By Brandon Sanders
This photo became known as “The Few Against Many.”
A wise man once said that you should only write about things that matter to you. Writing is just thinking; we only think about things that matter to us.
I still think about the George Floyd Riots in Seattle.
Every military officer starts scared. They don’t know what to do. But, they learn enough to put on a front after a while. They masquerade. I see it often in meetings with green lieutenants and captains that earned their second bar merely by being around long enough. They hide behind jargon and project a paper-thin confidence that’s laughable to the experienced.
Then one day, all of that changes. They find themselves in front of troops in a no-win situation with a choice to make. Be something or do something.
My moment came when I was lying on my bed in Bonney Lake, Washington.
“Oh, and get to the armory. We are being activated. I’m heading there now,” my battalion commander told me over the phone. He was so flippant and nonchalant, a personality trait I was just being introduced to since he took command.
Breaking out riot gear for the first time.
He had called about a suicide we were dealing with, a story for another time. There was a tense ongoing debate about how to best memorialize him. As the chaplain, I am always the rope warring parties pull into a knot.
I threw on my uniform and grabbed my ruck. It stays by the door just in case of something like this. “Thank you for your service” always annoys me. People only say it because it’s expected. Yet, they have no idea what it’s like to trip over a fully loaded ruck every time you walk out your door. It stands as a reminder to me that any time is game time. My plans don’t matter.
My humble Ford Ranger coasted down the ridge into the Seattle-Tacoma sprawl. I called the state chaplain for some guidance. What was a chaplain supposed to do in a riot? He just laughed and told me I was “writing the book on it” right now. There was no reference to read. No expectation. My only job was to show up and be the chaplain.
My next call was to my father. A veteran law enforcement officer who lived through the fallout of the Rodney King incident on the Texas/Arkansas border. “I remember standing in the basement throwing my SWAT gear on as they started handing out grenades,” he reminisced. Down South, no one is afraid of mass incarceration, and I guess fighting fire with hand grenades is also on the table. Or at least it was back then.
Neither was insightful, I was on my own.
It wasn’t their fault. How many chaplains ever found themselves in a riot line before? What a strange place to be. The ranger loudly vibrated and drowned out the moment’s noise. My only companion was my confusion. But, unfortunately, he wouldn’t be leaving my side any time soon.
I was one of the first people there. The call had gone out. I had just been faster than most. Over the following few hours, people trickled in. Many were veterans of anything and everything the National Guard gets asked to do. Fires, floods, war, you name it.
Others were children. They had graduated from high school a few weeks ago. They showed up bewildered, lost, and enthusiastic. I laughed at them. There is something I have come to like in young Soldiers. I often wondered when I lost that sparkle in my eye from the innocent desire for blood, guts, and glory.
The first wave of the Washington Army National Guard at their home armory.
153 made up the initial wave of the Washington National Guard’s response to the rioters. They donned riot gear and shields as I talked to them. The anticipation was thick in the air. You would think they would be scared, but they were eager. They wanted the fight. They were infantrymen, after all.
We staged on a school bus at a police substation, waiting for the final go-ahead to take us into the chaos. I texted my wife what we were doing. We talked about what we would do the next day. Neither thought that this would last more than a night.
I wouldn’t see her again for weeks.
The doors opened on the bus. Our battalion commander stepped off, followed by the sergeant major. The third set of boots to step into Seattle was mine. We were the first three of the several thousand Soldiers and Airmen who would respond to the looting and rioting that was going on. I got out of the way of the force that was flooding the streets. Standing off to the side, I intentionally made eye contact with every Soldier as they entered the fray.
Though I smiled, their game faces were on. As a chaplain, you learn when to encourage and when to shut the hell up. It took me a while, but I soon realized this was the latter. They soon found themselves in fire teams guarding street corners, preventing further property damage.
The destruction was epic. Cars in the street burned out, alarms sounded constantly, and the looters bailed out of the buildings in front of us. If it had been glass this afternoon, it was now litter in the street. Trash was everywhere—all of downtown Seattle was a chaotic mess.
A Seattle Police car that was burned out during the riot.
Yet on every street corner, the seeds of order were being sown. OCP uniforms covered in riot gear were planted throughout the city as the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest watered them ever so slightly. I went from team to team, visiting them all.
We saw very few people. Our presence had pushed tons of looters out of the destruction. Ahead of us people had fled, not expecting the Army to pour into the streets. The Seattle Police were castrated by a city council that was far more concerned about pushing their ideology than protecting the life and property of their citizens. The looters knew it.
What they didn’t know was how to respond to us. They could play games with the police, but we showed up with batons drawn. We looked like we wanted a fight. They weren’t wrong.
After securing the area, shop owners began to show up. Someone brought us coffee. At 2 am, I was happy for a cold cup and a soggy doughnut. I stood in the Macys that resembled a post-apocalyptic warzone and felt the glass pop under my feet. Anarchist rioters had busted out all the windows and sprawled “fuck the USA” all over the walls. The looters then helped themselves.
