It started as a call for Camas-Washougal residents to show support for local police at a “Back the Blue” rally.
“I wanted to have a rally to get us all out there … and show positive support for the police,” said Camas resident Helen Sudbeck.
About two weeks before the event, Sudbeck sent a virtual call out, asking other law enforcement supporters to gather on the corners of Northeast Dallas Street and Northeast Third Avenue Friday evening. She added that she hoped rally-goers would stay in downtown Camas to shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants.
By 6 p.m. Friday, the “Back the Blue” rally had attracted dozens of people waving American flags, “thin blue line” and “thin red line” flags showing support for police officers and firefighters, and a few Trump 2020 flags.
Some rally-goers came armed. One man carried a baseball bat. A few open-carried handguns. One man, who identified himself as a Washougal resident named Jeremy but refused to give his last name, stood on a corner with a long gun draped across his body.
Asked if he thought it was wise to bring that particular weapon to downtown Camas days after a teenager in Wisconsin, carrying a similar gun, had shot and killed two Black Lives Matter activists and severely injured a medic, Jeremy said he didn’t want to hurt anyone — that he had come to the rally with his gun “to protect people on both sides.”
The rally also attracted dozens of mostly young counterprotesters showing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and drawing attention to several recent, high-profile cases of police killing or maiming Black people.
Recent Camas High School graduate Morgan MacIntyre was one of those in attendance at the BLM counterprotest. She held a sign asking for justice for Jacob Blake, a Black Wisconsin father shot seven times in his back — in front of his young children — by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, officer on Aug. 23.
MacIntyre told the Post-Record she stopped participating in the BLM chants after about an hour and “simply stood in silence holding (her) sign with a few others.”
“While doing so, I was yelled at constantly and someone in a car threw coffee at the lady next to me,” MacIntyre said. “I did not engage in yelling back or challenging the people standing right in front of me, yet I was still fearful for my safety as I saw (a man holding) an assault rifle across the street and many people with handguns on their belts.”
Sudbeck said she did not witness any violent or aggressive acts coming from the rally participants.
“I was there the whole time and was watching the kids … and didn’t see anything like that,” Sudbeck said. “Everyone had a First Amendment right to be there. We were there to support the police. And we wanted to protect the kids. Some young adults from the rally were talking with the BLM kids and standing in the road. We went over and said, ‘That’s dangerous. That’s a traffic lane.’ and asked them to step back and the kids all said, ‘Oh, right,’ and stepped back, but I had an adult from BLM get in my face and scream at me.”
The fact that Sudbeck chose to hold the rally on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech — a day when many Black Lives Matter advocates were marching again on Washington and in other cities, demanding more equitable police and justice systems for Black people and other people of color in this nation — touched a nerve with many on the BLM side.
But Sudbeck said she didn’t realize her rally would coincide with the anniversary until it was too late to change the date.
“I planned this two weeks prior and wasn’t aware of the anniversary,” Sudbeck said. “We’re a mixed-race family, so we’ve been talking about things like at our house for years. But this was never about (the anniversary of the March on Washington). I wanted to lift up a group of people in our community who have been under a lot of stress and strain and chose a Friday, when I thought people could come out after work.”
Sudbeck also said she did not ask people to bring political signs to the rally. Rather, she had hoped people from all political backgrounds would come to “back the blue.”
Instead, the only political signs seemed to belong to the Back the Blue rally goers — one woman wore a Trump 2020 sign like a cape; others waved giant “Trump” flags or wore Trump hats and shirts.
A Washougal resident who identified himself as “Ken K.” but refused to give his full last name, said he had recently moved to the area from Southern California after a 46-year law enforcement career.
Ken said he came to the Back the Blue rally to support local police officers, but didn’t expect to see Black Lives Matter counterprotesters there.
“I didn’t see this as something that was in opposition to (the Black Lives Matter movement),” Ken said, adding that he realized there was still work to be done when it came to issues of racism, brutality and de-escalation training within police departments.
MacIntyre said it was clear both sides were extremely passionate, but that she thought the set-up — shouting at each other over a busy street in downtown Camas — “made it almost impossible to hear each other out … and became an echo chamber from one side to the other.”
The 2020 Camas grad added that she was disappointed to see Camas police giving positive feedback to the Back the Blue rally.
“I would expect this type of reaction if the rally was simply an appreciation for their work, however the constant yelling, presence of dangerous guns, Trump signs and sporadic assaults painted the event (as) more of a violent statement than a rally,” she said, adding that she thought both sides, including BLM protesters chanting “all cops are bastards,” created an even bigger divide in Camas.
“The event was objectively unproductive at creating any kind of middle ground,” she said.
MacIntyre added that she hopes the Camas City Council and Camas Police Department will continue to have conversations about racial inequities in policing and “address concerns this event surfaced.”
Sudbeck said she thought her Back the Blue rally was a positive event and, overall, a success.
“We are blessed in this community that even when we have different opinions, we can all be civilized,” Sudbeck said. “We can all be passionate about what we believe in, but we still keep it safe for our kids.”