Local group uses holidays to sow resistance to Gov. Inslee’s statewide COVID-19 restrictions

Still frame from YouTube video recording showing Jim McKinney at the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, Washington

By Sandy Robson

December 12, 2020

Despite the alarming news being reported recently about the significant rising COVID-19 case numbers and death numbers in our nation, along with the warnings from health experts about the critical stage of the pandemic we are in presently, a potential COVID-19 superspreader event was held last week on December 5 in Lynden, Washington. 

The event was the “Santa Rebellion” rally, after which, a lighted Christmas Parade on Front St. in Lynden, followed on that same evening.

Leading into the Santa Rebellion event last week, the COVID Tracking Project’s December 3 daily update reported, via Twitter, that states had reported 210,000 cases, 2,706 deaths and 101,000 people were hospitalized with COVID in the U.S., and the COVID case and hospitalization counts from that day were all-time highs.

According to its website, the COVID Tracking Project “is a volunteer organization launched from The Atlantic and dedicated to collecting and publishing the data required to understand the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.”

Earlier this week, on December 9, the COVID Tracking Project reported in its daily update, via Twitter, that “States reported 1.8 million tests, 210k cases, and a record 106,688 COVID-19 patients in US hospitals. There were 3,054 reported deaths today — the highest single-day total to date.”

Screenshot showing the COVID Tracking Project’s December 9, 2020, tweet reporting its daily update

On December 11, the COVID Tracking Project published its weekly update, via Twitter, which reported that “the US saw record COVID cases and hospitalizations,” and that COVID deaths “also broke the weekly record and surged 44% from the previous week.”

We Will’s December 5 Santa Rebellion 

The December 5 Santa Rebellion rally was organized and hosted by a newly-formed, local Whatcom County group, We Will. We Will’s Facebook event post for the Santa Rebellion rally stated in part: “On Saturday, Dec 5th we invite you to join scores of frustrated Whatcom County citizen [sic] gathering in the parking lot at the corner of 7th and Front St., Lynden WA 98264, to protest Gov. Jay Inslee’s lock-down order over the Holiday season and the erosion of liberty.”

The Facebook event post also stated in part: “Our goals are to inform, unify and give confidence to those willing to stand against unconstitutional royal edicts that will cancel Christmas, and our freedom.  We want to make Governor Grinchlee irrelevant, and allow American citizens to make responsible personal decisions.”

Screenshot showing a December 3, 2020, Facebook event post displayed on the We Will Facebook page promoting the December 5 Santa Rebellion.

The emcee for the December 5 Santa Rebellion rally was Blaine resident, Jim McKinney, who is the former executive director for Common Threads Northwest, a local conservative group which in early 2017, essentially assumed the former role of the Whatcom Tea Party

Since leaving his executive director position with Common Threads Northwest, Jim McKinney has participated as a volunteer for the group. McKinney and his wife, Laura McKinney, are the owners of Apple Mountain LLC, Consulting and Development based in Blaine. 

Laura McKinney presently serves as chair of the Blaine School District board, and she is the NW government affairs and public relations director for Alcoa. Prior to working at Alcoa, she was the director of operations for the Whatcom Business Alliance.

Laura McKinney was referenced in an August 12, 2020, article published by The Northern Light in which the publication reported, “The [Blaine] school board voted 4-1 to start the school year with remote learning during the August 8 special meeting, with Laura McKinney casting the dissenting vote. McKinney said she sees a need for parents to have options in the upcoming school year, which she believes the district can safely provide.”

Jim McKinney active in ‘Rebellion’ rallies and MAGA road rallies in Whatcom

Jim McKinney was also the emcee at several pro-Trump MAGA Road rallies held here in Whatcom in the weeks leading up to this year’s November 6 election. Additionally, he emceed the recent November 21 Turkey Rebellion rally staged at the Phillips 66 Soccer Complex, which was followed by a road cruise. 

While the Facebook event post for the Turkey Rebellion stated that the Lynden Freedom group was hosting the event, according to We Will’s communications contact, Ashley Butenschoen, We Will was responsible for holding the Turkey Rebellion.

Screenshot of a November 18, 2020, Facebook post featuring the Turkey Rebellion event post displayed on the Lynden Freedom Facebook page

The Facebook event post for The Turkey Rebellion event read in part:

“We proclaim that:

• We will exercise our rights as protected by the Constitution!

• We will have Thanksgiving!

• We will celebrate with our families!  

• We will not be treated like slaves in our own homes while Inslee promotes riots in the streets!

“We are responsible citizens and will make benefit/risk based decisions for ourselves as protected by the Constitution, (which we recommend Inslee read)!

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!

“We aren’t going to take it anymore!”

