Long overdue for a conversation about race

Dispatch from Yakima County:

First came the warning: A police officer in the small city of Selah told a group of young people that if they continued drawing “Black Lives Matter” chalk art on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, they would be charged with a crime.

Chalk art on a sidewalk? What “crime” will they be charged with then?

Then someone (the story doesn’t say who) sent in a pressure washer to blast it all away.

The standoff last week was just one of a growing series of conflicts between conservative leaders of Selah, a community with only a few dozen Black residents, and young people from a wide range of backgrounds who believe the city is long overdue for a conversation about race.

Everywhere in the US is long overdue for that conversation. We don’t get it and we don’t get that we don’t get it.

In Selah, city officials profess to be perplexed about the sudden activism. The city administrator, Don Wayman, said he did not see any racial issues to address, calling the Black Lives Matter movement “devoid of intellect and reason” and characterizing the activists as a “mob.”

That guy for example. He has to be tragically ignorant to think that. Most people are tragically ignorant about how all this came about.

Chalk art has long been a tableau for social activism, a form of instant commentary that takes political expression quite literally onto the streets. Cities have at times targeted it, such as in San Diego, where a man was charged with 13 counts of vandalism in 2013 for writing anti-bank messages on a public sidewalk. A jury acquitted him.

The vandalism charge might be more plausible if the damage were permanent, but chalk? Come on.

Selah’s chalk activism began with Gabriel Fabian, 20, who was not politically active until after seeing the video capturing the arrest in May that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Fabian, who is Latino, decided he needed to play a role in halting the oppression of Black people and that it would need to start at home.

He began drawing BLACK LIVES MATTER on the street outside his house. The city sent a crew to wash the words away; repeat repeat.

At one point, a letter from Police Chief Richard Hayes arrived addressed to Fabian’s older brother. It said the chalk drawing “is, by definition, graffiti” and could result in a citation.

Fabian’s mother, Laura Perez, said it was clear to her that the city’s crackdown had everything to do with the content of the message and the fact that it was produced outside the home of a Latino family. To her, it reinforced everything she had felt about the town since moving her family there from California eight years ago.

She had already seen her children being profiled at school. She had been surprised that the district offered little in Spanish despite the large number of Latinos who had settled in the region, originally drawn by agricultural work but now an integral part of many communities in eastern Washington. While her boys were told not to wear rosaries at school, they noticed that white students were not confronted when they wore similar items.

There were Confederate flags around, lots of them.

After the letter from the police chief, the family had a lawyer respond, objecting to the city’s handling of the art. Rob Case, Selah’s municipal attorney, responded with a more detailed warning, saying the drawings were a violation of the malicious mischief statute “that is punishable by 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.”

For writing words in chalk on a neighborhood street.

Fabian said several white neighbors have invited him now to draw on their driveways, out of reach of the city’s pressure washers.

And its cops.

One of them, Carmen Garrison, said that after seeing what was happening out on the street, she knocked on Fabian’s door. Because of her age and concerns about the coronavirus, she said, she has not attended the demonstrations, but the artwork on her driveway was an opportunity to show her support for changes in the community that she said were overdue.

Rock on.

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