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Shawn Vestal: As hate crimes are dismissed as hoaxes, ‘everybody knows’ is a potent new threat

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Last Tuesday, the community gathered to paint out a racial slur on the side of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center.

A crowd gathered. Speeches were given. Songs were sung, and people took turns painting out the spray-painted word, and – everyone agreed, everyone insisted – that this sort of thing would not be tolerated in our community.

At the same time, a certain number of people were already claiming – in comment threads, on social media – that it was a hoax.

How did they “know” this?

For some of them, there was a simple answer: Rachel Dolezal.

The day after the MLK Center vandalism, according to several reports, a family in the Logan neighborhood woke up to this message spray-painted on their home: “Can’t Stump the Trump, Mexicano.” Beside it was a swastika. The community and media response was … quieter.

As the week progressed, similar reports cropped up around town: City Council President Ben Stuckart said he’d heard reports from parents about incidents between children in elementary schools, and of ugly graffiti in a school bathroom. Kim Papich, who helps a refugee family along with three of her friends, said one of the friends found a note taped to the family’s door telling them to “Go home” and using a racial slur. (Papich is the spokeswoman for the health district, but was speaking on her own behalf.)

Skyler Oberst, the president of the Spokane Interfaith Council, posted a photo online of the words “Kill the Jews” scrawled in the dirt of a car windshield. He said he’s hearing reports from around town – a surge in such incidents since the election, he said.

Many of the reports were sketchy or lacking in concrete detail, some you might consider minor – especially if they weren’t aimed at you – and some degree of caution is definitely called for in situations where the picture isn’t complete.

Which is how some people “knew” – at least in the world of online knowledge – they were hoaxes.

Rachel Dolezal, after all.

She’s the Northwest’s biggest gift to white supremacy since Richard Butler.

On Saturday, my friend Nance Van Winckel went to the mall. She was on the second floor of the NorthTown Mall when she heard a ruckus below. She looked down to see a couple of older teenagers or young men cursing and hollering at a black family: “Trump won! F—- you! Trump won!”

“Their tone,” Nance said, “was gleeful.”

The little bullies shouted this as they ran past, and the family proceeded stoically.

Nance – who is a poet, author, artist, teacher and stealth badass – “dissolved,” as she put it. She wept as she recounted the event to me, wishing she had spoken up – shouted at them, cursed at them.

I wasn’t there that day, but I know two things with absolute certainty: I believe Nance, and there’s a very good chance I will hear from people who “know” – who “know” that “everybody knows” – that it’s not true, that she or I or someone who pulls our levers from a hidden bunker somewhere in Hugo Chavez’s basement lied.

And those people are fortified in their belief, for life, by the story of Rachel Dolezal.

This is the dual danger of the moment, as neo-Nazis heil Trump back in D.C.: There are a certain number of folks who feel unleashed – set free from the shackles that made it difficult for them to insult minorities with abandon. There are a certain number of others who might not use those words but believe that reports of racism are mostly a form of leftist weaponry against innocent good-hearted folk, and that – as Bill O’Reilly reliably informs them – it’s “open season on Christians and white men in America.”

The latter group excuses and absorbs the former, rationalizes and minimizes up the ladder toward ever-more mainstream, coded expressions of white disgruntlement, until the very top of the spectrum – the president-elect – is being saluted by the scumbling rats in the sewer. And before you know it, you realize your kindly aunt from Duluth has posted a Breitbart article on Facebook about how the “alt-right” really isn’t so bad after all.

There have been reports all over the country of an upsurge in outspoken bigotry, in crude bullying, in hate crimes. Some of the most distressing reports involve kids at school, young kids saying things to other young kids that they don’t even recognize are hurtful – and teenage bullying by kids who recognize very much how hurtful the rhetoric is intended to be.

As these incidents mount, so do denials. If you’ve let the Klan into your tent, after all, you’ve got to pretend it isn’t so. One man – a self-described patriot and Christian – spread around the notion on Twitter that he had “sources” who told him the MLK vandalism here was a hoax by pro-Hillary leftists.

I prodded him to back it up; he responded that “everybody knows” these are all hoaxes.

Everybody knows. In the factual desert, “everybody knows” is a sturdy old camel, lumbering along with a hump full of bile. “Everybody knows” – which is a mockery of “everybody” and “knows” – is how you get to a place where nothing you don’t want to believe has to be true.

For proof, you simply turn to the story of you-know-who.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.