Port Angeles council discusses racism after visitor’s story

PORT ANGELES — A visitor’s account of a brush with racism in Port Angeles prompted a City Council discussion last week.

James Hong of Seattle was walking through the 9/11 Memorial Waterfront Park with his Vietnamese-born parents when they encountered a group of young white men, one of whom was urinating in a bush, Hong said in an essay that appeared in the Seattle Globalist (www.seattleglobalist.com).

“Hey. This is America,” one of the men told the Hongs.

“Merica,” said another.

Hong wrote in his May 31 essay that he and his parents ignored the hecklers as they shouted “I love Kim Jong Un!”

“Make no mistake, my family and I were terrorized at the 9/11 Memorial Waterfront Park,” Hong wrote in a short story called “A family faces racism at a memorial: ‘Hey. This is America.’ ”

Port Angeles Mayor Sissi Bruch introduced the topic as an added agenda item for Tuesday’s council meeting after receiving a link to the story in her email.

Other council members said they, too, had seen the piece.

Bruch read the entire essay into the record, saying she was “struck” by Hong’s account.

“We just need to try to see if we can all have the courage when something like that happens to speak about it and try to help the person who’s experiencing this,” Bruch said.

“I think as a city we need to decide how we want to be. That’s why I brought it up.”

Council member Mike French said Hong was “absolutely right” when he wrote: “The only way for our country to sincerely address racism is for white people to stand up and call it out.”

“I think our community is very open and welcoming, but I think the opinions of the people that were harassing these visitors, they do exist in our community,” French said.

“That’s something that I can’t change, but I think that we can, as leaders, work to marginalize those opinions and say ‘This is not who we want to be.’”

Hong, 34, said the incident occurred on the evening of May 13 and he and his parents were returning from dinner at a downtown restaurant.

He and his parents were walking along the Port Angles Waterfront Trail back to their vehicle in 9/11 Memorial Waterfront Park, formerly Francis Street Park.

Hong said he turned away from the young man who was urinating in the bush as a courtesy. He said the taunts grew louder and louder he and his family kept walking through the park.

“There’s really nothing one can do in that situation, other than keep walking and keep our dignity,” Hong said in a Saturday telephone interview.

Because they were outnumbered, Hong said he feared for the safety of his 60-something parents, who came to the United States as refugees after the Vietnam War.

The family had visited Hurricane Ridge, Marymere Falls and the Elwha Valley as part of an annual nature outing on Mother’s Day weekend.

Several council members discussed Hong’s essay in the context of the The Laramie Project, a play that the Port Angeles Community Players Second Stage had performed in recent days.

The play is about Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming college student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead on a dirt road near Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.

“Watching The Laramie Project, I thought ‘Boy, this could be The Port Angeles Project,’” Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said at the meeting.

“A lot of the things that were reflected in that play were things that I see in our community.”

Council member Cherie Kidd highlighted the positives of Port Angeles, citing its long-standing sister city relationship with Mutsu City, Japan, and the hosting of the annual Esprit conference for transgender individuals.

“I’m sorry this article points out an unpleasant experience by some visitors, but I hope they met other people in Port Angeles — whether it was at a store or in a restaurant or at the visitors center — that made them feel welcome, because we all should strive to do that,” Kidd said.

“I’m sad that one family had an unpleasant experience, but we need to take time and reinforce the positive experience and teach that by example.”

Hong said the rest of his family’s trip to Port Angeles was positive. He said his father greeted everyone they passed as they walked along the waterfront trail.

“It would have been a perfect weekend if not for this little incident,” said Hong, who often visits Port Angeles on his way to Olympic National Park.

“It was a very warm and welcoming place.”

Hong, the executive director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association in Seattle, cautioned communities from sugarcoating racial tensions by focusing only on the positives.

“I think there’s a lot more nuance to it,” Hong said.

“When it comes to racism and sexism, there is no amount of positive things that undoes that hatred, that violence.”

Schromen-Wawrin said the harassment that Hong and his family experienced was not an isolated incident.

He recalled seeing a Confederate flag on the Port Angeles High School flagpole when he was a student there.

“The fact that they did that doesn’t upset me,” Schromen-Wawrin told his fellow council members.

“It’s the fact that it took hours for the school staff to take it down. And what upsets me more is that I didn’t just go down and take it down, because, you know, I was just waiting for somebody else to do it.”

In 2001 and 2002, black and Hispanic members of the U.S. Coast Guard said they were the targets of racial taunts and vandalism while stationed in Port Angeles.

A community multicultural task force was formed in 2002 in response to a subsequent Coast Guard investigation.

Today, teachers at Port Angeles High School report that some students are flashing white supremacist symbols to each other thinking they’re cool, Schromen-Wawrin said.

“That’s not cool at all,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

“We as a community are responsible for this,” he added. “We weren’t there at the park that day, but it’s our community.”

Deputy Mayor Kate Dexter thanked Bruch for raising the issue.

“I do think as leaders it’s important for us to address all of the aspects of our community, not just the good parts, which are amazing and great,” Dexter said.

Hong listened an audio recording of the 14-minute council discussion after receiving a request to be interviewed Friday. He said he hoped that diversity would be part of council’s ongoing ethics training.

“I really appreciate that they elevated the issue in a council meeting,” Hong said.

“It was nothing I ever expected, to be honest, when I wrote that essay.”

Hong added: “It brought a smile to my face.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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