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‘Activists’ who took over hotel armed with hatchets and gasmasks are in custody, wanted free housing

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Police took at least seven people into custody Sunday evening after homeless activists, some of whom were reportedly armed with knives and hatchets, “forcibly” took over the lobby and 17 rooms of a Red Lion Hotel in Olympia, Wash.

The activists, who were part of a group called Oly Housing Now, alleged their justification for the takeover attempt was to demand housing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a press release, city officials said the Olympia Police Department received reports that hotel employees felt threatened by the group and that at least one staff member was allegedly assaulted.

Law enforcement officers accompanied by SWAT teams sealed off a nearby roadway and went through the hotel room by room, according to The Olympian. Police said that a group of employees who fled to the hotel basement after activists entered the lobby was safely removed.

(Credit: KING5)

Shauna Sowersby, a local reporter, tweeted that she heard a loud bang from inside the hotel shortly before 11 p.m. local time. She also reported that additional flash bangs detonated as police worked to clear the building of armed activists.

The Olympian reported that a small group of about two dozen protesters showed up to heckle and chant at police as they moved on the hotel.

“We could have housed everyone here for a week with the money spent on the police response,” one activist told the outlet.

Occupy organizer Emma Deitz said the activist group initially purchased 17 rooms to house area homeless people but that they planned to stay at the hotel until Thurston County agreed to provide funds to permanently house them there.

Deitz said Oly Housing Now wants county officials to apply for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide “non-congregate” shelter, the paper added. In particular, homeless people 65 years old and older, or those with preexisting health conditions who are more at risk from COVID-19, are the priority.

Reports indicated that around 11 a.m. local time, hotel staffers began calling 911 to report that a group was attempting to forcibly take over.

“Employees reported that some members of the activist group inside the hotel were armed with items such as hatchets, batons, knives and had gasmasks, helmets and goggles apparently in preparation for a confrontation,” the city of Olympia said in a statement.

“At the time of the occupation, approximately 40 rooms in the hotel were booked with guests who were bystanders to the incident. Those guests sheltered in their rooms during the occupation,” the statement noted further.

City officials condemned the action, while police said more arrests are expected.

“Making sure our unhoused residents have access to safe and affordable housing has been Olympia’s priority for more than a decade,” said Mayor Cheryl Selby. “Olympia has led on responding to homelessness, on coordinating shelter and other basic needs. The tactics used today by Oly Housing Now are unproductive and won’t make the mission more attainable.”

The Red Lion incident follows an earlier one in Washington around Christmas. Then, a group calling itself Tacoma Housing Now booked several rooms at a Travelodge Motel in Fife, a suburb of Tacoma, on Christmas Eve and refused to leave, which led to a stand-off with law enforcement.

In the end, officers in hazmat suits had to remove more than 40 homeless people who holed up in dozens of rooms for nearly a week without paying.

Similar incidents have also occurred in Portland, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, The Olympian reported.

Jon Dougherty

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