October 19, 2021 Dena Jensen
Materials that were responsive to a number of recent public records requests obtained from the City of Bellingham, and one request from Whatcom County, provide insights into notable communications strategies of existing City staff, the mayor’s office, and some City Council Members regarding many of the winter’s events related to homelessness. On some of these matters, communications were being coordinated between the City and County executive branches.
Based on information contained in those materials, an important question arises regarding future actions of folks newly stepping up to run, or those continuing on to serve their community in public office: will they take action to eliminate government approaches that view or portray individuals and community organizations serving people in crisis as adversaries?
Chapter Four: The City Council Members
[Editor’s note: all redactions in this chapter are provided by the editor in the interest of not providing specific names of private persons considered unnecessary to the integrity of this review.]
During the Bellingham City Council’s public comment period at their February 22, 2021 regular Council meeting, a community member read the demands that were current at that time, that had been posted on social media by Bellingham Occupied Protest Mutual Aid, also known as BOP Mutual Aid.
One of the demand talking points that City Council members listened to over Zoom that night was:
“BPD and COB have used the intentional verbiage of ‘outside agitators‘ to isolate members of our community and ignore the validity of our demands. Historically this term has been used by white supremacists and segregationists to justify their violent actions.”
Numerous news reports were published after a news briefing held by Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and Bellingham Police Department Chief Flo Simon on January 28, 2021 – the day the City of Bellingham evicted unsheltered community members from the City grounds surrounding 210 Lottie Street – which referenced the officials’ remarks related to outside agitators.
Mayor Fleetwood, specifically, had stated that day:
Tensions flared further during a confrontation last Friday, when intentional agitators joined peaceful protestors as we tried to clear a safety zone around City Hall. The actions of these agitators, many of whom we believe came from outside of Bellingham, were a disservice to people who are experiencing homelessness and put them at increased risk.
Additionally, the Mayor had previously sent his assertion about intentional agitators in a January 26, 2021 email to all City of Bellingham employees, two days before the sweep of Camp 210 on January 28.
Incidents surrounding City Council Members’ fear of agitators
In reviewing emails of Bellingham City Council Members during late 2020 and early 2021 that were included in public records provided by the City of Bellingham, it appears that the implications related to the intensified focus on agitators did have a note-worthy impact on these officials.
On top of City officials broadcasting that they feared people were coming in from outside the area to render harm, a few physical confrontations between protesters and media, and between protesters and counter protesters, offered to contribute an assumption of threat and violence in regard to BOP Mutual Aid by people, including City Council Members, who were unaware, or in denial, of all the aspects of cause and effect of related events at that time.
Negotiations to develop low-barrier sheltering options between Mayor Fleetwood and members of the Collective of volunteers serving Camp 210 – sometimes identified as BOP or BMAC – fell apart in the month of January 2021. By January 22, members of the Collective anticipated a sweep of Camp 210 when camp residents were called by the City to move their belongings so that they weren’t within 25 feet of the City Hall building, or on the sidewalks, bricks, or stairs.
In the early months of 2021, the Bellingham Mayor’s Office worked with City agencies, including the Bellingham Police Department, toward publicizing upcoming actions and carrying those out, that would repeatedly displace community members who were unsheltered and sleeping outside during the winter of 2021.
During this same period, it was going into the third and fourth months of volunteers serving hundreds of unsheltered community members day and night. Scant support was being offered by government agencies at that time, to the people living outdoors in the camps at 210 Lottie, and later, Geri Fields, towards ensuring hygiene, health, and other critical services during the pandemic.
Only the Swift Haven tiny home community, serving 28 people, was belatedly added by local governments to winter sheltering options. Outside of the City’s week-long warming shelter that operated in early February, no 24/7 drop-in emergency sheltering options were ever provided, besides those that were under the control of Lighthouse Mission Ministries.
Additionally, Bellingham City staff members were strategizing about actions they would take to limit or eliminate public comment coming from those protesting the scarcity of housing and sheltering options being offered by the City and Whatcom County.
It was under these conditions that volunteers, who were collectively working to provide triage aid and community support to individuals sleeping at 210 Lottie St. and Geri Fields, publicized some of their intended actions in response.
BPD‘s Chief Simon supports face-to-face counter protest
On March 11, 2021, BPD’s Public Information Officer, Lieutenant Claudia Murphy sent an email to the department’s chief, Flo Simon and other BPD personnel. In the email she alerted Chief Simon and others to a Facebook post made by BOP Mutual Aid. The graphic attached to the email announced, “Housing For All! March on Seth Fleetwood,” and gave a date and time for the event that would be meeting at Lowell Elementary School, as the starting point for a march. Demands were noted as “Amnesty! Housing! No Sweeps!” The final message on the graphic was to “Bring Chalk and Noisemakers.”
