Reporter’s Notebook: Pursuing the story of the ‘Freedom to Worship Protest’

Expressions and interpretations of Constitutionally guaranteed rights — such as free speech,
demonstrated in the mural above at Waypoint Park in Bellingham — have been a major
theme nationally in 2020. In pursuit of information about a ‘Freedom to Worship Protest’, a reporter
ran into issues around access to the event that left him troubled. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Matt Benoit

— In our state, organizations such as The Three Percent of Washington (WA3%) and Patriot Prayer have been seen in recent months protesting pandemic restrictions and countering civil protests. 

The organizations publicly refute the “militia” and “anti-government” labels given to them. In fact, the WA3% website describes their group as “pro-government,” as long as government “follows the restrictions set forth in the Constitution.”

In addition to being ardent Constitutionalists, WA3% describes themselves as inclusive, “God-fearing patriots” who promise to defend their country, community and families “from all enemies foreign and domestic.”

In June, several members of a local WA3% chapter were seen in downtown Bellingham, patrolling Railroad Avenue with military-style rifles slung over their shoulders. 

At that time, a Bellingham Herald article reported that Bellingham Police Chief David Doll told the Bellingham City Council that he spoke to one of the members, telling him the group’s presence was making people uncomfortable. The men agreed to stop patrolling the area, according to Doll. Local business owners including Mallard Ice Cream owner Ben Scholtz publicly expressed concern on social media about the men’s presence. KGMI Connects interviewed a member of the local chapter about why the group organized their appearance in Bellingham.

As a reporter for Salish Current, I reached out to WA3%’s website in September, looking to speak with a Whatcom County chapter member. I wanted to know who these members were in our community, how they had come to believe what they believe and how they see themselves.

After all, as journalists, we are responsible for providing our communities with fact-based information that enables good decisions about our leaders and life in our community.  That means seeking out, listening to and sharing the stories of activists, local officials, community leaders and others — from multiple perspectives.   

I was succinctly denied an interview request, and that, I figured, was the end of things. 

But that inquiry got me added to WA3%’s emailing list. On Oct. 6, I received an email announcing a “Freedom to Worship Protest” decrying pandemic restrictions on various religious and ceremonial events like funerals, weddings, baptisms and religious holidays.

The event was scheduled to take place at a Grange hall on Whidbey Island, near Langley, on the afternoon of Oct. 18. It was billed as a community meet-and-greet featuring potluck-style dining and music. Featured speakers would include write-in lieutenant governor candidate Joshua Freed, Joey Gibson – founder of Patriot Prayer – and WA3% founder Matt Marshall. 

The email also characterized Gov. Jay Inslee a “tyrant” who exceeds the Constitutional limits of his authority and imposes his will on state citizens “as if we were subjugated peasants.” It also said that when “tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes DUTY!”

The message ended with a rallying cry for patriots to assemble and enjoy each other’s common purpose, and ended with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., regarding communism.

The email made the event sound public, though it did not specifically indicate it to be either public or private. I decided to attend, hoping to write an article that would serve as a look into who attended and why. 

Several days before the event, I emailed the listed contact, “SW Freedom to Worship,” for more information and expressed interest in attending. The responding message told me the rally would be held outside, and people were encouraged to bring pop-up tents and warm clothes in case of bad weather. It ended with “hope to see you there.” 

On Oct. 18, I drove two hours south from Bellingham to the Deer Lagoon Grange Hall, the specified location, to find nobody there. Propped up near one of the Grange hall doors was a large piece of paper with the word “RSVP’d” on it, and a phone number. 

I tried calling the number, but had almost no cell phone coverage. I recalled, however, that I’d seen what appeared to be a get-together when I’d passed by a wooded area several miles north of Freeland. Driving back, I pulled off the main road to the entrance of a cleared lot, directly across the street from a Unitarian church. 

Immediately, I was met by two men wearing neck gaiters, earpieces and holstered pistols. The lot beyond them was full of vehicles, some of which had Trump flags. In the distance, I could hear music playing from what sounded like stage speakers. A few unmasked men were also standing around and chatting.  

One of the masked men asked who I was. I told him I’d been interested in attending and had communicated with the organizers via email. The other man told me the event was private; unless I personally knew someone at the rally, I wouldn’t be allowed in. I responded that I’d driven all the way from Bellingham, but that did not sway them. 

They summoned a third man — unmasked and carrying a walkie-talkie — who also asked me who I was and if I knew anybody at the event. I said no, and attempted to show him the email message on my phone. Suddenly, a voice on the walkie-talkie squawked: “If he doesn’t know anybody and he’s acting sketchy, don’t let him in.”

At this point, the man was blunt: If nobody there could vouch for me, he didn’t care what the emails said. I would have to leave. Nervous and frustrated, I turned my car around and quickly drove away.

Half a mile down the road at a turnout, I pulled over to make a phone call, hoping I’d have reception. Within minutes, a Jeep pulled into the turnout behind me and sat there. Had I been followed from the lot by someone? I sat there making my phone call, and after about 10 minutes, the Jeep still hadn’t moved. Was I being paranoid — perhaps just as paranoid as the men denying me entrance to their event seemed to be?

I got out of my car and approached the man in the Jeep, asking him if everything was okay. Neither friendly nor unfriendly, he said he had also pulled over to get phone reception, and then quickly drove away as I went back to my car. 

The experience leaves me troubled. 

The fact that I was paranoid enough to think I’d been followed and the fact that the event promoters felt the need for armed guards seem to speak volumes about the current nature of our nation’s political polarization. 

In one final attempt, I emailed the event’s organizers again, seeking an explanation for the disconnect between what seemed like a friendly invitation, and the not-so-friendly reception I encountered. So far, they have not responded. 

Some organizations are very protective of their privacy, and even suspicious of how the media may cover them. And that is understandable. But as a reporter, one hopes for clarity in whether one will be allowed to do what we are trained to do in serving the public’s need for reliable information.

Maybe next time.

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham HeraldTri-City HeraldPacific Northwest InlanderDiscover Magazine.com, and WhatcomTalk.com, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University. Read more of his work at matthewcbenoit.com.