Controversy over the Black Lives Matter movement continues to brew in an unsuspected place — Selah.
This city of about 8,000 mostly white residents has been a battleground over the BLM movement the past four months.
Differing political perspectives over the matter have led to harsh comments, confrontations and City Council discussions.
BLM advocates say the city — at the direction of City Administrator Don Wayman — is taking every opportunity to quiet them and their anti-racism message.
The group — Selah Alliance for Equality, or SAFE — wants Wayman fired.
City workers washed chalk art promoting BLM from the streets. Signs promoting BLM and calling for Wayman’s firing have been removed from city rights-of-way while other signs are left undisturbed.
“For us it’s really a First Amendment fight,” said SAFE organizer Anna Whitlock. “There are political signs all up and down Selah and they pluck our signs and leave the others alone.”
Wayman said the city isn’t taking any political stance in the matter — it’s just enforcing its ordinances.
He said chalk art in the streets violates the city’s graffiti ordinance and only signs supporting political candidates or ballot measures are allowed in city right-of-way.
“First off, the city staff is nonpartisan — we don’t get involved in politics,” Wayman said. “What I can tell you is the people that have the liberal BLM perspective, they are very few.”
Most pronounced is the incident involving Zillah police Officer Matt Steadman, who lives in Selah.
On July 25, he called Selah police to report people writing Black Lives Matter messages in the street in front of his home. When police arrived, Steadman — with a holstered gun on his hip — walked over and confronted the people writing in chalk. He used obscenities.
Steadman then got into a heated discussion with the responding officer, again using obscenities. He became upset when learning there wouldn’t be an arrest and slammed the squad car’s door on the officer.
The officer felt pain in his arm where the door had stuck him, according to a report.
Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic didn’t pursue assault charges, saying he wouldn’t be able to convince a jury that Steadman intended to hurt the officer.
Then on Aug. 30, Dan Gamache, owner of the Red Rooster bar and grill, confronted SAFE members placing signs along First Street supporting Black Lives Matter and calling for Wayman’s firing.
“Gamache and his wife, Randi, were literally taking them down as we were putting them up,” said group member Bill Callahan.
The group video recorded Gamache yelling at a teen girl who was helping place the signs, asking who gave her permission to do so. The group also took photos of Gamache and his wife taking the signs.
Gamache said the video was misleading, that he was talking to the entire group and that the girl was pushed into his face.
“Then what happened was videos of me appearing to yell at the girl and that’s not the case,” he said.
Gamache said he was familiar with the city’s sign ordinance and takes particular offense to the ones calling for Wayman’s firing.
“This was hate-speech toward an individual,” he said.
Gamache said Wayman helped him get his business going when he took it over about a year ago.
“And I thank him for that,” Gamache said.
Gamache said the city told him he wouldn’t be charged for removing the sign.
“They’re considered litter because they are not backing a political candidate,” he said the city told him.
Wayman said anyone who removes the signs will not be punished.
“It’s not a crime to pick these things up,” he said. “They’re considered abandoned.”
“I know what Marxism is and that’s what it looked like, a neo-Marxist indoctrination,” he said.
The attack echoes one made by conservative pundits this summer. One of Black Lives Matter’s three co-founders said in 2015 that she was Marxist.
But Black Lives Matter grew into a broad, national anti-racism movement, with few supporters likely to identify themselves as Marxist, according to PolitiFact. The New York Times estimated that 15 million to 26 million people participated in protests this summer, making it one of the biggest movements in U.S. history.
Wayman, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said he bases his observations on his experience serving oversees in places like Afghanistan, where he said he’s dealt with sinister leaders and insurgency.
“I can smell it,” he said.
Wayman said he was asked the night of the June protest if he thought there’d be any trouble.
“I said no,” he said. “Selah has the highest concealed carry rate in the county, I don’t think it’s going to be problem.”
Those statements are what prompted SAFE to call for his firing, Whitlock said.
“He’s running the city like it’s the military,” she said. “So we feel like if we get him out of there, we can really begin to work on improving the community.”
