with community leaders and media not to accept and normalize the behavior of the militia groups, which he described as white supremacist in valuing protecting “overalls and lawnmowers” more than the lives of Black people.
In addition to their public show of force in Tri-Cities parking lots, posts have been made to the Defend the Tri group sharing jokes about running over protestors and killing looters.
In the press conference this morning, Tafoya said anyone making violent statements would be removed from the Defend the Tri group.
While Tafoya earnestly spoke this morning about his desire for Defend the Tri to serve as a peaceful deterrent from violent behavior and that they would not be attending protests armed, he left the door open by saying that they would come to protect businesses if they were asked to do so.
Other local militia groups have also popped up online beyond Defend the Tri. Defend the Tri Always is a public group with some members reporting having been removed from Defend the Tri.
In addition, the Twitter account @TriCityMilitia claims to be connected to local militia group was set to private today.
Prior to taking the account private, scores of screenshots revealed multiple violent and racist posts and replies.
In response to this week’s events, community organizer and Tumbleweird poetry editor Afrose Ahmed wrote a public letter and petition based on her discussions with attorneys who indicated Washington State law makes it clear that it is illegal for armed militias to organize in public.
The letter refers to Washington State RCW 38.40.120, which says:
Authorized military organizations No organized body other than the recognized militia organizations of this state, armed forces of the United States, students of educational institutions where military science is a prescribed part of the course of instruction or bona fide veterans organizations shall associate themselves together as a military company or organize or parade in public with firearms: PROVIDED, That nothing herein shall be construed to prevent authorized parades by the organized militia of another state or armed forces of foreign countries. Any person participating in any such unauthorized organization shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
The letter also explains the prohibition in Washington State law is indeed constitutional:
The Supreme Court has reiterated that the Second Amendment, “does not prevent the prohibition of private paramilitary organizations.” District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 621 (2008).
Ahmed’s letter says the cities and counties are ultimately liable for taking an amicable stance toward the behavior of these groups and for allowing them to create displays which have intimidated people throughout the community:
The Second Amendment does not allow for the activities that are specifically prohibited by RCW § 38.40.120 and which have been validated by the words and deeds of law enforcement officials this past week.
The letter also threatens legal action against the cities and counties if they do not address the behavior of these militias.
Should the police and sheriff departments of your various cities and counties allow these armed gangs to attend peaceful free speech demonstrations, we will be suing the cities and counties involved for violating our civil rights.
Full disclosure: Afrose Ahmed’s letter was also co-signed by the author of this piece and Tumbleweird contributor John Roach.
Updates and corrections: An earlier version of this story included an eye-witness account that Bourne pointed his gun at the crowd. The Richland Police have said that he did not point his gun at the crowd. An earlier version included a statement from an eye witness who referred to the person who said "Put your gun away!" as his friend. Other witnesses said it was a protester who shouted for Bourne to put his gun away. The article was amended accordingly to say 'someone'.