It made me angry.
What the rioters and looters did to a department store.
As dawn broke, we passed locals on our way out of town. They were putting boards over the broken windows, covering up the best efforts of poor people in pursuit of the American dream. These weren’t the Seattlites who would pontificate about racial equality and denounce their “privilege.” They were the poor immigrants who were scratching a living out in one of the most expensive places in America. Now, in the name of standing up for injustice, they were victims of the injustice of a broken window they couldn’t afford to replace.
We arrived at Century Link stadium. We began sorting through a pile of rucks that some supply assistant had left in the middle of the floor. A battle drill that every Soldier knows.
Next came the cot rodeo. It’s always the same game: grab a cot, cuss the cross bars into submission, pull out a woobie, and sleep.
As I watched from a corner, I called my wife. “Cait, there are kids here that enlisted last week and haven’t even been issued a damn sleeping bag,” I told her. Luckily we keep some funds available to help people in need. Soon she was at the store and bought as many blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows as possible.
Soldiers bedded down for the first night of the riots.
Hours turned into days, and the days quickly became weeks. Early in the morning, we would wake up and head into Pioneer Square. Thousands of well-meaning people would walk past us carrying signs.
So I talked to them.
Most weren’t mad at an incident and weren’t upset at anything they experienced, even if they were black. Instead, they were angry at the idea of police being unnecessarily violent. Their hearts had led them there, and from what I could tell, the majority I spoke to hadn’t thought that far into the subject. It was a march against the mere possibility of police brutality for most of them.
Our message was a simple one to them. The only reason we were there was the mayor they elected asked us to come because people were tearing the city apart. It was hard to argue that point since every piece of glass that once adorned a very “advanced” city was being swept up right in front of them by city workers.
“I’m just here to protect your constitutional right to protest from those wanting violence,” I said countless times during those few weeks. Most of the legitimate protestors looked at me dumbfounded before they decided that I was indeed on their side. After that, they would melt into the crowd and rejoin the river of emotion that had washed them up at my feet.
As the day wore on, long after the well-meaning grandmothers and fired-up twenty-something girls had returned to their overpriced city apartments, the real devils came out to play. The crowd would shift, the chanting would start, and the problems would begin. You could feel the change in the air and your chest.
On the front lines of what will soon be the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ).
As the news continually parroted the words “peaceful protest,” our Soldiers experienced anything but “peace” or even protest. Instead, our black Soldiers were called traitors, “Uncle Toms,” or worse. Nothing was off the table.
These “protestors” would do or say anything to get a rise out of our Soldiers. If they found a Soldier they perceived to be weaker, they would cluster on them and pounce. I am a red-blooded American man that has been in the Army for 17 years and deployed three times, yet I have never heard people be as verbally brutal as I have on that riot line.
As I walked the line, I tried to counter the negativity. I would walk up behind our Soldiers and whisper in their ears. “You are doing good, bud,” as I squeezed a shoulder. I would ask them if they needed anything and were doing ok. I wanted them to know they weren’t alone and that the abuse wasn’t going unnoticed.
Our guys are professional killers. They didn’t blink. Ever. Though they were being waterboarded with insults and screamed at by the “peaceful protestors,” they were unwavering. I will always be impressed by how these “part-time” Soldiers put on such a full-time professional front amid such malicious attacks.
Looking at the riot line.
Soon I couldn’t take it anymore. The only way to get my guys any relief was to deal with the epicenter of the abuse. It worked like this; one person would start hurling insults at a Soldier for whatever reason. Next thing you know, the people beside that guy would join in. Soon ten people were trying to get one Soldier to crack.
So I went on a hunt for that first attacker.
I always found him. I would simply lock eyes with him and never turn away. Never uttering a word spoke volumes. People don’t like to be uncomfortable or feel awkward. But, I learned in counseling Soldiers that real change could happen if you embrace that awkwardness and be comfortable in the uncomfortable. It was no different with a rioter.
I would stand there and stare coldly, unwavering. It was interesting to watch these young men, full of bravado and hate, completely melt against someone standing there in a uniform and body armor. Command presence is a thing.
I will never forget one guy in particular. He was hurling insults and letting one of our shorter Soldiers know how inferior he was. When I locked eyes with him, he tried to do the same to me. Then when he saw I didn’t care about his opinion, he started to make fun of me. That didn’t last long, and soon he realized his audience had also disappeared. He melted into the crowd, and I never saw him again.
Up close and personal with those that would establish CHAZ.
As the day turned dark, it only got worse. The crowd size continually dwindled, but the criminality intensified. In the morning, you got concerned grandmothers marching. In the afternoon, young adults tried to make a name for themselves as they chanted and waved their umbrellas. But the actual “peaceful protestors” began to show up late at night.