Jim McKinney has been involved with local conservative politics over the last several years. Recently, he authored an op-ed, titled, “Quarantine- Isolating the sick; Tyranny-Isolating the healthy,” published on Sept. 10, 2020, by the right-wing blog, TheFourthCorner.com, founded by local Republican operative, Charlie Crabtree. 

In the third sentence of McKinney’s op-ed he wrote, “Don’t give up, or give in to propaganda and politics,” yet his opinion piece contained some information about the COVID-19 pandemic that can be considered to be propaganda, and could potentially endanger public health.

McKinney wrote in his op-ed,  “Media misinformation is creating panic and social pressure is keeping cloth diapers on our faces. Mask effectiveness is speculative.” He also wrote, “This has become a media and politically fabricated crisis – with the goals of undermining faith in the Trump administration, creating fear, and intimidating people who question big government decisions and the so called ‘experts.’”

McKinney asserted in his opinion piece that “Political operatives are exploiting COVID at the expense of our citizens.” However, that same statement could also potentially apply to his actions over the last several months.

Pastor Josh Carter led prayers at the Turkey and Santa rebellions 

Still frame from video recording showing Pastor Josh Carter with the Bellingham Baptist Church speaking at We Will’s Turkey Rebellion held on November 21, 2020, in Bellingham, Washington

At both the Turkey Rebellion and the Santa Rebellion events, Pastor Josh Carter with Bellingham Baptist Church led the crowd in prayer. Carter also spoke at the November 21 Turkey Rebellion rally where he told the crowd:

“Even in the faith community we’re not ignorant to the reality that we need to do something. We’ve shut down half of our pews. We’re sanitizing between every services. We’re even taking temperatures of people when they walk in the door. But what we’re not doing is allowing our governor to dictate to us how we’re gonna serve our God. We’re not gonna do that. I don’t believe the governor knows the God that I do. I don’t think he prays to the God that I do. I’m not trying to throw him under the spiritual bus whatsoever.”

Several years ago, Bellingham Baptist Church received attention from some people in Whatcom County in 2017 after a report came out from the Southern Poverty Law Center in which the Fortress of Faith was classified as an anti-Muslim hate group

The Fortress of Faith is one of Bellingham Baptist Church’s ministries. It is a radio ministry led by Tom Wallace, according to the Bellingham Baptist Church’s “Our Ministries” page on its website. The page describes Wallace as an “Evangelist out of Bellingham Baptist Church.”

The day before the December 5 Santa Rebellion, Ashley Butenschoen had posted on her personal Facebook page two photos showing a Dec. 1, 2020, letter sent from the Whatcom County Health Department to Pastor Carter. The text of her December 4 Facebook post read:

“Hmmmm. If this makes your blood boil, join concerned citizens tomorrow.” Her post also provided a link to the Facebook event post for the Santa Rebellion. 

The Dec. 1 letter stated that the Health Department had received a complaint that Pastor Carter’s “business [Bellingham Baptist Church] may be violating the Governor’s Safe Start Washington Plan.” The letter provided detail that on November 23 a complaint was received, “Church is still having choir and not adhering to reduced capacity.” The complainant also stated that the choir meets regularly for practice, according to the letter. 

The Health Department’s letter additionally provided information regarding the terms and guidelines applying to Religious and Faith Based Organizations which intended to remain open under the governor’s proclamation. 

“Any operations of practices outside of the guidelines are a violation of the proclamation and should cease,” and the complaints will be referred to the State Department of Health Compliance Response Team, the letter further stated.

Santa is a draw for children at Santa Rebellion in Lynden 

In reviewing video recordings of the December 5 Santa Rebellion rally it appeared that around 100+ people attended the outdoor event held at a city-owned parking lot located at the corner of Front St. and 7th St in Lynden. Most of the rally attendees were not wearing face coverings as is currently mandated by Washington state, nor were most practicing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health department-recommended physical distancing. 

Still frame from YouTube video recording showing some of the attendees at the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, Washington

Lynden’s city administrator, Mike Martin, told The Searchlight Review in a phone call this week that no permit was necessary for the event.

The Santa Rebellion event featured a Santa Claus who sat in a large chair, and some of the children there, and at least one adult, sat on Santa’s lap and interacted at very close range with him. Santa was not wearing a face covering and neither were the children or the adults interacting closely with him. In the video recording some people can be seen hugging Santa, as well.

Still frame from YouTube video recording showing Santa with children at the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, Washington
Still frame from YouTube video recording showing Santa holding a toddler at the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, Washington
Still frame from YouTube video recording showing Santa hugging a person at the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, Washington

It appears that some of the same people associated with the Santa Rebellion rally are also associated with a group called Lynden Freedom, such as Lynden resident, Gary Small. Small and some of his associates started the Lynden Freedom group back this summer when he and the group organized the July 5 counter protest to the Lynden March for Black Lives event that was held that same day.