Two days later, on March 13, 2021 at 4:32 p.m., a few hours after people were to have met for the march, Chief Simon sent an email to BPD’s group email address, with the subject line, “Fwd: Mayor’s House Protest.” In the email Chief Simon stated:
Thank you to all participated in today’s event!! All the neighbors I spoke to were very appreciative of our efforts.
I was impressed by the neighbors that turned out to say enough is enough!!
The Mayor was very appreciative as well and very receptive to our recommendations.
Stay safe, Flo
This position of choosing sides between one set of protesters and a set of counter protesters, seems to run contrary to public-facing approaches to protesters taken by other police departments in Whatcom County in the summer of 2020. What’s more, when protesters supporting Black lives, and pro-police counter protesters showed up in Lynden and Ferndale, there were conflicts and harassment which occurred when the two protesting groups were, in general, positioned at least as far as across the street from each other.
Across the U.S., examples of opposing protesting groups clashing at events in the same location, in some cases causing tragic physical assaults and deaths, had been very visible during and immediately following the Trump presidency. In light of this, advice was given by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and media commentary, that counter protesting should occur in a different location – and preferably on a different date – as an opposing protest.
Yet, in this case, Bellingham City Council Member Lisa Anderson and many community members in the neighborhood where Mayor Fleetwood resided received encouragement and approval from Chief Simon for their March 13 counter protest – described as a “protective line” in The Bellingham Herald – that put them in direct contact with the opposing protest at Mayor Fleetwood’s home.
City Council Members’ concerns over BOP Mutual Aid
This resulted in instances where information was shared about BOP Mutual Aid by City Council Members which expressed these officials’ positions and reactions that ranged from concern, to distress, to defiance in the emails they sent out. Some of these emails were sent to each other, some to other City officials – including BPD leadership – and some to members of the public.
On March 17, 2021, at 9:42 a.m., City Council Member Hollie Huthman sent the email, below, to Council Member Anderson, expressing her concerns :
Subject: Re: concern about BOP posting
As someone who’s also been charged and yelled at by protestors recently, you don’t deserve that. It’s completely unacceptable that you and [redacted] were treated that way. I also worry that the misinformation campaign and fire stoking surrounding all of this will influence the wrong person. And I have no idea how to combat that, at this point. I think we need help. Thank you for the email.
Bellingham City Council At-Large
Note: My incoming and outgoing e-mail messages are subject to public disclosure requirements per RCW 42.56
During the March 22, 2021 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, in a discussion near the end of the meeting, City Council Member Lisa Anderson shared her perspective that the Collective of volunteers serving the homeless encampments at 210 Lottie and Geri Fields, was harassing people. She stated the following, in part:
I want to share that when my husband and I stood in front of Seth’s house for this protest – went to go protest in front of his house – my husband was assaulted. Someone took a pole and smacked him up the center of the head for standing there. And we did file. We just recently filed a report on that. And he hesitated to do that because of fear of my safety. He didn’t want to report it because his wife is a Council Member and he was afraid it would put a target on our house and it would put a target on me.”
In an email exchange between Council Member Anderson and Chief Simon related to Anderson’s personal account of her experiences and those of her husband at the protest on March 13, she also expressed concerns about a post she said had been made by BOP Mutual Aid.
The post, as shared by Anderson in a Wednesday, March 17, 2021 12:42 a.m. email to Chief Simon, Mayor Fleetwood and Council Member Gene Knutson, does not currently appear on BOP Mutual Aid’s Facebook page, but there is a similar post from March 16, 2021 by the bopmutualaid account on Instagram, with a single graphic attached that had been among the graphics reportedly included on the post Anderson had shared in her email. The text of the post reads:
“‼️ FUCK YOUR SWEEPS ‼️
DISMANTLE WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE CITY OF BELLINGHAM.
WHEN THEIR WHITE SUPREMACY CONTINUOUSLY OBSTRUCTS LIVES, THERE’S NO CHOICE BUT TO DISTURB THEIRS.
DEMAND #1: AMNESTY FOR ALL PROTESTORS.
DEMAND #2: PERMANENT, NO-BARRIER HOUSING FOR ALL.
DEMAND #3: NOT ONE MORE SWEEP.
