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Business owners, fearing 'retribution,' seek anonymity in homelessness lawsuit

Will James
A sanctioned camp in downtown Olympia, seen here, is the subject of a lawsuit by nearby business owners.

How tense is the debate around homelessness in Olympia? Enough that business owners have sought to conceal their identities in a lawsuit against the city, saying they fear "retribution" from activists.

Eleven business owners sued the city late last year in a bid to halt the opening of a sanctioned encampment for unsheltered people.

They claim a spike in homelessness downtown represents a public health and safety threat and has resulted in waste and syringes accumulating. They also argue city officials opened the encampment without enough public notice or input.

In an unusual arrangement, 10 of the business owners used the pseudonym "John Doe" in legal papers. They said they feared reprisal from activists who have used confrontational tactics to advocate for homeless people and defend their ability to sleep in public places.

One business owner said in a court filing he was "so concerned at retaliation from the lawless element that has taken over our streets" that he would drop out of the case if he could not remain anonymous.

"I fear for my safety, and the safety of my employees,” another John Doe said. “I have had to buy a taser in order to protect myself at my place of work."

In December, the business owners failed to convince a judge to halt the opening of the sanctioned camp. More than 100 people now live there in tents provided by the city of Olympia, whose officials argue the camp is designed to abate the very conditions business owners are alarmed about. 

One of the John Does has asked the Court of Appeals to intervene. He said in court filings that he, his employees, customers, and family continue to be disturbed by the sanctioned camp.  If business owners win the case, a judge could order the city to disband the encampment.

"We do not feel safe traveling the sidewalks and streets because of excessive pan handling [sic] and people loitering around, many of whom act and and appear intoxicated by either illegal drugs or alcohol," the John Doe said.

But, before he can continue pursuing the case, a Thurston County Superior Court judge must determine whether he can remain anonymous.

Jeffrey Myers, an attorney representing the city, said none of the business owners meet the legal standard for anonymity, and their insistence on concealing their identities interferes with the public’s right to transparent legal proceedings.

"My client has a legitimate real interest in remaining anonymous, and whatever interest the city has in having these people exposed is not as significant," said Richard Stephens, an attorney for the John Doe.

A hearing on the anonymity issue is scheduled in Superior Court on Friday.

The business owners said they fear vandalism, boycotts, and online criticism, including actions organized by a group called the Olympia Solidarity Network, or OlySol.

The John Does cite incidents in which protesters with the group confronted security guards hired by business owners to patrol downtown at night and stop people from sleeping in storefront alcoves and under awnings.

Guards with Tacoma-based Pacific Coast Security were "chased" and "surrounded" by activists, some wearing masks and hoods, on three or so occasions last year, said Robert McPherson, who manages contracts for the firm. The confrontations led the company to end the contract in December.

"It sounds like an oxymoron, but it was unsafe to do security work in downtown Olympia," McPherson said. "We didn’t feel like we were getting support from the city of Olympia, and with the danger and the lack of support, we just had to back out."

An OlySol member reached through the group’s Facebook page said "no physical contact or altercations occurred." 

"The demonstration in question was a classic legal expression of non-violent direct action in which the sidewalk was physically blocked by protesters to prevent security guards from performing their job — displacing homeless people," the OlySol member said, referring to the final action that spurred the security firm to leave. 

McPherson said guards would hand out flyers to the people they would displace with information about how to get meals, clothing, shelter, and other forms of help. "We tried to conduct the business in a compassionate manner," he said. "But it wasn’t satisfactory to that OlySol group."

Activists celebrated the guards’ departure, calling it "a crucial step in the wider movement to secure safer sleeping options for houseless residents in downtown Olympia" in an online post in December.

"This victory is testament to the power of collective struggle and direct action," the post said. But it predicted business owners would likely renew their efforts in some form.

"We will remain vigilant to such efforts," the post said. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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