Many downtown Olympia business owners are frustrated. An organized street closure that participants called a protest against automobile dependence in Olympia recently held several restaurant customers at bay while hundreds of protesters blocked Fourth Avenue between Capitol Way and Washington Street.

Though printed flyers, a web site and other evidence suggests the event was planned in advance, city police—and some business owners—were caught off guard by the size and duration of the demonstration. For nearly two hours June 12, traffic was unable to move along Fourth Avenue, Olympia’s important east-west arterial.

Spar Cafe owner Alan McWain says he had to send employees home because the protest kept customers away from his business. Customers’ tempers flared, he says, but much worse than the irritation was the fact that the revelers apparently didn’t take into account the possibility of an emergency situation requiring police or other vehicles to pass unimpeded.

“We had angry people trapped inside, unable to use their cars,” McWain says. “I’m not responsible for the reactions of my customers.”

Police Lt. Steve Oderman says Olympia Police officers did the best they could with the situation.

“It was a lose-lose deal for us,” Oderman explains. “We didn’t know exactly where the protest was going to be until it happened, obviously. By then our only choice was to keep it from becoming violent or dangerous, which we did.”

According to Connie Lorenz, executive director for the Olympia Downtown Association, there was a similar, but much smaller, protest last year. Both protests coincided with The Evergreen State University “Super Saturday,” a campus-wide celebration that has been known to draw more than 30,000 participants in a day.

“I think everyone believed it would be a small demonstration, like last year’s,” Lorenz says. She adds that she has concluded the police did the right thing by not trying to break it up.

“A crowd can turn very fast,” Lorenz says. “The police did the prudent thing, which was to hold back and protect private property. No one thought the demonstration would be that big.”

Problems can occur when the thin line blurs between congregating and illegal loitering or panhandling. Lorenz says the disturbance—which produced no physical damage but had angered McWain and other business owners—was brought up two days later at the ODA’s Safety Committee Meeting. Though a brief, once-a-year event, it drew attention to an age-old debate among the capitol city’s politicians, business owners, law officials and community activists: When does the right to congregate freely on Olympia’s streets run counter to merchants’ rights to do business in a customer-friendly environment?

Oderman, who oversees police patrols in the downtown area, says the U.S. Constitution protects a citizen’s right to free speech, including asking strangers for money or displaying signs that request handouts.

But should sitting on the sidewalk be allowed?

Should someone be permitted to block the entrance to a business?

At what point does asking for spare change become a form of harassment?

In response to such questions from downtown merchants, the Olympia City Council drafted a pedestrian interference ordinance in 1995. It sets forth guidelines defining both aggressive panhandling and blocking public entrances. Pressure to draft the ordinance came not only from business leaders, but also groups frustrated over what they saw as a growing “street gang” image they said was creating a bad perception for downtown and keeping shoppers away.

The ordinance forbids any begging that involves touching, following and using violent language, gestures or other means of intimidation.

Any gathering that blocks a public entrance or forces others to go into the streets or other potentially unsafe areas to avoid the gathering also is illegal.

McWain says he appreciates the spirit behind the ordinance but complains that it is difficult to enforce.

“Everything has to be documented,” he says. “The ordinance has no real teeth.”

The ODA is on record supporting efforts by businesses to take matters into their own hands. ODA members, many of them downtown merchants, patrolled the streets in pairs throughout the holiday shopping season. Carrying walkie-talkies and dressed in bright yellow rain slickers, the volunteers call their efforts an “Ambassadors” program, but kept their eyes out for car break-ins, fresh graffiti and signs of pedestrian harassment.

Many carried printed brochures defining aggressive panhandling and suggesting ways shoppers could confront aggressive beggars.

When questioned by the media, the so-called “youth gang” element suggest they are the ones who are being harassed.

“We’re just sitting here, not hurting anyone,” a young woman explains.

Observation bears her out. For the most part adolescents are downtown to meet other adolescents. They are there to see and be seen, as typified by the ritual Friday and Saturday night car cruising parade up Fourth Avenue.

There is no evidence of a conspiracy to alienate consumers.

David Schaffert, executive director of Olympia-Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, said when interviewed last year on the subject of aggressive panhandling: “Unfortunately, perception is reality.”

Certain types of crowds simply do not inspire others to go shopping, he said.

Now that summer is here, the weather is bringing out these same crowds . Groups of young people, ages 14 to 23, are plainly visible at popular gathering spots such as Fourth Avenue and Washington Street.

Despite Olympia’s ordinance, it is all perfectly legal.

Like many of her neighbors, women’s clothing store owner Debra Shapiro Stewart expresses resignation.

“I just want to work with people I naturally get along with,” says Stewart, who is moving her boutique, Jinjor, from Fourth and Washington to Capitol Way. “It’s not about one group or the other. I have my own client base that’s different than someone else’s. I’m moving next to Capitale Restaurant. Those are my potential clients. I have to go with what works.”

By Mark Woytowich, Business Examiner staff