Police fully equipped in riot gear formed strategic barriers as front lines of sign-waving, banner-bearing sides were formed.
Southeast 240th Street on East Hill, busy with midday traffic, became an asphalt strip of separation.
A large, contentious demonstration – pro-choice supporters on one side of the street, pro-life activists on the other and black-clad anti-fascists positioned in the middle and nearby – took root for several hours outside the tree-shaded and closed-for-business-on-Saturday Planned Parenthood – Kent Valley Health Center.
Opponents exchanged antagonistic words, emphatic messages and lyrical chants, defending and promoting their positions, but no stones were thrown. Verbally heated, the rally waned with time.
Police reported no arrests.
A skirmish broke out but was quickly dissolved, according to one faction. A man, a counter-protester, was pepper-sprayed as police kept the peace for demonstrators pacing the sidewalks.
“That’s what we all want. We want to be heard,” said one pro-life demonstrator. “We want to come here and do this peacefully.”
There has been trouble before at this spot. Kent Police arrested a 21-year-old Auburn man for investigation of assault and malicious mischief after he reportedly struck a man with an umbrella and destroyed a sign during a protest outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic on April 28.
Anticipating a big turnout and bracing for any unrest at Saturday’s rally, the Kent Police Civil Disturbance Unit tapped into the regional Valley Civil Disturbance Unit (VCDU), which consists of officers from Tukwila, Auburn, Federal Way, Renton and Port of Seattle police departments. SWAT and bicycle police officers from several agencies also were called in for the demonstration.
Police, alerted by social media outlets and acting on a proactive playbook, had this one contained.
“We had a pretty good plan of action put into place and were able to get the whole situation and area pretty much under control,” Kent Police Det. Melanie Robinson said from a VCDU command post established at East Hill Elementary School. “There was some chaos … but realistically, the teams worked appropriately, and that’s what they were trained to do.
“We knew going into this that there was going to be zero tolerance and arrests would be made if necessary.”
Not all were pleased.
Peter Ruhm, of Seattle, who represents a multi-group coalition defending women’s reproductive freedom, among other stances, wanted his early-arriving group to occupy space in front of the Planned Parenthood facility, but pro-life demonstrators wedged their way in. The pro-choice camp settled across the street.
“That’s the police’s design,” Ruhm said of dividing the crowd. “They try to barricade the far-right groups away from us, usually to protect the far-right groups it seems.”
The rally was a far cry from the one that turned violent in Portland, Ore., only a week ago, when alt-left antifa activists – a conglomeration of autonomous, self-styled anti-fascist groups – stormed a rally organized by Patriot Prayer, an Oregon-based right-wing group. Some hurled bottles and fireworks at police officers while others were caught with knives and other weapons.
Saturday’s rally in Kent attracted a small group from Patriot Prayer and its founder, Joey Gibson, a Republican candidate who is challenging Maria Cantwell, the incumbent Democrat, for the U.S. Senate seat in this year’s election.
Outnumbered, Gibson and anti-abortion supporters held a group prayer in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic as pro-choice, feminists and human rights supporters shouted across the street. He and his group then turned on amplified mics and speakers to fire back messages.
Gibson said his group of protesters are elderly and are often met by counter-protesters who are much younger and act aggressively toward them.
Patriot Prayer – which led the pro-life rally Saturday – claims its main purpose is to defend free speech and the First Amendment. They are calling on the government to defund Planned Parenthood.
As it has at similar “free speech” rallies throughout the region, Gibson’s group demonstrated vehemently against abortion.
“We stand up to what we believe in,” Gibson said. “I hate politics, but one of the reasons I’m running (for the Senate) is I want to protect innocent life. A baby has no voice. …
“It’s good to be out here and to stand with other people who are courageous enough to stand next to me and stand against all these protesters,” he said.
But to do so peacefully, he insisted.
“It’s the conflict. Diversity of thought is what it is,” he said of the demonstrations, symptomatic of a divided country. “We all have different beliefs … the way we were raised, the way we grew up spiritually. … It’s a constant back and forth, winning the hearts and minds of the American people.”
Ruhm said several groups spontaneously organized the counter-protest rally and hopes such efforts will continue.
Christina Lopez, with Radical Women, a socialist feminist organization, said her groups’ message was clearly delivered Saturday. It was more than just standing up and protecting a woman’s reproductive choice, she said.