Selah's (Former) Secret
Selah has had a secret for decades. It was unspoken but smugly held. Until the colonel recently spilled the secret. (No, not that colonel and not that secret.) It was Selah city administrator, Donald Wayman, a retired Marine colonel, who spilled the secret.
The first open glimpse of the secret came when we read news reports that Selah work crews had erased chalk art by local youngsters because somebody in their city administration called it graffiti. But there's nothing in the Selah City Municipal Code to support that claim. Read it for yourself.
See anything about chalk in the definitions section? The ordinance clearly targets paint and other permanent markers. Nowhere does it mention chalk.
The street art was on public property, it was not authorized, but it was not made with the permanent materials required by the city code.
It was not legally graffiti by the clear meaning of the town's ordinance. Period.
But for some reason, Selah needed it to mean chalk paintings on the street. It's doubtful they send out street cleaners for local kids chalking hopscotch squares on the sidewalk or on the street by their house. So maybe the problem was with the message of the youngsters' chalk art?
It was on the general theme of "Black Lives Matter."
Which brings us to how such secrets get spilled. A few days earlier, when a Yakima City Council member attended a protest in Selah, city administrator Wayman publicly called her out before the Selah City Council, claiming the group behind the protest was "a neo-Marxist organization," and suggesting that the protest reminded him of "communist indoctrination."
He also suggested that Yakima City Council members should not concern themselves with any issues in Selah, despite the considerable exchange of commerce, people, and air pollutants between our two towns.
The subject of the protest? "Black Lives Matter."
I am going to venture a guess here and say Selah's (former) secret has something to do with the three words that were common to the chalk art and the protest. Black. Lives. Matter.
Now, you know from experience that many folks in Yakima County (and to be fair, in many other parts of the country right now) respond to the observation that "Black Lives Matter" with the undeniably true (but somewhat less relevant) statement, "ALL lives matter!"
Which leaves only one word, standing alone. That means the problem word in the protest and the chalk art must be "black."
Selah's secret seems to have something to do with what makes them different from the rest of the county. Check the demographics and you will find their secret. Selah is overwhelmingly white. Not just a little bit. A lot. It is among Washington State's whitest towns, an anomaly in a county where no race or ethnicity is a clear majority.
And if what their city administration has done twice in the past couple of weeks is any indication, Selah must like it that way. Selah City Council members have defended Wayman's remarks about "neo-Marxist" and "communist indoctrination," saying he has a First Amendment right to express his views.
Since it seems logical the Selah council members feel the children of Selah have the same right to express their views with chalk, it's reasonable to conclude the real issue isn't free speech, per se. The city attorney has threatened legal action for "destroying" city property. Chalk art - just a concept of equality, actually - destroys only mind castles, not real property.
Since the city council and city attorney have defended it, they appear to be on board with the status quo. They are even looking into adding chalk to the city ordinance's list of graffiti instruments, a tacit admission that their original reaction in banning it as graffiti was wrong. That is a legal problem that may come back to haunt them.
But the bigger problem with secrets like this one is that once others know about them, they want to register their opinion on the underlying values and beliefs and behaviors. The days of a wink and a nod are gone once the secret is widely known. Selah's former secret could present problems for a town which previously had no issues more pressing that chalk on their streets.
I have to believe Selah's top employers - Tree Top, Monson Fruit, Zirkle Fruit, and Matson Fruit among them - will not care to have their names associated with Selah's top administrator's suggestion that the idea that black lives matter is either Marxist or communist in its flavor.
The ability for that information to travel far and wide is as simple as anybody with a computer or smart phone emailing the news story links above (or even this blog post) to national or regional reporters, grocery store chain buyers, hopscotch unions, chalk manufacturers, or civil rights lawyers looking to sue a city for violating what they have already acknowledged is a Constitutional right. (Which has happened since this blog post was originally written.)
The national and global blowback could be catastrophic for Selah's -- actually, all of Yakima County's -- economy. Outsiders will not understand our insistence that Selah means "white enclave" in the original Hebrew. In this modern age, they can look up its real translation for themselves without much help.
Maybe it is time for Selah's major companies and other Selah leaders to speak up and see to it that their town's kids with chalk and protesters with signs can exercise their First Amendment rights without fear of crossing Selah's invisible (white but no longer secret) line.