We haven’t had many opportunities to publicly celebrate anything in the past few months, or to gather in what would have been entirely normal social settings. A couple of events last weekend, both essentially Methow in character, felt like a joyous emergence from hibernation.
On Friday, graduation day for Liberty Bell High School and Independent Learning Center students had a different look. Because of social distancing and other COVID-related precautions, there was no gathering in the Liberty Bell gym.
Instead, the students traveled around the valley in a vehicle caravan that started in Twisp, headed up Highway 20, wove through Winthrop, and then proceeded to the high school via Twin Lakes Road. They were greeted all along the way by celebratory signs, balloons, and lots of people lining the roads and town streets to applaud the class of 2020.
Some students were in cars, others in the beds of pickup trucks with family and friends. Most wore gowns and caps, some with personal modifications (whatever was under the green robes was, as usual, clearly a matter of individual choice). Extended family were allowed to come along in separate vehicles if they didn’t all fit in one. Many cars and trucks in the procession were creatively decorated.
At the school, the vehicles lined up around the parking lot and one-by-one, as their names were called out on a loudspeaker system, the graduates exited their rides, walked up a red carpet, and received their diplomas. The superintendent and school board, appropriately spaced, applauded as they passed.
The untypical celebration was organized by the school district after a lot of thought and consultation – and it appears to have been a big hit with the community. The grads obviously were having a great time interacting with folks along the way. I heard one observer note that many of the people along the procession route probably would not have come to the gym for a traditional ceremony. Already, there is buzz that perhaps the procession could become an annual event, followed by diploma distribution in the gym (assuming, and hoping, that will be possible next year). If it’s anything like this year’s community drive-through, it would be more inclusive.
The one somewhat sad note was that, instead of gathering together one last time, the graduates drove off separately to their own family celebrations. Remember, many of these students probably had not seen each other for weeks because school was not in session. At least they had one final shared experience – with each other and the community at large.
On Saturday morning, an informally organized Black Lives Matter demonstration materialized at the four-way stop in Winthrop. An estimated crowd of 70 – representing all ages from seniors to toddlers – peacefully gathered at the heart of town to plea for racial justice. They carried signs that, for the most part, seemed to have been prepared on short notice, and chanted slogans calling for dramatic changes in how this country thinks and operates.
It was a calm gathering, and kind of festive. It was not terribly disruptive to traffic. Drivers were encouraged to honk in support of the demonstrators, and many did. There was no law enforcement presence (and none needed). There were no armed men patrolling the boardwalks.
It was a different scene earlier in the week at Omak, where an estimated 300-500 people participated in a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration. Anticipating who knows what, law enforcement was well represented. According to a press release from the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, “Local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies from throughout Okanogan County along with Lifeline Ambulance, Life Flight and Omak Fire formed a comprehensive response plan to both protect demonstrators and their right to express their concerns, as well as to preserve public safety during an emotionally charged event. No incidents occurred which required police or emergency services to respond during the demonstration.”
Good to hear, and in itself not problematic although the multiple-jurisdiction deployment seems a bit much.
But in addition to law enforcement, according to the press release, “A group of local business owners and other supporters, many of whom were armed, were present along Main and Central Streets prepared to protect businesses and participants from the violence and destruction that has occurred in several cities throughout the nation at other demonstrations.”
What acts of violence were these self-appointed militia expecting in Omak? Apparently motivated by unreliable rumors of some kind of Antifa action, gun-toters have been showing up at demonstrations around the country. It seems their presence is not intended to protect but rather to intimidate – which is exactly the attitude the demonstrators are saying needs to change.