SELAH, Wash. — First came the warning: A police officer in the small city of Selah, Wash., 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.
Then came the pressure washer.
As the 10 protesters covered parts of their artwork with their bodies, a city worker walked between them, spraying away the exposed parts of their messages and sending tubs of chalk tumbling into the street. The young activists, wet from the washing, watched in silence and held up signs that were outside the reach of the pressure washer.
“Hate has no home in Selah,” one of them said.
The standoff last week was just one of a growing series of conflicts between conservative leaders of Selah, a central Washington 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.
As Black Lives Matter events spread from urban centers to thousands of smaller communities around the country, town officials who saw little reason to explore percolating racial prejudices are finding themselves confronted by residents who have decided it is time to step forward.
In Selah, where rich soils on the dry side of the Cascades have nurtured a global fruit-growing industry, 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.”
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 issue has also come up before in Washington State. A prosecutor in Ferry County filed charges against a political activist for chalk messages she wrote on a walkway leading into a meeting of county commissioners in 2018, according to court records. The judge later dismissed the charge, and a federal judge has since noted that while the state’s “malicious mischief” law prohibits writing on public buildings, it does not directly address public walkways.
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. Mr. 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.
“I basically said, ‘Enough is enough,’” Mr. Fabian said.
In early June, he began drawing the words “Black Lives Matter” on the street outside his home, which lies on a dead end. He included references to Black people whose deaths in recent years around the country have sparked protests over racial injustice.
By the end of the week, a city crew came by with a street sweeper to clean it off.
Some friends came by to draw more, and a cleaning crew again washed them off. They did it again. Then again.
At one point, a letter from Police Chief Richard Hayes arrived addressed to Mr. Fabian’s older brother. It said the chalk drawing “is, by definition, graffiti,” and could result in a citation.
Mr. 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.
She said the family was stunned to see the Confederate flag openly flown by some people in the community and emblems of it worn at school.
Still, Ms. Perez said she wanted to be a good neighbor in her overwhelmingly white neighborhood, and she worried that when the young people started drawing the chalk art that the military veteran who lived across the street might frown upon their work.
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.”
The city insisted that it had a policy of cleaning away any chalk art it found, no matter the message, though Ms. Perez said she had seen no efforts to remove recent chalk art tied to school graduations.
Mr. Wayman, the city administrator, has told other Selah leaders that he wants to protect the city from the “mayhem and evil” seen in places like Seattle, where a series of protests led to confrontations between Black Lives Matter protesters and the police.
At one of Selah’s own Black Lives Matter events, Mr. Wayman acknowledged, he told a council member from nearby Yakima that Selah had not had problems at its protests because the city has such a high rate of concealed-carry gun owners.
The lawyer working with Mr. Fabian’s family, Joseph Cutler, said that the city’s targeted cleaning of the protest messages amounted to an infringement on free speech.
Courtney Hernandez, who is Black and has been organizing Black Lives Matter events in the area, said it was clear to her that the city was attempting to silence protest. She grew up in Selah, she said, and knows that it has not always been welcoming to people of color.
Yet Ms. Hernandez said she was in tears during the first rally she organized in Selah because of how many people showed up. More people showed up at later events, which often now feature new chalk art.
Mr. Fabian said several white neighbors have invited him now to draw on their driveways, out of reach of the city’s pressure washers.
One of them, Carmen Garrison, said that after seeing what was happening out on the street, she knocked on Mr. 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.
“I think Selah’s a little behind the times,” Ms. Garrison said. “They need to get with the program.”
The unexpected support from various corners of the community has led Ms. Perez to reassess what she now sees as her own implicit biases. White people in town, she said, have surprised her with the extent of their vocal support; even the military veteran who lives across the street — the one she feared might oppose the chalk drawings — has told her he is in their corner.
“They showed us that we were wrong,” Ms. Perez said. “People found their voice.”