Angela Walker worries she might sound too sensitive. Really, she says, she often smiles when people come up to her in the checkout line and ask to touch her sons' hair. High- spirited Myhles, 4, has an intriguing wild mop of dreadlocks, as does brother Tahj, 7. "It's just when they say, 'I never felt a colored person's hair before,' that I get upset and think: Our kids are not part of some petting zoo," says Walker, 39. A sturdy moon-faced woman with black curly hair, she is sitting across from me on a beat-up couch in the front room of her fixer-upper rental home on Chenault Avenue in Hoquiam, an ever-struggling timber town like its symbiotic neighbor, Aberdeen, set at the waters of Grays Harbor on the Pacific Ocean. Walker's trusty Astro van is stranded in the driveway. "Someone put sugar or something in the gas tank," she says as her family fills the room: husband Simmie, 39, and the five kids—Jordan, 14; Tashianna, 13; Rico, 12; Tahj; and the mighty Myhles, suspiciously eyeing a cartoon on the TV screen. All are black. Angela is mixed. Though her grandmother was black, some see her as a white woman in an interracial marriage. The Walkers, out of the Midwest by way of Florida, are the pepper in a salt-white small town whose history is recorded in trees chopped, pulp stacked, and people out of work. Hard times and a soggy climate have turned some prime older neighborhood homes into an Appalachia of waterlogged shanties. Many of the town's better-offs live on the hills above the Walkers' cream-and-red home, where the neighbors are not always neighborly. Out the Walkers' window, a security camera is mounted on the front of the turquoise home next door. It is trained on the Walkers' front yard. "He said he put it up because of us," Angela says, having coffee and asking if she can smoke. Simmie sits across the room, watching. "My kids have bigger hearts than me sometimes," Angela says. "They're able to make friends with kids who once called them
nigger. It's harder for me to turn that other cheek." She leans forward. "So many things make me terrified that my kids aren't going to survive this town."
The coastal town of Hoquiam,on Grays Harbor.
(Kevin Hong / The Daily World)
It's a question others around Grays Harbor have asked. In recent months, a black Aberdeen eighth-grader was attacked by schoolmates, and a Samoan U.S. Coast Guard officer at nearby Westport asked to be transferred after her car was keyed and she was harassed by locals. Eighteen months earlier, a black Coast Guard officer was transferred because of similar harassment. On Feb. 15, a man associated with white supremacists was arrested at his relatives' home in Hoquiam for conspiracy to sell C-4 explosives. He was nabbed in a multicounty sweep that included an alleged Seattle gunrunner who once bragged about trying to kill Martin Luther King Jr. On Feb. 17, police arrested an Aberdeen man on suspicion of unlawful imprisonment and rape of a black girl, a 16-year-old from Maryland, whom he met on the Internet. Arriving in the midst of this was a new book, Death on the Fourth of July, reopening the wounds of July 4, 2000, in the resort town of Ocean Shores, where a Vietnamese man from Bellevue was attacked by a group of skinheads waving a Confederate flag and shouting, "Gooks go home!" The Vietnamese stabbed to death the group's leader, an Olympia man, and wound up facing a count of manslaughter. (The case ended in a mistrial.)
Angela Walker: Her children are "able to make friends with kids who once called them nigger. It's harder for me to turn that other cheek."
Angela Walker has her own book to write. She tells of white kids driving past, calling out "niggers!" and a teenage girl who let it be known to the Walkers that she was on a "nigger hunt." Walker talks about son Jordan being chased home by two kids with an ax and a knife, calling out, "You fuckin' nigger." Two other kids were outside one day with bats. Another time, a neighbor hit one of Walker's sons with the handle of a mop; police were called but the neighbor wasn't charged. A mother and her two kids threw rocks at the Walkers, and, after school officials and police failed to take proper action, Angela says she got a restraining order against the mom. Another day, Walker's teen daughter came home from a dance in tears after someone wrote on the school bleachers that "Tashianna is a stupid nigor!!!!!!!" She responded with a note she passed out to students, citing the offender's misspelling and asking who the stupid one was, adding: "Being a nigger isn't about skin color, it is about the way you ACT. Judging by the words that you used, the nigger sure isn't ME!" Nonetheless, a few weeks later, between classes, a boy called her a slave. "He was 'talked to,' the school told me," says Walker. In January, a woman in a car drove wildly up onto a grassy area in west Hoquiam where Jordan was standing, causing him to jump over a fence. "She was trying to hit me, no question," says Jordan. Sometimes, when Walker reports incidents, police tell her to contact the schools, and the schools tell her to contact police. On one occasion, when Jordan opted to fight back, he got after-school detention. Friends who witnessed the fight protested by writing "Free Jordan" on their arms.
