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Erasing words of hate
On her morning run on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail in North Bend’s Maloney Grove neighborhood, jogger Jane-Ellen Seymour stopped short when confronted by words of hate in glaring, three-foot-tall letters.
Late last month, someone had graffitied the pillars of the Interstate 90 overpass at 424th Avenue with flourescent orange spraypaint, marking a swastika on the roadway, daubing the initials of the Ku Klux Klan, and painting other racial epithets and degrading phrases.
It wasn’t the first time that Seymour, a North Bend mother of two biracial children, has seen slurs plastered on the site. Last year, she found white supremacist graffiti on the site.
“It gives you a chill,” Seymour said. “I don’t feel like it speaks for the community.”
It was the loneliness of the underpass that likely led to the graffiti.
“It’s a kind of place that’s a hangout, to not be seen,” she said. “It’s at an end of a street that’s quiet, and you’ve got a whole palate to deface.”
Although King County Sheriff’s Deputies make rounds in the area, Seymour said anyone lurking under the overpass can disappear quickly before they get to the end of the road.
The slurs were painted over this month by crews from the Washington State Department of Transportation, which manages highways for small cities. The site is outside the city limits of North Bend and falls under WSDOT’s watch.
The new paint job disguised the letters, but the swastika and “KKK” letters on the pavement are still obvious despite their coat of black paint.
Graffiti in the Valley
Racially motivated graffiti is discovered every year in Snoqualmie Valley communities.
Racial messages were sprayed on several Snoqualmie churches last year; that case is being pursued by county prosecutors. Last summer, a man was arrested for biting officers in a Snoqualmie tavern after he put up posters urging racial divisions.
While graffiti problems in North Bend don’t come close to rivaling those in big cities, North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner encourages property owners to cover the markings as soon as possible. The push to paint over graffiti has dissuaded would-be spray artists from joining in or competing against one another.
“The community and city has done a good job about covering it up,” Toner said.
“I see the same thing in Snoqualmie and Preston. County Parks and government agencies have programs that come out and take care of it.”
A full-time graffiti team operates out of the WSDOT Maintenance Office. WSDOT spokesman Jamie Holter said the best way to nip the graffiti problem in the bud is to contact the team as soon as the graffiti is identified.
“We need to know where it is. Once we find out where, I report it in and call our bridge office and see when they can get to it,” she said.
WSDOT has agreements on how graffiti on state highways should be handled in all cities.
If a city’s population is under 22,500, it is WSDOT’s duty to take care of maintenance and clean-up. If a city’s population is over 22,500, it is that city’s responsibility to clean up and maintain their own state highways.
Depending on the amount of damage to property, graffiti can be prosecuted as malicious mischief or, in serious cases, as malicious harassment. Graffiti with racial threats is a felony crime, punishable with prison time.
“We’re going to take it seriously,” Toner said. “We want to make sure this is something that’s not going to become an issue, (whether) it’s kids repeating something they saw on TV, or somebody truly espousing these beliefs.”
Seymour said any kind of graffiti sends the wrong message and emboldens more would-be taggers.
“It’s probably kids, but it’s dangerous,” Seymour said. “It opens the door.”
Hilary Bernstein, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said hate messages hurt more than just the target group.
“They really are messages to the entire community,” she said. “When this happens, a whole community is targeted, not one particular group.”
Bernstein said the best way to counter ugly speech is with positive messages.
“People underestimate the power of good speech,” she said. “There are ways to have teachable moments,” such as calling a community meeting with elected officials, educators and law enforcement.
“Bring everyone together to make a statement that this kind of message won’t be tolerated in the community,” Bernstein said. “This sends a countermessage that demonstrates welcoming and inclusiveness.”
• In unincorporated King County, residents can call King County Roads Services’ 24-hour helpline to get hate messages removed from road signs, buildings, or on pedestrian or vehicle rights-of-way. Call (206) 296-8100 to report any sign or graffiti that is offensive, threatening, denigrating, or sexist. Material identified as “hate messages” will be given priority.
• In city limits, residents should contact the local city public works office or street maintenance department.
• To report graffiti on a highway structure, visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/Maintenance/Graffiti/report.htm.