Does Washington's Constitution Ban Armed Militias?

Posted by William Kirk, Partner | Feb 28, 2021 | 0 Comments

Before statehood, mob violence and labor suppression raised serious questions about who had the right to maintain public order.

Originally published in The Columbian.

In 1888, a confrontation in the coal-mining town of Roslyn, in Kittitas County, just east of the Cascade crest, helped shape the Washington state constitution. The incident, a small chapter in a longer narrative of regional tumult, involved union laborers, strikebreakers, hired railroad guards armed with weapons and violent clashes over race.

All 50 states, in some way or another, ban private armies, militias or paramilitary forces within their borders. Washington state’s constitution asserts that any militia must be in “strict subordination to civil power,” meaning the state or the federal government. It also affirms a citizen's right to bear arms for defense of self or state, but cautions that those rights should not be construed as “authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain or employ an armed body of men.”

In recent years, armed bodies of men have become a regular spectacle at protest sites across the country. Men with semi-automatic weapons draped over their shoulders and pistols packed on their waists have appeared at freedom rallies in Olympia, anti-racist protests in Portland and, on Jan. 6, at the nation's Capitol, where a mob of pro-Trump supporters stormed the halls of Congress. The proliferation of armed demonstrators has alarmed many observers, and now some Washington state legislators are responding. During the current legislative session, they hope to strengthen rules and enforcement around guns, protests and paramilitary groups, which in some cases — when people brandish weapons with an intent to intimidate, for example — appear to be in violation of state law.

When the Washington Territory was on the brink of statehood, serious concerns were raised by events ranging from mob violence to the armed suppression of workers, and about who had the right to carry arms to maintain order. How did the original constitutional prohibition come about?

Railroads and racist violence in the Pacific Northwest

After the Civil War, labor-related violence became commonplace. The nation's industry and railroads were rapidly expanding, bringing new jobs and ruthless competition. Large workforces were exploited in the process. Battles between mine owners and the so-called Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania's coal fields during the 1870s took on aspects of a major armed conflict. Clashes continued throughout the next two decades, moving westward with the railroads.

When the new rail lines finally connected the Northwest to the outside world, laborers were in high demand — and they welcomed the call. The worker population in the region soared during the 1880s, bringing immigrants and Black Americans to the region. The nation's first real union, the Knights of Labor, welcomed, on paper at least, people of all races, but their branches and leaders in the Northwest fiercely resisted integration and took a major role in fomenting hatred of Chinese workers, as well as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were not considered “white.”

Acts of racially charged violence followed. In 1885, a Knights of Labor riot led to the massacre of 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The murder of three hop workers in Squak Valley (Issaquah) that same year and the 1887 slaughter of 34 Chinese prospectors in Hells Canyon’s Deep Creek, in Oregon, signaled an escalation of racism and xenophobia across the region.

Knights of Labor organizers played key roles in trying to forcibly eject all Chinese laborers from Seattle and Tacoma. In Seattle, they helped ignite a riot in which the U.S. Army was called in to quell the violence. Martial law was declared, and U.S. troops patrolled the streets for 10 days. In Tacoma, an angry mob expelled the Chinese and burned their Chinatown to the ground. The city's white leadership celebrated the act of racial terrorism while the press claimed the violence — which it deemed the “Tacoma method” — was a model for other cities to follow.

The Knights of Labor represented a broad coalition of workers. The organization supported better working conditions, increased safety and more regulation of their bosses. But the divisions within were significant. Many Knights were members of a Marxist subgroup of agitators, precursors to the Industrial Workers of the World radicals. But in the Northwest, they and the Knight membership in general demanded that any challenge to the supremacy of white labor be rejected. Meanwhile, the railroad bosses used racial division to gain leverage over the workers. They employed workers of color to work longer hours for less pay as a means of breaking strikes and driving down labor costs, essentially weaponizing men who had few, if any, other employment prospects.

Private police forces in Roslyn

The railroads and mining companies fought tooth and nail to ward off the demands of the labor movement. In some cases this meant hiring private guards from the Pinkerton detective agency — a national independent police force — to provide a vast array of services. So-called “cinder dicks,” a term for rail police, were used to spy for owners, recruit scab workers, infiltrate and undermine unions, instigate violence and guard private property against pro-union vandals with what amounted to mercenary armies. It has been estimated that, in the late 19th century, there were more heavily armed men serving in these private security forces than there were troops in the U.S. Army.

About the Author

William Kirk, Partner

Bill Kirk has been named a Super Lawyer by Washington Law and Politics Magazine every year since 2003. He currently serves on the Board of Regents to the National College for DUI Defense and is the President of the Washington Foundation for Criminal Justice. Bill is one of only two attorneys in this state to pass the National College's Board Certification Exam.


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