"Someone gets a gun, blows away my kid," Walker says, thinking out loud. "I believe that can happen."
'They're Black—Deal With It'
Downtown Hoquiam: classic Northwest, without a theme-park makeover.
The Walkers arrived in Hoquiam three years ago. They were lured by a family friend, who said that Simmie could probably get on at a local plywood plant. They drove up from Florida with the little they'd saved, while the friend hunted for a rental and rustled up some secondhand appliances and used furniture. They were excited to discover a part of America they'd never seen, the Great Northwest. Its reputed racial harmony, at least compared to the Southern states they were passing through, was a welcome thought. Other than scattered reports of an Aryan compound in Idaho, the Walkers heard little about racial conflict in the damp, liberal Upper Left Coast. Some census data Angela saw revealed that just 0.3 percent of their Grays Harbor County neighbors would be black. Still, the area had no racial history to look up. Hoquiam, the books said, was a coastal harbor town surrounded by great forests and named from an Indian word meaning "hungry for wood." Fully loaded logging trucks, exhaust stacks exploding, rumble atop streets originally paved with stone from Europe, the ballast dumped from historic sailing ships after they put in for a cargo of lumber. Hoquiam's once-bustling downtown, savaged by time and a failed 1960s urban renewal project, is left with but a few important landmarks, such as the little-used 1,100-seat, Spanish Moorish–style 7th Street Theater, circa 1928, one of the state's first talking-movie houses. Hoquiam, population 9,000, and its neighbor, Aberdeen, 16,000—they're separated by a street—have supplied wood, pulp, and seafood to the world for more than a century. Outsiders might be vaguely aware that the Harbor, as the region is called, remarkably produced two Nobel laureates: Douglas Osheroff of Aberdeen, 1996, physics, and George Hitchins of Hoquiam, 1988, medicine. But its most legendary son might be Kurt Cobain, remembered for his guitar and his shotgun and his loathing of his Harbor neighbors, whom he once angrily labeled
"highly bigoted, redneck, snoose-chewing, deer-shooting, faggot-killing, logger types." A more reliable description might be Don Hannula's. The late Seattle Times writer and Aberdeen native once explained that "chardonnay-sipping yuppies might choke on their brie trying to understand this, but Grays Harbor has a distinctly different, earthy charm. There's a time-warp aura. It's the way the Northwest was—without a theme-park makeover." Aberdeen did, however, have a theme park of sorts: more whorehouses—around three dozen at one point—than cities 10 times its size. (Poor sister Hoquiam had but one.) The brothels operated openly yet kept a modest profile. No one put up signs offering sex, but some did light their addresses in neon. The cathouses lasted until 1959, closed in a burst of civic morality. The economy and Saturday nights were never the same.
Memorably, one Aberdeen house was fondly called the Chocolate Shop. When its dolled-up black ladies strolled the shops along Wishkah Street, they made sure not to say how-are-yous to passing mill workers, in case their wives were within earshot. For a long time, it seemed to locals, the black ladies, along with a friendly window washer named Old Black Joe and, later, some imported athletes on scholarship at the local community college, were the few black faces around. Most people of color were and are the Indians from the nearby coastal tribes, such as the Quinaults, who today constitute around 3,500 of the county's 67,000 far-flung people. Hispanics number near 3,000, Asians around 1,000, according to census data. African Americans, their numbers rising over the years, nonetheless remain the minority within minorities. Maybe 200 black men, women, and children call Grays Harbor home. The Walker household on Chenault Avenue is 4 percent of the county's black population.
So it is typically white cops who keep coming to the Walkers' doorstep and white kids who call the Walker children nigger and white city and school officials who, Angela Walker says, don't recognize patterns of harassment. "We know that everywhere you go, someone is going to be ignorant and say something," Walker observes. But "never in our lives have we experienced the blatant racism that we have experienced here."