Still frame from video recording of the Turkey Rebellion held on November 21, 2020, in Bellingham, Washington, showing Lynden Freedom’s Gary Small on the left, and Jim McKinney on the stage

Lynden Freedom’s Small, who was one of the half dozen or so people who spoke at the Santa Rebellion also was involved with the pro-Trump MAGA road rallies held here in Whatcom. Small spoke at those MAGA road rallies along with Jim McKinney, and he spoke at the November 21 Turkey Rebellion staged at the Phillips 66 Soccer Complex in Bellingham. Addressing the Turkey Rebellion crowd, Small said, “Hello patriots,” and then asked them why they were there. They yelled their answer to him, “Freedom.” 

Small responded, “Well here’s my answer: Because the coronavirus has been weaponized and morphed into the control-us virus. And we’re done. We’re done.”

We Will’s Butenschoen active in local politics 

According to the We Will Facebook page’s transparency section, the page is managed by Ashley Butenschoen, who was involved with organizing and promoting the December 5 Santa Rebellion rally. 

Still frame from video recording of the December 5, 2020, Santa Rebellion rally showing Ashley Butenschoen, one of the organizers of the rally and the communications contact for the We Will group that hosted the event. The rally was held in Lynden, Washington

Some local Whatcom Countians may be familiar with Butenschoen’s name from when she was in the news nearly four years ago. A January 17, 2017, King5 News article had reported then that Butenschoen, a Lynden resident, would be traveling that month to Washington, D.C., to attend Donald Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration. The article reported: “Butenschoen is active with Republicans in Whatcom County, and helped prepare the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds for then-candidate Donald Trump’s arrival last spring. After his victory in November, she knew she had to be in Washington D.C. for the big day.”

Recently, Butenschoen was referenced in a KOMO News piece about how Governor Inslee’s recent announcement that he’s extending the state’s COVID-19 restrictions is provoking some “pushback and even open defiance in many communities.”

KOMO News reported that Butenschoen said, “We feel that he’s [Governor Jay Inslee] now weaponized the health department and L&I to come in and give these fines.” 

Washington state’s Department of Labor & Industries (L & I) and Department of Health have been using their authority to enforce state mandates and law as part of the duties those agencies are tasked with doing for the state. 

Besides being active in local Republican politics, Butenschoen is an ad trafficker and account representative for the Whatcom Business Alliance’s Business Pulse Magazine. She also is the listed page manager for Common Threads Northwest’s Facebook page and according to her LinkedIn page, is the group’s social media director. 

The Searchlight Review talks with Ashley Butenschoen

In a phone interview this week with The Searchlight Review, Butenschoen was asked about her role with We Will and its Dec. 5 Santa Rebellion, and whether her involvement was on behalf of any groups such as Common Threads Northwest, or organizations such as the Whatcom Business Alliance, both of which she’s associated with. She said: 

“This, for me, is more about, I guess maybe concerned citizen would be the best way to describe it.” She went on to say that this is different for her, and it’s not affiliated with anything else that she does and not affiliated with the WBA or Common Threads Northwest. She explained that she is working with a group of concerned people who she has not worked with before. 

When asked what she meant when she used the term “this,” Butenschoen said this is personal for her, and that it’s “a human thing.” She elaborated and said, “I am someone who cares about people and I want this to not be political.” She also stated:

“So, the We Will group is, that is the group that held these events. It’s just a pushback on the lockdown, against Inslee. The We Will movement is supporting the freedom of the person to do whatever that is — if it’s to wear a mask and stay home, we support you. It’s about the freedom to choose. For some people it’s ‘we will keep our business open.’ For some people it’s ‘we will go to school.’ It’s an individual thing, so people can take it to their individual level.”

In talking about wearing masks/face coverings, Butenschoen said, “We live in a free country and we should be able to, if we’re responsible, we should be able to choose. We are not promoting anyone be irresponsible — that is in no way, shape, or form what we want here.”

The Searchlight Review responded to that remark by pointing out that while Butenschoen stated the Santa Rebellion organizers were not promoting or wanting people to be irresponsible at their rally, the event included a Santa who was not wearing a mask/face covering, and children who were also not wearing masks, sat on his lap and/or interacted in very close proximity with him, all of which, did not seem responsible to do during a COVID-19 pandemic. 

Butenschoen responded, “We give people the option to see Santa and that’s really important to some people.” She added, “We took a week long to find an appropriate Santa and this Santa has done many events, and we know he is responsible as far as if he didn’t feel well, he would not come.” 

When asked if their Santa was tested for COVID-19, she answered, “I don’t know, I couldn’t answer that for you.” 

