by Kelsey Hamlin
The first thing I saw was a crowd of people immediately in front of me suddenly turning around and running in fear.
My immediate concern was to not be trampled. Somewhere in that chaotic background, I heard, “Grab a medic!” Everything happened so fast.
Fifteen minutes later, I pieced together why the crowd ran: a man had fired a gun into someone’s stomach.
But first, let’s backtrack to add some context to this otherwise isolated incident.
Initially, before I arrived, protesters at Red Square assembled with the goal of countering the UW’s College Republican guest speaker, an ultra-right-wing provocateur by the name of Milo Yiannopoulos. He is best known for misogyny and racism. Twitter banned Yiannopoulos for trolling and harassing “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones. He’s spoken on college campuses and abusively singled out transgender students. Plans for protests had been brewing for months.
Supporters of Donald Trump, blocked by protests from entry to the event, mingled with protesters. Then, on top of that, a separated crowd of protesters and anarchists from downtown Seattle’s Westlake rally joined the fray.
We now understand that the moment I arrived onto Red Square was the moment the gun fired, which also seemed to be the very moment every single political group under the sun converged into one space.
All of this clicked in my head when UW student Adrienne Hubbard told me someone had been shot.
Hubbard said she only witnessed the aftermath of the violence: “A guy in the crowd screaming for medics… a guy with a bloody abdomen.” We walked over to bloodstains on the brick floor of Red Square, and I realized how close I was to the violence.
As I interviewed people, I saw a Twitter update from UWPD saying the victim was in surgery at Harborview hospital. (As of this morning, the victim is now in critical condition.) It’s been frustrating to see police departments and various media outlets put out different ages of the victim, ranging from 25 to 34.
Later, in an unexpected turn of events, the shooter would turn himself in to UWPD. Police described him as a 50-year-old 5’7” 190-pound Asian male with glasses. The suspect has since been released, citing self-defense.
Politicians released statements. As the crowd dispersed, Mayor Ed Murray’s statement popped up on Twitter on my phone, glowing in the dark.
“Seattle has a long standing, proud tradition of speaking up and speaking out,” it read, “but we will not tolerate violence of any kind, against any person. Thousands of Seattleites, including myself, will speak up and march peacefully throughout this weekend.”
These statements from officials tend to leave me feeling empty inside. It’s politics and a vague, distant concern that it’s bad someone was hurt.
By that point, I had interviewed five different groups of people, and determined on which points protesters and counter-protesters agreed. There was a surprising amount of common ground. Both sides said one Trump supporter was spraying people with mace – something that happened before I arrived.
Two UW students, Gil Guday and Ryan Bruntz, said that same mace-wielding man was involved in fist fights before I arrived. The two described him as a UW student in his 20s.
Nineteen-year-old protester Shawn Chandler said the night at Red Square was like the sea: calm one moment, and violent the next.
“People in the crowd set the tone,” he said, describing the fist fights, and an instance where someone threw paint. “Police haven’t been doing shit, besides stopping people from getting inside [to see Yiannopoulos].”
In fact, looking around Red Square, I’d never seen so many police on campus. I estimated there were 100 or so in total, while the crowd ended up being at least 1,000 people when all the groups interwove. Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole said her department and UWPD had been planning for the Yiannopoulos event for the last two weeks. Bellevue police were on hand as well, augmenting the law enforcement presence.
At one point, I happened upon a transgender person named James Stansberry. When I saw them at the front of a wall of protesters they had a painted beard, a red beanie, dreads, glasses, and a cane covered in stickers. They told me they were going home from Westlake’s anti-Trump protests when they heard about the gathering at UW.
“I decided [UW protesters] needed some elders out here,” Stansberry said. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this [racist] shit happen again.”
They had lived in Cicero, a Chicago suburb, “with Nazis,” and had also lived in Texas.
“The police are not protecting [the crowd] the way they should be,” Stansberry said. “There have been fights. I thought the police would rush down there, but they just stood there holding the line. This is what fascism looks like, up close and personal.”
At the late press conference, police said they “had some challenges maintaining the line,” but were referencing the Yiannopoulos attendee line as opposed to the line of bicycle police encircling Red Square. I asked UWPD why they decided to stay at the perimeter, rather than break up fights that broke out in the crowd. UWPD Chief John Vinson said police only take action based on “the totality of the circumstances,” and typically wait to see if a fight will be broken up by the crowd itself. O’Toole contended that officers did move toward the fights, but the action stopped before they got there.
While the police’s rather disengaged efforts were criticized by protesters, Trump supporters commended the law enforcement.
“The police have been nice,” said Randy, a 26-year-old who declined to give his last name. He was standing in a circle of Make America Great Again hats, though he wasn’t wearing one himself. UWPD had advised Yiannopoulos attendees to take their hats off as a safety precaution.
Randy and one of his friends said the police did a great job of getting the wounded victim out of the crowd and into some medical vans.
He also felt Trump supporters were being intimidated by protesters. But I noticed Randy’s narrative leaning toward categorizing all protesters as instigators, and so I asked if he realized the violence was mostly due to anarchists and other extremist groups. He agreed that it would be a mistake to attribute all of the violence to protesters.
As I conducted my interviews, I also noticed another distinct juxtaposition: Trump supporters told me they felt intimidated, while anti-Trump protesters told me they felt harassed.
“I want to be peaceful but it’s hard,” Chandler said, pointing to his sign with its handle completely broken off. “One dude wouldn’t let go of my sign. I wanted to punch him in the throat.”
Chandler, a lifelong Washingtonian, said he’d never seen so many Trump supporters. During the election season, he’d seen a dozen or so on campus, but in Red Square on Friday night, there were suddenly hundreds.
“This disease is spreading,” Chandler said. His black-topped glasses, lined on the bottom by gold metal rims, reflected bright police bicycle lights as he spoke. “The mentality, man, it’s infectious.”
I witnessed only one Trump supporter being aggressive and confrontational. He was a tall, scruffy white guy in his 50s. The other Trump supporters I talked to were, in contrast, calm and all in their 20s. I watched these other young Trump supporters have civil and intelligent conversations with protesters. Granted, this was also after the fist-fighting Trump supporters had exited the scene.
Stansberry said they wanted to protect and guide the youth, and that they kept thinking about their own daughter.
Chandler, on the other hand, kept thinking about his presence. “The more people, the better,” he said. “It brings strength.”
Much later, in the after-midnight hours, UW President Ana Mari Cauce said she was heartbroken in an email to the student body.
“The violence that occurred is a betrayal of all those who sought to exercise their right to peaceful protest or to attend the event. The right to peaceful protest is every bit as sacrosanct as the right to speak.”
Kelsey Hamlin is a reporter with South Seattle Emerald, and interned with the publication this summer. She has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is a University of Washington student, and the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists. Hamlin is a journalism major at the University of Washington with interdisciplinary Honors, and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see her other work on her website.
Featured image credit: Kelsey Hamlin