Walker says that after her kids were verbally or physically attacked several times, she asked if someone could give a school talk on the hurtfulness of racism. But she was told that a "militant" speaker wouldn't be welcomed. "I explained it was the NAACP, not the Black Panthers," says Walker. The school agreed to have a meeting of sorts, but officials would not allow racism to be discussed, she says. Walker noted that the Hoquiam School District had a legal responsibility and asked that a letter be sent to parents laying out school policy. It was too isolated a problem, officials felt. (Of Hoquiam's approximately 2,200 students, 1 percent is black or mixed race.) A school principal at one point said of her kids, Walker recalls, "They're black, deal with it— I can't eradicate racism." One youth who beat on her third-grader during a bus ride was banned from the bus. But, says Walker, the principal advised her to tell her son he shouldn't talk back to bigger kids.
Walker agrees that in some cases the perps might be equal-opportunity bullies and that school bullying is hardly uncommon. But skin color nonetheless changes the equation, and that's not being properly dealt with, she feels. Kids, like adults, know what kind of a weapon they have in the N-word. "They learn it from their buddies and their parents. They see hip-hoppers call each other nigger on the TV, as if that makes it OK," Walker says. "I remember a white boy sitting on that couch there with his cap side-ways, grabbing his crotch and saying, 'Whadup, nigga?' to my son. It was ridiculous! I called him on it. When they intentionally use names to hurt my kids and nobody says anything, then how do they learn it's wrong?"
The schools, ultimately, couldn't protect two of her sons, she felt. So Walker has pulled them from classes and now homeschools both. "It's not for their education but their safety," she says. Two Hoquiam School District principals chose not to comment on Walker's claims. Superintendent Tim McCarthy says: "Frankly, I think as a school district we don't really have a formal response. Angela and the school district may not necessarily see things eye to eye, but at the same time, I want you to understand we take allegations of discrimination or bullying or harassment very seriously. All of those [incidents] were investigated. We used the process of progressive discipline [a gradually more severe punishment] in dealing with students who commit offenses, so we believe we've been very responsive in this area. I am aware there have been incidents involving other youths in our community, but once again, I don't think we have a lot of detail that we'd like to share with you."
In 2003, Walker and a second woman, Sherrell Nelson, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Seattle Office of Civil Rights, claiming that a pattern of racial assaults and slurs against their kids in Hoquiam schools constituted discrimination. Gary Jackson, the Seattle office director, determined that "the district's actions do not constitute racial discrimination under the laws that we enforce." Documents recently released by the department state, "It is the position of the student, the student's parent, and the student's caregiver that they repeatedly informed the district of the racial slurs and that the school took no action to stop the slurs. The principal denied having received any such complaints from the student, the student's parent, or the student's caregiver and the principal's complaint log did not reflect that he had received such a complaint. . . . " In other, substantiated instances, the district took "appropriate" action, the department found.
Planning to Move
"I learned that I needed to keep better records," Walker tells me of her failed complaint. She has since become a note taker when there is trouble, talking to witnesses and having them and her kids fill out a form she calls her homemade deposition. She wishes she had done more of this earlier. Walker remembers how a retired teacher who lives up the hill pulled a gun on her kids and others playing near his house. Police arrived but made no arrest, though they found three guns in the house and each child identified the one gun that was pointed at them. The neighbor who hit her son on the leg with a mop handle got off as well. When an officer arrived, Walker wanted to press charges, but the cop said he couldn't take anyone to Hoquiam's jail—it was closed. (Due to a budget crunch, "We send our prisoners to the Grays Harbor County Jail in Montesano for short-term incarcerations," says City Attorney Steve Johnson, "and for long-term incarcerations, we send them to either the Forks jail or the Wapato jail, which are both cheaper than our county jail.")
Walker says the neighbor's mop attack was her turning point. The officer had left momentarily, and the neighbor suddenly appeared at the end of her driveway, "calling out 'nigger!' and cussin' away and pointing his finger in his shirt like he had a gun," says Walker. The officer returned as her husband, Simmie, arrived home. Simmie confronted the neighbor, shouting that he wanted him arrested. "The officer put his hand on the handle of his gun, you know, and he said to Sim, 'Back off!' Then a bunch of other cars arrived," Walker recalls. Suddenly, the Walkers were the focus, and Simmie, if he didn't cool off, could go to jail, an officer threatened. What? his wife asked. The jail was closed for the white man but open for the black man? We make arrests at our discretion, said an officer, as Walker recalls the event. "We stood there dumbfounded," she says. "The neighbor shook the cop's hand and walked off, smirking at us."
