Militant Journalism

The fight for free speech in Selah, Wash.

In a small, conservative town in central Washington, sidewalk chalk has become a highly contentious issue between residents and the City Council. The situation came to a head time and time again in the spring and summer months of 2020. In one such confrontation, young adults and children writing “BLM” and other slogans in chalk on a suburban street were sprayed with a pressure washer by city workers.

This clear attack on free speech in general and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular eerily echoed images of civil rights activists attacked with fire hoses during the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. Over the summer, it became clear to Selah residents that the city administration had every intention to crush this uprising and enforce the status quo of racism and repression.

Liberation photo

In late 2020, the local activist group Selah Alliance for Equality filed a suit against the city of Selah for a litany of free speech violations and misconduct against Black Lives Matter activists. Selah Alliance for Equality, et al v. City of Selah cites confiscated and destroyed signs and the erasure of chalk messages as a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article I of the Washington State Constitution. The plaintiffs are currently fighting to protect their right to freely speak out against the city’s long record of racial discrimination.

These events were set in motion in the spring of 2020, when protests swept the country speaking out about the killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others. Residents in Selah quickly came together to make their voices heard about the persistent culture of discrimination in their community through signs, chants, flags and sidewalk chalk.

These chalkings on public property soon took on more importance as city officials did all they could to erase their words. Activists were repeatedly threatened with criminal charges of vandalism by local police as well as Mayor Sherry Raymond. When chalk on public sidewalks was quickly and repeatedly washed away by city officials, residents were invited by the school district to use the Selah Middle School parking lot, where they were able to write their messages out of the city’s reach. Outside City Hall, a city worker was made to pressure wash the chalk messages as protesters covered what they could with their bodies.

In public and in town hall meetings, Mayor Raymond, City Administrator Don Wayman, and city lawyer Rob Case repeatedly addressed the protesters with dismissal and derision. Wayman, standing across the street from one of the earlier protests, was reported making indirect threats of violence to the protesters. He implied that residents who “conceal carry” firearms would know how to handle the situation. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials openly stated that they have no intention of enforcing safety restrictions such as mask usage.

After months of ceaseless antagonism from the city, Selah Police Chief Rick Hayes resigned, frustrated with micromanagement from Don Wayman. In a letter he wrote: “I no longer felt like I was an effective leader within the police department and that I felt he was using the police department as a tool in this conflict over chalk art,” laying bare the general frustration felt even by the leader of the city’s repressive wing. City Administrator Wayman’s actions throughout the latter half of 2020 have been a focal point of the local movement spearheaded by S.A.F.E.

The local organizers, now plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city, worked tirelessly at the head of the coalition. They attended town hall meetings, organized local events and even had private meetings with city officials in an attempt to put an end to the antagonism between the city and its residents. Some progress was made, but overall, it became clear that more had to be done to attain justice in, and put an end to the blatant racism in the city administration.

“It is important that we fight attempts to suppress anti-racist organizing,” Charlotte Town, one of the leaders of S.A.F.E, said. “The propaganda campaign against the Black Lives Matter movement is no different than the same smears made during the 1960s Civil Rights movement and we will not let this willful distortion by city leadership dissuade us.” The people of Selah have shown great resolve throughout 2020. They continue to speak truth to power in a small community where, for better or worse, everybody knows everybody.

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