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The events of Jan. 6, 2021, in Olympia began about noon, at about the same moment the nation watched a crowd of election deniers smash windows in the U.S. Capitol building, violently breach defenses, and nearly stop the certification of the election while members of Congress sheltered in place.
Sowersby said that at first, the protest on the legislative building’s north steps was energetic, but not unusually so.
“It started off pretty normal,” she said, but noted that as people in the crowd became more aware of events in Washington, D.C., the tone began to change. “They started making all these claims of election fraud, and it started getting more and more heated.”
Tensions in Olympia had actually been simmering for more than a month prior. Armed groups of right-leaning protesters regularly expressed concern about the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and unfounded accusations of election fraud. They clashed with left-leaning protesters during several weekends in early December. Sowersby witnessed a shooting on the state capitol campus on Dec. 12, 2020.
She said members of the Proud Boys and leftist anti-fascist groups had been brawling that afternoon, and when some of the leftist protesters began hurling rocks at a member of the Proud Boys who was trying to get into his car, he opened fire.
“It didn’t even seem like he was aiming at anything,” she said. “He kind of shot wildly into this group of people.” One protester was shot, but survived. “It was quite something to see someone that pale and bleeding out. And people trying to get him into a car and to the hospital. It was crazy.”
Loftis said the State Patrol had to activate its rapid deployment force on or near the capitol campus 13 times in response to armed and clashing protesters from the onset of COVID restrictions in early 2020 until the events of Jan. 6.
“I don’t want to be dismissive,” he said, “but Jan. 6 wasn’t a period at the end of the sentence, but an exclamation point in the middle of a paragraph.” He said the level of violent activity hadn’t been seen in the capital since the 1960s or perhaps ever.
That violence was definitely on Sowersby’s mind when some of the speakers at the Jan. 6 rally started using more strident language. Joey Gibson, a Clark county resident and founder of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, spoke to the crowd, Sowersby said, telling protesters about claims of election fraud, and, she said, “how the media’s in on this and they think you’re stupid – really getting the crowd riled up.”
Sowersby said that at about 2:45, the final speaker, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a well-known right wing activist also from Clark County, urged the crowd to march toward the governor’s mansion.
It was about this time that one protester who had earlier fired up the crowd by telling them “The time to talk is over, they’re storming the Capitol, it’s war now,” shouted out something about killing all the reporters there. “And everybody in the crowd cheered,” Sowersby said.
The protesters, armed with everything from assault rifles to a baseball bat studded with nails, arrived at the gates of the governor’s mansion and began shaking the iron fence. Eventually the crowd realized a door in the gate was unlocked, opened it and streamed into the grounds below the mansion.
Only a handful of state troopers were on hand, and Sowersby remembers one woman officer being surrounded by the crowd and then managing to retreat back toward the mansion.
It was around this time that Sowersby was confronted by Damon Huseman, an armed protester from Seattle who had earlier confronted another journalist and photographer and made threatening statements to other members of the media. Huseman was later arrested, and in March 2021 pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, criminal trespass and harassment.
The crowd shouted at the officers stationed at the doors of the mansion, Sowersby said, and after being questioned by several protesters and fearing for her safety, she moved away from the protesters to join a group of other journalists. By about 3:15, she remembers, more police arrived and the crowd began to disperse.
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