Whitlock said the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t Marxist — it’s an effort to end racial injustice across the country.
She accuses Wayman and his supporters of attempting to quiet any voice that challenges racism.
“There’s a reason the population of the city of Selah is as white as it is,” she said. “We really are trying to change that so it is safer for people of color, women or anyone who may be marginalized.”
Wayman’s comments did prompt discussion among the City Council, and a closed-door meeting was held to discuss whether he should be reprimanded.
“There wasn’t a damn thing I did that was wrong,” he said. “I was pretty damn frustrated by it.”
He wasn’t punished.
Back the Blue
On Aug. 29, several hundred people gathered in downtown Selah in a Back the Blue rally supporting law enforcement officers.
Wayman said the rally boasted a much larger crowd than reported — he says more than 800 people attended — and that it displayed Selah’s true colors.
“There was Trump supporters and there was a flag raising and it was a fun time and they were supporting police and emergency responders,” he said. “They were having fun, buying hamburgers and hanging out at restaurants — it was a good time.”
Wayman says most of the Black Lives Matter supporters are from outside the city.
He said he received calls from people who have never stepped foot in Washington state after the New York Times published a story about the street chalk incident.
“I had oblique threats to my physical being,” he said.
Whitlock said her group is composed of about 600 supporters with about half living in Selah. Others live nearby but most grew up in Selah and still have family ties here, she said.
No middle ground
Since the sign incident, Gamache said he’s been dubbed a racist.
He said he supports Trump, law enforcement and Black Lives Matter — even though he and his wife pulled up the signs.
“I support people doing the right things and those signs are not the right thing and they are not the right way of going about doing things,” he said. “I look at it as extremism. It seems that nobody can discuss an issue anymore, it just becomes hate over the board, no matter which side it is.”
Whitlock said the political divide is wide over the Black Lives Matter movement in Selah.
“I would say it’s very extreme,” she said. “People are really, really against it or they are wholeheartedly supportive. There’s really no middle ground.”
The city’s response
Whitlock said about 200 signs — which cost about $1,200 — have been taken. She believes Wayman has taken more than 60.
She has a video of him taking some signs.
Whitlock said city staff removed her signs twice, but that she was able to retrieve them from the city’s public works office.
She said police and public works staff including the code enforcement officer direct her to Wayman when she has questions about her stolen signs or the city’s sign ordinance.
“Of course I’m not going to talk to Don Wayman,” she said. “All the signs say to fire Don Wayman.”
Wayman said the sign policy is clear and there was no need to have the code enforcement officer involved in discussions.
“If they don’t even want to talk to me, they’re not going to get anywhere, I’m afraid,” he said.
SAFE threatened to file a lawsuit against the city over the sign removal, giving the city until Tuesday, Oct. 20, to stop. On Wednesday, City Attorney Rob Case said the public works department was told several weeks ago not to touch the signs, and the order was expanded last week to all city staff, including Wayman. Case said he is still reviewing SAFE’s demand that the city revise its sign ordinance.
Wayman said it boils down to the group not agreeing with his political views.
“The mayor has got her team and they’re going to have to live with that team and I’m part of it,” he said. “The signs — they’re not wildly popular and I’m not surprised they got plucked up.”
Whitlock said Wayman is using city staff to quiet political expressions he doesn’t agree with.
“They’re trying really hard to just push us aside,” she said.
Former police Chief Rick Hayes said he retired early because he was tired of being micromanaged by Wayman and didn’t agree with Wayman’s response to the street chalk.
Wayman and Mayor Sherry Raymond directed Hayes to identify and document everyone who wrote in the street in chalk.
“I told you that he micromanages to the point 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,” Hayes said in the letter.
Raymond agreed to talk to the Yakima Herald-Republic, but couldn’t be reached before deadline.
City Councilwoman Suzanne Vargas doesn’t agree with the way the city has responded.
“I don’t think the question is does BLM have support have in Selah. I think the question is do people’s First Amendment rights have support,” she said. “I think the only person who can change how we are reacting or responding is the mayor.”
This story was updated to correct the name of the owner of the Red Rooster bar and grill.