In a later run-in, she says, reporting another incident involving her children, she mouthed off—saying loudly to a cop, "It's obvious blacks are not welcomed in Hoquiam!" The cop turned and ran up to her door. His face was close enough that he was spitting on her, Walker says. "Don't you ever call me a racist!" she recalls him saying. The officer said police were sick of coming to her house. The problem with "your people," he said, is that you always play the victim, shunning responsibility, Walker remembers him saying. She said she'd file a complaint, and he warned that her family would no longer get police protection. Later on, she says, another cop apologized for him.
Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney
(Kathy Quigg / The Daily World)
"I want to say over and over that it's not everybody, not every cop, not every kid or mom. One school principal in particular, I really respect," says Walker. "It's not the town. There are many good people here, and they've helped us. But this nonsense will not stop." Walker says she tried, unsuccessfully at first, to contact the mayor, Jack Durney, who runs an insurance and travel agency near City Hall. Finally, one day she called and said she wanted some insurance. She was quickly put through to Durney. "What I want is insurance that my family is safe," she told him. Ultimately, he sent her a letter that said he had brought the incidents to the police chief's attention.
Durney, 56, a Hoquiam native who also served as Aberdeen's mayor in the 1980s, says he has been aware of the Walkers' complaints and has tried to solve them. With the mayor of Westport, which also has had recent racial conflicts, he put together a "proclamation on discrimination." It notes that the mayor and City Council "recognize that there have been reports of isolated instances of racial and ethnic discrimination and harassment in Hoquiam and elsewhere in Grays Harbor County, directed at members of our community and to guests." It refers to the misconduct of "a few misguided persons." The resolution, Durney told me in an e-mail, "is a part of a broader effort in the community to deal with the few who have created problems for some of our citizens. I am proud to take a lead in this and can speak for the city of Hoquiam that we do not tolerate any kind of discriminatory behavior. A lot of effort has gone into dealing with Angela's issues, and we take any charges seriously."
Hoquiam Police Chief Rick Thomas: "I'm not sure where Mrs. Walker is coming from at all, but she gets fair and equal treatment when she files a complaint with us."
(Kevin Hong / The Daily World)
Says nine-year Hoquiam Police Chief Rick Thomas, 57, who has spent 36 years in the military as a regular and a reservist and has lived in Europe and the U.S. South, among many locales: "I'm not sure where Mrs. Walker is coming from at all, but she gets fair and equal treatment when she files a complaint with us. If Mrs. Walker feels we're turning a blind eye to what's going on, or we're not up to the current times [in handling racial situations], my response is simply that if we can pursue a prosecution, we will do so." His records show Walker has filed just three complaints with police. His officers could not substantiate the first one, regarding her kids being assaulted and called names. "The second one," he says, "when she claimed her son was assaulted by an adult [the neighbor], we looked into that. We could not find any substantiating evidence. The boy had no welting, no bruise marks that could be seen. . . . The neighbor said the kids had tried to break his window. He said he didn't hit anybody—he couldn't remember hitting anyone. So we negated that one also." The chief adds that Walker, in the local newspaper, "apologized for the rude comments she made about the police department." He is apparently referring to a correction run by The Daily World last December, which stated: "Hoquiam mother Angela Walker wishes to clarify that her children have not been harassed by local police officers as stated during a public meeting Monday, and reported in The Daily World on Page A1 on Tuesday. Rather, she believes her entire family has been mistreated by police when they have been called for help. . . . " Chief Thomas has had better luck probing the third case he cites, the January incident in which a woman allegedly drove her car up onto the grass, causing Jordan Walker to scale a fence. "It looks like Mrs. Walker has a very valid complaint, and we have filed a report with a city prosecutor on that one,"
Thomas says. Walker, who takes issue with the department's sleuthing—noting, for example, that bruises on a black kid's skin are not always immediately evident—is happy to hear of the possible prosecution. She took pictures of the car tracks on the grass and had her kids fill out witness statements, turning over her info to police. A month after the assault, and within days after Seattle Weekly first contacted the mayor and police chief, Walker was called by a city prosecutor. "We went to the scene, and he took notes and asked questions," she says. "He also gave me his card and told me that if I ever run into a situation to call him." Still, it appears the suspect will be charged only with a moving violation. "That's not right," says Walker. But after the prosecutor told Walker the city has a year to file cases, she began rummaging through her evidence files on the neighbor/mop incident to see if that can be prosecuted, too. "We'll see what happens. We just want our kids to be able to be safe for the year or so we have left here," she says, referring to plans to move once they're financially able. "I dread summer. If they play out front, they're called names. If they play in the back, there are the neighbors."