Chief Simon Replied to Council Member Anderson in the email below:
Thank you for your e-mail. Have you talked [redacted] in to making a report?
I agree with you that this is too far and needs to stop. While I support peaceful protests and First amendment rights – these marches have been anything but peaceful. They always advertise when they are going to march somewhere so if that happens we will be changing our tactics. I am requesting extra patrols for council members homes that are being listed and targeted. I’m also requesting that Facebook remove all those posts – not sure how much cooperation we’ll get but it’s worth a try.
Thanks for being at the Mayors house and seeing it first hand. I was at Lowell Elementary school and watched them all assemble and march around the block before going up to the Mayor’s house.
Bellingham Police Department
My incoming and outgoing email messages are subject to public disclosure requirements per RCW 42.56
Council Member Anderson’s campaign ‘around’ BOP Mutual Aid
In her response to this email from Chief Simon, which she sent on Thursday, March 18, 2021 1:28 p.m., among other things, Anderson confided the following:
I have started a neighborhood information campaign around BOPmutual aid.. a.k.a the collective’s protest which really is about defunding police and not about helping the homeless. Our homeless are just props for their political movement.
I have reached out to several neighborhood leaders (chatty folks) and informed them about what is actually going on and why. So far, in the last 24 hours I have over 20 replies to a BCC e-mail chain responding back very concerned… wanting to know what to do…. and adamantly supporting our officers. Some thought the protesters were concerned college students doing good. They were shocked to learn the truth. I supplied screen shots of some of the social media posts to really hit home. I am working on a few who have connections to those ‘helpful’ food organizers and donors… to try to choke off local financial and food support. Not that I want our homeless to be cold or hungry… but there are safer options for them and our community. I am encouraging support for well-established social support agencies. I feel if the party dries up, some will leave the ‘protest’ and without homeless to prop them up… they are just thugs.
Council Member Anderson made insinuations in her March 18, 2021, 1:28 p.m. email that protesters, BOP Mutual Aid, and the Collective, who were fund-raising for donations dedicated to unsheltered people living in encampments, were something more sinister or opportunistic than college students doing good. Yet these claims seem to be based on material that was not consistent with the on-the-ground encampment contributions that camp volunteers had been making for over four months.
A review of public comments at Bellingham City Council meetings, even for the limited period between January of 2021 through the first City Council meeting in March 2021 (after which the City Council began enforcing a restriction for a 15 minute public comment session), offers exposure to the testimony of dozens of Camp 210 volunteers from a wide array of personal and professional backgrounds. These speakers related their experiences at camp and consistently advocated for the City of Bellingham to provide measures that would help ensure the health, safety, and well-being of camp residents and all people experiencing houseless-ness in Bellingham.
As Council Member Anderson indicated in her Thursday, March 18, 2021 1:28 p.m. email to BPD Chief Simon, public records show that she sent out emails to numerous community members which communicated her perspective on BOP Mutual Aid, including, perhaps, some of her motivation behind her positions.
An email conversation between one community member and Anderson, starting with a March 15, 2021, 6:27 p.m.email response to the community member from Anderson, provides some key components of her perspective. Among some problematic references in the email Council Member Anderson sent, are these, below:
- Anderson equates the Collective of camp volunteers with BOP Mutual Aid, of which there is no definitive association. During testimony given by camp volunteers during City Council public comment, volunteers were identifying themselves in a variety of ways and few, if any, referenced BOP Mutual Aid
- Anderson references that the City of Bellingham had outreach services make contact with individuals at Geri Fields to try to connect those individuals with services. However at a March 1, 2021 meeting with homeless service providers, a City staff member had noted that, “Communication and more importantly, education, would do more to help community and campers than a ‘pretend’ outreach event.” Such an event had been held during the week of March 7-13, 2021
- Anderson notes that based on CDC recommendations, “single ‘tents’ should stay, if they are not a risk to themselves or others.” However, the only CDC guidance known to Bellingham Police Chief Simon, and Whatcom Health Department Human Services Supervisor Ann Beck, that are related to approaches to encampments during COVID-19, states nothing about requirements related to the size of encampments or their level of safety having an influence on whether they should be left in place. The CDC states, “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are,” and offers direction on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and improve sanitation at existing encampments
On the following day, Mar 16, at 1:43 p.m., Council Member Anderson wrote another response to the same community member, and in one part brought the past opponent in Anderson’s campaign for City Council into the discussion:
My opponent ( I am a first-time council member- one year in) was a local DSA leader and aligns with far far left… Seattle Council type views. I agree with some, but would and could not legislate them all. His team said I was a moderate. I guess the needle moved on me… or what was considered progressive. I cannot say he is involved with the Collective… but I know his supporters are. I only share this because frankly… I am glad I won.. not to endure this… but to try to push for levelheaded balance.
