With every stroke of a paintbrush, the word seemed to disappear.
The mayor took a swipe. Ordinary citizens did, too. City Council members, clergy, social justice advocates and organizers, children, police and fire officials – all took up the brush.
Each took a swipe against the N-word – spray-painted in bright red on the side of a children’s center named for Martin Luther King Jr. – and with each one, it became harder to recognize that the word had ever been there at all.
But it had. As important as it is for the community to paint it over, it’s just as important for the community to recognize that the word, and the sentiments it represents, did not disappear. It’s still there, under that paint, on the side of that building facing the children’s playground, and the person who put it there is still here, too, underneath the surface of our community, like a cancer inside the nobler ideals that most of us have: that we are a welcoming place, a fair place, a just place, a place that protects the vulnerable and resists the hateful and the ignorant.
Are we that place? It depends on where you look. And how recently it’s been painted.
The graffiti at Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center came as a cold slap Tuesday morning to the people who opened the doors in preparation for the day’s activities. By noon, public officials organized a rally at the center, and a crowd showed up, cheering passionate speeches, singing, applauding and standing in opposition to what had happened overnight.
Children played inside.
“This type of hatred will not be tolerated in our community,” said Freda Gandy, executive director of the center. “I’m asking all of you to stand with me against this.”
Phil Tyler, the president of Spokane’s chapter of the NAACP, made an impassioned plea for people to actually see and understand Tuesday’s graffiti not as a single incident that can be put to rest with an outpouring of resistance, but as a manifestation of a deeper problem that requires vigilant, long-term opposition.
“It is not a relic of the distant past,” he said. “It does not exist only in the deep South. This is Spokane, Washington. … My kids went here. I’m mad!”
In an interview after his speech, Tyler noted a twofold dynamic: the overt racism that shows itself, and the more widespread resistance to believing that hatred remains a problem. Both attitudes – obvious racism and the subtler, rationalized acceptance or denial of it – are tragically ascendant right now, in the wake of a presidential campaign that swam deeply in the gutters of bigotry and that built a movement that seemed to prize casual insults and unfettered slurs as a form of patriotism.
Tyler said that Spokane’s desire to believe the best about itself includes a certain amount of willful blindness.
“I think we try to insulate ourselves from it,” he said. “Because we want our community to look different from the way it might actually be.”
Joe Wittwer, pastor of Life Center Foursquare Church, gave a prayer in which he acknowledged the open division in the country right now and asked for help in overcoming it.
“Help us come together as us,” he prayed.
Someone asked me Tuesday if this was the Spokane I knew, and I said yes – both parts. The appearance of casual racism, like a blast of ice water reminding us what’s here, and the rising up of the community against it.
Both are part of the Spokane I know.
Both parts are us, though we’d rather they weren’t.
One part is stronger, though. One part is better. That’s the part that was out there Tuesday, wielding paintbrushes and hugs and prayers and songs. And that part has a crucial job to do, and it’s the same job we’ve had for a long time now, and it’s not going away. An important part of the job is to resist those who rationalize, defend, excuse, minimize and provide cover for that other part. That ugly part.
One stroke at a time, without forgetting what’s underneath.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.