It would always start the same. “It is now 9 pm, and the city has placed a curfew. Please disperse,” the cops over the loudspeaker would beg. But, of course, everyone knew it was a bullshit request backed by a police force that wouldn’t be allowed to enforce the curfew. The city council had spent all day decrying the police for addressing crime with any sort of force. These guys knew the game, and they knew it well. A curfew wasn’t enough to call for any enforcement, so they stayed.
That only encouraged them.
Next would come them being on the fencing placed all around the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. “Get off the fence,” the police lieutenant on the loudspeaker would call. No one ever compiled.
They knew the police weren’t going to do anything. If they did, the dozen live Twitter and Snapchat feeds would be used as proof of how violent the police were. The cops were sandwiched between protestors and the city council. They also were utterly unable to manage their public perception at all.
The “peaceful protestors” would always press their advantage. Soon they would begin moving the fence toward our guys. The Seattle Police formed a line in front, and we created one behind. A two ranks-deep battle line protected by one cold, perpetually molested gray fence.
Soon, the “peaceful protestors” got to the distance they wanted. One that was well inside their range to throw things. I will never forget the first night it happened. Somehow, they coordinated their fires perfectly. I remember feeling tense like I knew something was coming, but I didn’t know what.
Then I looked up to see a line of items in the air above us. Hammers, rocks, bricks, and bottles of urine made up the projectiles the “peaceful protestors” decided to hurl at us. Violence in the name of being non-violent may be the most intense type of violence of them all.
A small hammer was one of the many items thrown at the Soldiers and Police.
My Soldiers responded heroically. Some put their shields up as the men and women beside them put their gas masks on at the police’s warning. I will never forget watching the beautiful order since they did this completely unrehearsed. It looked like a scene from Braveheart as the projectiles slammed into the raised shields as the professionals dropped to one knee and put their masks on.
SWAT, stationed in our rear, served as our counter-battery. Armed with multi-barreled grenade launchers, they responded by dumping every tear gas canister they had into the crowd. The result was utter chaos.
As the street went from the typical cold, damp Seattle evening, it filled with a foggy, yellow CS gas-infused haze. The air turned spicy.
I ran up and down the line trying to help anyone with issues with their masks and evacuating anyone injured. I remember grabbing a female Soldier who had been struck by something while putting on her mask. She was young enough to have likely attended prom the weekend before. Now she was bleeding, with gas-induced snot and tears running down her face. I ran her to our casualty collection point, then turned back into the gas cloud.
While the Seattle Police Department may have been castrated by the Marxist ideology of an inept city council, the Washington State Patrol was not. At the point that SWAT had unleashed their response to the coordinated attack, the State Patrol began their attempts to disperse the crowd. As they marched, they slapped their body armor in a rhythmic cadence. I can still hear it today as I watched the “peaceful protestors” melt entirely down under the presence of authority.
Our perimeter opened as the State Patrol punched through and began to pursue the “peaceful protestors.” Following behind them was the bicycle squad of the Seattle Police. It was a beautiful example of JFC Fuller’s defense, attack, and pursuit forces.
Finally, it was over for the evening.
As we returned to Century Link, our Soldiers dropped their clothes in trash bags to compartmentalize the CS gas that had settled on them. Then, they cleaned themselves up as best they could before they settled into their cots.
I was one of the last ones to take a shower. The hot water had long since run out, and I remember standing under the cold water, trying to get the CS off as it burned my skin. After I finished, I walked through the stadium and scavenged leftover food the ravenous defense force of East Precinct had not decimated.
Our supply sergeant had left a pile of random goods. I looked over to see the blankets I had asked my wife to get. Finally, they made it to us. I walked over and grabbed a fluffy fleece blanket, and felt it in my hands. Dark brown, with a paper band, advertising expectations it would never live up to.
Taking it over to a Soldier who had curled up in a fetal position on a cot, I noticed him shivering as he slept. I saw how young he was. “Was I ever this small?” I thought to myself.
I had become one of the old men, one of the ones I used to hate and cuss but revered. I remember seeing the shock and fear in some of our privates’ eyes as the chaos erupted. I reflected on how I had simply reacted. Yet, somewhere amidst Iraq, Afghanistan, and everything in between, I had lost the innocence that died in them that evening.
I was now old. I was a veteran. My decision had come, and I had chosen to do something. That something was to care for those God had entrusted to me; however, I was allowed to do it.
I was a chaplain.
I unfurled the blanket and covered the shivering Soldier in front of me. He took the fleece instinctively, like a child. He pulled it up to his neck and wiggled it over his socked feet. He had been in the Army long enough for supply to give him the uniform he slept in, but not a damn sleeping bag. Yet here he was, on a riot line with me.
That was my best chaplain moment.
SGT Scott Price, 1LT Thomas Barrett, and CH(CPT) Brandon Sanders (author).
Brandon Sanders is a freelance writer and chaplain in the Washington National Guard.