Anderson goes on in her email to voice opposition to no-barrier housing, despite the fact that it continues to see success in Seattle and other areas. She puts responsibility for plugging in to the existing insufficient services offered by the City and Whatcom County on the people who are chronically homeless, and thus on many who are experiencing physical and mental health disabilities and illnesses.
In the email, when Anderson endorses the housing being built in Bellingham that can serve low-income community members and those exiting homelessness, she also expresses concern over becoming a regional magnet. She fails to voice any vision related to how local solutions addressing needs of people who are unsheltered can become models that are promoted to assist other regions in adopting as their own.
Council Member Anderson went on to email this community member at least two more times on the same date of March 16, 2021. In the message she sent at at 4:42 p.m., she encouraged them to consider joining in counter protesting at the Mayor’s house in the future, despite the risks inherent in face-to-face opposing protests surrounding heated disputes, which she had recently witnessed play out in person. Here is how Anderson proposed this in her email:
What will be of use… the next time our Mayor’s home (or that fact… a city director or lord help me the lightning rod… councilor’s home) is going to be marched upon… think about joining us to stand on his/ their lawn… as they put it… to hold space. On Saturday I stood with 90 year olds to six year olds on Seth’s lawn with his neighbors. We had a few burly young men who stepped in as needed. Not that I want people to be unsafe… but we must say protesting has its space (and welcomed if peaceful), but it has no place in a residential neighborhood along with vandalism.
Where are people supposed to go?
These mid-March 2021 communications by the City Council Members were coalescing at the crescendo of encampment sweeps in Bellingham as the hostile weather season began coming to a close.
Near the end of the Bellingham City Council’s March 22, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting, Mayor Fleetwood and Public Works Director Eric Johnston gave their perspectives on the City’s latest sweeps of homeless encampments at that time, which were the sweeps of Geri Fields on March 16, and Laurel Park on March 19.
In answer to one of two questions from Council President Hannah Stone which was related to camp residents being made aware of resources or of places they could go, Director Johnston had stated:
There were four senior staff members from the City on site at Laurel Park on Friday morning. None of the four of us handed anything out. We were consistent in our message to folks. When we were asked by, not campers, but by members of the community: ‘where are we supposed to go?’ – our response to them was: You are not allowed to stay in the park. It is illegal to camp in the park. And the first place to start is the Base Camp facility.
According to City of Bellingham meeting notes, one provider of homeless services, had stated in March of this year that their homeless outreach team had visited over 130 encampments in the month of January. On the Lighthouse Mission Ministries website, their emergency shelter, Base Camp, was showing approximately 50 to 60 overnight spaces being available at the time of the City’s sweeps of the people staying at the Geri Fields and Laurel Park encampments. Based on this information alone, the absolute lowest estimate of sheltering need at that time would have been significantly higher than the number of beds open at that one and only resource for overnight drop-in emergency sheltering.
Council President says no absolutes, but her answers imply ‘absolutely not’
After the response from the Public Works Director during that March 22 Committee of the Whole meeting to Council President Stone’s questions, she offered some observations in a seven minute comment that closed out the meeting.
In her remarks, Stone referred to a broad base of homeless services being offered locally that were intended to serve a broad population. She mentioned the City partnering with social service agencies who provide more individualized outreach within the community. However, she did not address the gaps in those services, any intended efforts to fill them, or the fate of people left unserved every year (or that of their surrounding community, whose level of well-being relies on the well-being each individual.)
The Council President went on to spend the central focus of her comments on some of the community calls for action the Council had been receiving. Leading into this section of her commentary, she had said:
But I feel like we’ve been silent, or maybe haven’t addressed, you know, what people were calling for. And I believe that we’re likely all on the same page. But I think it’s worth articulating clearly, that when people are asking or demanding for absolutes – I mean, there’s very rarely an absolute in any – in any of the worlds I live or operate in. There’s always some exception.
She continued on, providing her responses to some of the demands that had been expressed by community members at the City Council’s February 22, 2021 regular meeting:
“And so things like amnesty for all protesters, you know, to drop all charges, and cease all investigations related to the 27th – I mean the 28th of January at City Hall. One, that raises concern for me as a Council Member, with accountability and criminal activity in our community, and seeing things escalate, and wanting to make sure that, you know, that there is accountability and that, if things transpire, that we do follow through on that.
