Officials began clearing a sprawling homeless camp at city hall after protesters broke into the building, occupied the lobby and forced the evacuation of the mayor last week.
BELLINGHAM, WA (CN) — Crews in Bellingham, Washington, cleared out a sprawling homeless camp on city grounds Thursday, a week after protesters opposed to the sweep broke into city hall and harassed journalists covering the demonstration.
Live media coverage showed dozens of police officers in riot gear providing a security barricade for the crews, who used excavators to remove structures and debris.
The city had notified people at the encampment on Tuesday that they had until 4 p.m. Friday to clear out, but began removing them a day early. City officials did not say why they moved up the deadline.
Judge David Grant of Whatcom County District Court issued an emergency order Thursday closing the court, which is located next to city hall.
“This Court finds that a civil disturbance presently occurring in areas outside and adjacent to the courthouse poses a threat to the safety and welfare of litigants, counsel, employees, and members of the public seeking access to the Court,” the order stated.
The cleanup was originally scheduled for Friday, Jan. 22, but dozens of protesters used cars to block the streets around the encampment, pried open the doors of city hall, which has been closed due to Covid-19, and entered the lobby.
Bellingham Police rushed Democratic Mayor Seth Fleetwood out of the building and the protesters later left. No arrests were made.
“They banged on the door and we got word they had somehow broken it open and were entering, and I was advised to leave,” Fleetwood told Seattle television station KIRO.
He said the situation was “unsettling.”
“Circumstances at City Hall and the Library lawn are entirely untenable, escalated largely by protesters and outside agitators who are not residents of the encampment. Their actions are a disservice to people who are experiencing homelessness and putting them at increased risk,” Fleetwood said in a statement about the Jan. 22 protest.
KGMI radio journalist Joe Teehan said he was attacked by protesters on public property while covering the demonstration and someone threw hot chocolate in his face and spray-painted him, according to local reporting.
“We’ve had protests in Bellingham and I’ve never seen anyone act that way,” he said.
Officials notified around 100 campers on Jan. 19 that tents would no longer be allowed within 25 feet of city hall starting Jan. 22.
“The situation is complex, challenging and dynamic. We are actively engaged in the urgent work of creating the conditions to end the encampment, with the safety of all — campers, volunteers, City employees, and members of the public — of paramount concern. The City is continually working, along with Whatcom County and other partners, on short- and long-term solutions to providing safe shelter for those experiencing homelessness,” a statement posted on the Bellingham city website stated.
Fleetwood called the conditions at the camp “deplorable,” at a city council meeting Jan. 25.
Bellingham Occupied Protest Mutual Aid, a homeless advocacy group, said the encampment was a response to Bellingham’s ordinance allowing police to sweep camps.
“The encampment began with just five tents on the City Hall lawn. When Bellingham Police issued an eviction notice, non-compliant with the City’s 24-hour notice policy, the call went out on social media to occupy, stopping the sweep. Along with local activists, community members experiencing houselessness have gathered at City Hall in a display of solidarity,” an online statement by the group states.
Thursday morning, the group posted a call for volunteers on Facebook, saying “bodies” were needed now at the camp.
“Not a drill folks. THIS IS STATE VIOLENCE. The cops have completely shut off road access to camp and are surrounding the area. They are entering with excavators and are manning the second story of city hall. BODIES NEEDED NOW.”
The city plans on removing all structures and tents, garbage, litter and “personal property that is left within the 25-foot area,” according to the cleanup notice.