Daily World Editor and Publisher John Hughes: "There is racism here, but it's hard for me to quantify."
(The Daily World)
A Dog Named Nigger
Is this town racist? Walker isn't saying that. John Hughes, a Hoquiam resident and editor and publisher of The Daily World in Aberdeen, thinks "there is racism here, but it's hard for me to quantify." His impression, he says, is that Hoquiam and Aberdeen don't have racist streaks beyond those of other small towns, though they might have less experience dealing with bigotry. "Of all the things in the world I hate, racism is at the top of the list," says Hughes, 61, who has two adopted Korean children. He has published letters and run stories on major racial incidents, including the assaults on Russell Dickerson III, 13, a black Aberdeen middle-school student who says he has been hit with rocks and raw eggs, called racist names, and was tripped in the hallway and stabbed in the back with a pencil. Daily World assistant city editor Dan Jackson recently wrote about the confluence of incidents leaving a "cloud of racism hovering over the Harbor," noting: "It gets me up in arms. It makes me want to do something, make a difference, and like so many other whites, it can make me overcompensate. . . . All anyone really wants, deep down, is to be treated normally." Author David Neiwert, in Death on the Fourth of July, his new book on the Ocean Shores killing, says police and communities who fail to act swiftly and conclusively to racism are begetting further acts. "Small towns are the kinds of place you're likely to find hate-crimes perpetrators, in no small part because of [the towns'] racial homogeneousness," Neiwert writes. The typical hate criminal, he says, is not the obvious redneck or skinhead "but is a fairly average person who otherwise fits in with his community—though, of course, he also likely subscribes to an array of prejudices." Editor Hughes says that even though "we all got tarred with a broad brush" in Neiwert's book, "we asked ourselves: Is there racism in Aberdeen, Ocean Shores? And of course there is, but
we should try to put a stake through its heart. All decent people are just appalled whenever they find anything like that in their midst."
Hughes' newspaper reported on Walker's Department of Education complaint and has published several of her letters and others critical of her. One, from an Aberdeen woman who had met Walker, spoke of "Angela Walker's ranting. Walker knew all about this community before moving here, right down to the census report. She knew it was a logging community with a small-town way of life, Caucasians out-numbered African Americans and that racism could be a problem for her children. . . . Walker has hollered racism since I have known of her and makes it a point that you know her ethnic background. . . . Walker is very intelligent and an expert at manipulating situations, changing people's comments and written words to make them racial." Says editor Hughes of Walker: "I know she's bright and has a right to be livid if what she says happened really happened. But is there a veneer of hyperbole? The lady who wrote to criticize her is a straight shooter, in my experience." Walker begs to differ. "When the letter came out, I was furious. I told [Hughes] not only was that letter fallacious but it was also slanderous and had nothing to do with the issue or racism." And certainly she knew it was a white town, Walker adds. Does that make racism OK?
In part, Angela Walker's challenge is to determine what's in another person's heart. Good luck. Fifty years ago in Hoquiam, on Cherry Street, a white man had a black dog named Nigger. He called it at night: "Here, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger, Nigger." He was my neighbor. I grew up in Hoquiam, moving away in the 1960s. I have no idea today if Old Man Kramer, a nice enough guy, was a racist or a nitwit. I know my mom and dad didn't think the name was funny, and I learned from that. Hoquiam, while white, was a melting pot of immigrant Scandinavians, Germans, Slavs, and Poles, among others. I don't know the town well today. But I do not remember it having a taste for bigotry.
Angela Walker says she will just try to keep her eye on the prize, the safety of her kids. If promoting that takes a lot of noisemaking and ticking people off, that's how it will be, she says. Some people might wonder about her motives and try to guess at her politics: "One woman called me a hopeless liberal and, for some reason, a tree hugger. Tree hugger? My husband works at a sawmill!" But if nothing else, she is helping prod white folks to discuss race in a small town, one that would rather talk about its championship basketball team or a minus clam tide. A community group has been formed to discuss minority issues, recently drawing 45 people to a meeting, and there are plans to set up diversity training for cops. "It's a start," Walker says. "It's encouraging. But ask me tomorrow."