Buttenschoen also said, “Santa is working during the flu season, the flu is bad — the flu is deadly. I’m not saying that COVID is nothing to be feared or respected, because I think we should respect any disease or virus, but we also have to look at the other side of everything.”

At the end of the phone call, Butenschoen stressed that she really hoped that The Searchlight Review heard her when she said “this is not political — there’s nothing politically driven here.”

Conservative politics and politicians intersect with We Will’s rallies 

While Butenschoen stated that there’s nothing political about We Will’s Turkey Rebellion and Santa Rebellion rallies, it should be noted that the Whatcom Republicans, Common Threads Northwest, Lynden Freedom, and Liberty Road’s (run by former Whatcom Tea Party board member, Kris Halterman) Facebook pages all promoted the Santa Rebellion and Turkey Rebellion rallies on their Facebook pages. Each of those groups have been involved in local conservative politics.

As a matter of fact, at the Nov. 21 Turkey Rebellion rally, two of the half dozen or so featured speakers were Washington state legislators; Representative Robert J. Sutherland (R-Granite Falls) from Snohomish County representing the the 39th Legislative District; and Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) representing the 42nd Legislative District in Whatcom County.

 

Speaking zealously to the November 21 rally attendees, Representative Sutherland said:

“Governor, we’re not listening to your bullcrap science that you’re trying to tell us and force down our throats. We’re gonna tell you what the data says. And you’re lying to us, and we don’t appreciate it.”

He told the people gathered there, “We’re being lied to. We’re being manipulated. And it’s up to us to say we’re not takin’ it no more, and we’re gonna have Thanksgiving with our family, and you’re not gonna tell us otherwise.”

Sutherland vowed: “We’re not gonna go down quiet. We’re not going away, Governor. We’re not shutting up. We’re gonna get in your face. We’re gonna remove you from office if we need to. Your edicts are illegal. You’re an outlaw governor. And, we’re gonna eat as much turkey with our family as we damn well please.” The rally attendees cheered that remark.

After Sutherland finished speaking, another speaker from Snohomish County spoke, and then Senator Ericksen took the stage next to deliver his remarks. Much of Senator Ericksen’s speech seemed to be political. He told the Turkey Rebellion rally crowd:

“What’s been happening in the last eight months can be described by four things: Hate, fear, fraud, and globalism. Those four things. 

“Hate of the MAGA movement which is hatred of all of us, I think, who are here today, which is being promoted by certain groups out there. Fear of the COVID virus.”

Senator Ericksen said it was fear that shut down the best economy this country had ever seen. “It was fear that forced us to change our voting systems in key swing states four months before the election — and hundreds of thousands if not millions of ballots showing up through the mail that nobody knew about? That was organized because the fear that was put forward.” He continued:

“Where’s the fraud? Fraud comes to us every single day through our television, on our radios, from the anti-MAGA media who will not give you the honest truth, who have such a hatred in their heart for President Trump, but not just president Trump because he’s just a symbol. He’s a symbol of the MAGA movement in America. And God bless him for being willing to step up and do that, but we are the MAGA movement in America. We are the ones who want to make America great again. And there is so much hate about that. And the fear of the virus. Look at those things that happened very coincidentally, right? When that virus appears out of China and we shut down our entire economy. We shut down our voting systems. And who benefits from this? The globalists.”

At the December 5 Santa Rebellion rally in Lynden, emcee Jim McKinney acknowledged some individuals and groups who were at, and/or helping, with that event. McKinney told attendees, “We’ve got Turning Point USA, the youth in the county back here, putting up a — they’re helping.”

Turning Point USA is a conservative student group co-founded in 2012 by the late Bill Montgomery, who died this year in July from complications of the coronavirus, and conservative activist Charlie Kirk, 27, a top ally of President Donald Trump. An April 19, 2020, article published by The New York Times about Kirk reported that, “he has been among the louder voices stoking conservative skepticism of the threat posed by Covid-19 and using the pandemic as political cudgel.”

Back in October of this year, Turning Point USA found itself the subject of an NBC News article that reported, “Facebook said Thursday that it has taken down hundreds of fake accounts created by a marketing company that worked with the young conservative group Turning Point USA to invade the comments sections of mainstream publishers and denigrate Democratic politicians.”

Meanwhile, We Will has scheduled a second Santa Rebellion rally, this one taking place today, December 12, in Bellingham at the former Billy McHale’s restaurant’s parking lot on Meridian St. Echoing Ashley Butenschoen’s comments in her interview with The Searchlight Review, the December 12 Santa Rebellion Facebook event poster emphasizes the assertion that this rebellion, too, is not political.

Screenshot photo of a December 12, 2020, Facebook post displayed on the We Will Facebook page showing Santa at the December 12 Santa Rebellion rally held in Bellingham, Washington, and hosted by the We Will group