BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Protesters broke into City Hall in Bellingham on Friday, forcing the mayor to be escorted out of the building for safety.
Mayor Seth Fleetwood said it is impossible to ignore the parallels to the storming of the Washington D.C. Capitol Building on Jan. 6.
“It was unsettling,” Fleetwood said. “They banged on the door and we got word they had somehow broken it open and were entering, and I was advised to leave,” he said. Fleetwood said he was ushered out a back door and driven away from the building to his car.
Fleetwood said he was not immediately sure if protestors caused any damage inside the building, other than a broken lock.
Video from inside City Hall also shows protesters ripped down an American flag outside the building, and people stomping on the flag before a man dragged the flag away.
Protesters said online they were there to advocate for the homeless who are staying at a large encampment of about 100 tents outside City Hall. Posts in the Facebook group “BOP Mutual Aid” and the Instagram page “Whatcom Focused Youth Movement” called for people to gather. It’s not clear if those causing trouble were part of either group.
As for the controversy over the growing homeless encampment, Fleetwood said the city’s plan on Friday was to ask everyone staying at the camp to move 25 feet away from buildings.
Several fires, including a small propane tank explosion, plus county employees being harassed, prompted the City of Bellingham to start taking steps towards getting the encampment to clear.
Fleetwood said services were being offered to those staying at the camp, but the conditions at the encampment were not safe for the homeless community, nor for employees and residents nearby.
“We seek a peaceful end to this encampment and if there is confrontation, we will not be the aggressors,” Fleetwood said.
The size of the crowd varied, from about 50 people to a maximum of about 150 people at one point.
KGMI radio journalist Joe Teehan went to check out the situation around 9:30 a.m. Friday and said shortly after, the protesters got hostile.
“There were shouts of, ‘He’s taking unauthorized photos, he’s invading privacy.’ Pretty soon I was surrounded by a fairly good number of people,” Teehan said.
Protesters spray-painted him and someone threw a hot chocolate in his face. Another person stole his microphone.
“They started grabbing at my equipment, and I started to back away and one person grabbed my mic and I lost that in the crowd. They were grabbing at my iPad and trying to get that,” Teehan said.
“I’ve never experienced that kind of belligerence,” Teehan said. “We’ve had protests in Bellingham and I’ve never seen anyone act that way,” he said.
Teehan said he was doing OK and was not hurt, though he was shaken up by the incident.
As for the future of the camp, Fleetwood said they will continue to offer people services and try to get those staying there to leave voluntarily. He again said the plan is to get the camp cleared by the end of January.
“This (protest) is not going to deter the city’s plan?” KIRO7′s Deedee Sun asked.
“No. If anything, it hardens my resolve,” Fleetwood said.