Matt Driscoll

It’s time to stop ignoring racist acts, like the flying of a ‘white lives banner’ in Tacoma

The photo showed up on social media last weekend.

It depicted a crude banner hanging from a Tacoma overpass. The message: “white lives matter.”

Behind it, three indiscernible individuals stood, two peering over at passing cars below, one waving an American flag. The image was unnerving and disgusting.

In the past, as a journalist, I would have ignored such a blatant and brazen symbol of white nationalism showing up in Tacoma. Don’t give attention to people who don’t deserve it, the lesson goes.

But times have changed, and so have my views on the proper response to overt displays of racism and white supremacy.

The time for silence is over. I’ve come around to the view that we owe it to communities of color to shine a disinfecting light on incidents like these, disavowing them publicly and powerfully, even at the risk of giving such bigotry a signal boost.

That’s a change for me, but I don’t see much choice. There have been a steady trickle of similar incidents right here in Pierce County since the dawn of the Trump era.

It’s worth noting that Tacoma police spokeswoman Shelbie Boyd couldn’t confirm the validity of the overpass banner or the photos depicting it. Police arrived on the scene shortly after they received reports, she said, but there was nothing to be found.

Regardless, the report was not unlike other blatant displays of white nationalism I’ve seen recently and stayed largely silent on.

I’ve been emailed photos of racist literature distributed throughout parts of Tacoma. I’ve received reports of white nationalist groups meeting regularly at local establishments. People have told me about pickup trucks with Confederate flags driving through their neighborhoods, and the fear it left them with.

An incident similar to the Tacoma banner hanging recently was reported in Gig Harbor, according to a report by KNKX’s Will James. White nationalist business cards were reportedly distributed in Lakewood back in August.

And last May, City Councilman Marty Campbell told me he found a “white lives matter” sign taped on a no-parking sign near 38th Street and Portland Avenue.

“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” it read. “Because the beauty of the white Aryan woman must never perish from the earth. IT IS NOT RACIST TO LOVE YOUR RACE!!!”

Campbell reacted angrily.

“I tore it down,” he said. “There was anger that someone thought that they could come put that around my community. That someone was that emboldened.”

Still, Campbell initially stayed silent. He said he feared giving the sign “more attention than it deserved.”

It’s the same predicament I found myself facing with the photo from the overpass.

For perspective and direction, I reached out to Noah Prince, a diversity, inclusion and leadership consultant with long ties to Tacoma. What I wanted to know was straightforward: What is the correct community response when things like this happen?

“In the past I would say, ‘Don’t give these guys airtime. They love that,’” Prince told me.

That advice has changed with the increasingly prevalent voices of white nationalism and white supremacy that we’ve seen in the Trump Era. Prince noted the ways these views are “coming into the national conversation and the national imagination.”

“I think it’s incredibly important that white voices in particular speak out against overt white supremacy,” Prince said. “To me, if we don’t interrupt that dialogue, then we are really condoning it.”

Eventually, Campbell came to a similar conclusion. A few weeks after he found the white-nationalist sign, he posted a photo of it on social media. He decided that it was important to “acknowledge that it’s here, so that we can confront it and say you are not welcome here with those views.”

“I never wanted anyone to think that this is something that only happens somewhere else,” Campbell said of his decision.

That sentiments like this exist here, or elsewhere in the country, comes as no surprise, especially to people of color who live with racism and suffocating white supremacy every day.

But to see it increasingly crawling out from under its slimy rock to show its face in the light of day requires a new response. It’s reflective of a new reality, where white nationalism is no longer confined to the sick corners of the Internet or the backwaters of consciousness.

Up until now, I’ve largely chosen to avoid writing about specific incidents like these. They were all small, relatively isolated events, I told myself. Giving them play in the newspaper would do more harm than good, I thought.

That was wrong. Moving forward, I won’t be ignoring them.

But I’ll try to focus my attention on the community’s fierce repudiation of these acts and the ideas they represent. Because that’s what deserves attention.

I’ll also implore white people, like me, to take the lead in this public denouncement.

Not only is it what’s right and what the moment demands of us, it’s literally the least we can do.