“And when we talk about permanent, you know, no-barrier, housing for all. I think we’ve discussed that previously, but maybe not specifically articulated the harm that that can do within – you know, looking at that continuum of services, and hearing from providers today – one of the gaps, you know, wasn’t, sort of the need for permanent no-barrier housing.
“But I feel like permanent no-barrier housing for all is something that, in my opinion, would undermine, and sort of perpetuate homelessness, and would really restrict individuals ability to move through – right? – and transition through those continuum of services. And I don’t think it’s something that we can, you know, condone, or support.
“And so when you’re asked for something like that and saying, you know, where are people supposed to go, the concern is about the misinformation about Base Camp, and, you know, well, people who have been using can’t go there. And the reality is you can’t use on site – right? – I mean, there are places where these programs, yes, have rules and the rules are in place to protect the residents there, as well as the broader community. And it’s, you know, an essential part of providing those services and being able to support people in finding success.
“And similarly, the permanent ban on all encampment sweeps – you know, I think we’ve acknowledged that our policy really has been to leave people in place. If this has been their choice and they’re not – Base Camp isn’t the place for them, or they’re on hard times, and they haven’t been able to, you know, secure, sort of conventional housing as we know it and they may be in a process – that we’re not going to just chase them around the City.
“But we do have some accountability issues with respect to the public health and safety concerns. And the reality is, is that we can’t turn a blind eye and say that all encampments, you know, will never be touched.
“We’ve seen stark examples of the concerns for public health and safety that arise – and again, maybe sometimes it’s, you know, out of an individual’s concern, but it’s at a risk to the individual who’s staying in that location and living in that situation, as well as to the broader community that surrounds, you know, those individuals.
“And so, I just really want the broader community to understand that what’s being advocated for, I really believe, is a disservice to the people that these individuals are claiming to try and protect and serve.
Stone had characterized the demands as absolutes. Yet in these responses, it can be observed that there is an absolute absence of willingness expressed by her, to address any of the measures in a way that was not absolute, such as:
- Investigating local justice system efforts targeting the protesters seeking to protect people who were unsheltered at the January 28th sweep of Camp 210
- Initiating meaningful research into successful no-barrier programs in other regions of the state and country
- Creating ordinances that could serve to promptly lessen the criminalization of people who are unsheltered and hasten an end to encampment sweeps
- Answering years-long community pleas, and carrying out CDC guidance that has been in existence since early 2020, for ample restroom, water, and sanitary services access for those living in encampments that can help hasten an end to encampment sweeps
- Encouraging ongoing efforts by City government to interact with community members who had shown initiative and persistence in volunteering independent outreach and homeless services all winter – if not for years – in order to identify people and conditions that would bring forward new sheltering solutions until permanent housing would be available
Meanwhile, also related to Stone’s remarks, there are many people for whom Base Camp is not a fit that has nothing to do with not wanting to abide by rules: the many individuals who are trespassed for alleged behaviors they are not able to control at any given time without medication and mental health services; those for whom religion is damaging; those for whom noisy or crowded spaces are damaging; those for whom services that address specific physical, mental, or emotional needs are lacking; those for whom a past threat, or emotional or physical assault at that shelter location is triggering and damaging, among other reasons.
These are individuals who are included in the body of people who, in fact – contrary to Stone’s assertions – were and are being chased around by the City, or live constantly with the threat and warning of being chased around by the City.
The Council President did not see herself alone among her fellow Council Members in holding her positions on March 22. Near the end of her remarks, she stated:
And so, I don’t – I’m not asking for a vote from the Council, but I think that it’s important we’re all on the same page in some respects, and that, as an administration, and as a Council, that, you know, we’re doing this work, sort of, in lockstep.
When Stone had finished, there was no response from Council Members to her query as to whether there were any other comments, questions, or concerns, and the meeting was adjourned.
Our community members continue to await a willingness of our government leaders to draw each person into the work needing to be done, embracing them with empathy and appreciation, providing them with resources and encouragement to empower them toward solutions and system changes that will remove all barriers to equity.
Below are excerpts (with links to Facebook posts providing the full public comment for each one) from public testimony provided by community members at Bellingham City Council meetings from January 11, 2021, through March 8, 2021. As mentioned previously, Bellingham City Council began enforcing a strict 15 minute public comment period at their regular Council meetings on March 22, 2021.