‘Racially motivated’ issues still reverberate
By Marcy Stamper
It’s safe to say that Okanogan County isn’t often on the national radar. But the resignation of Okanogan County Prosecutor Arian Noma in January garnered widespread attention after the story was picked up by news-wire services, spawning coverage from Spokane to New York City.
Part of what focused the national gaze on a county of 42,000 people was the letter Noma addressed to “citizens,” in which he attributed his departure not only to insufficient money to do his job, but also to “racially motivated attacks” that made him fear for his and his family’s safety. It’s an issue that played out in a year that shone a spotlight on race relations, highlighted by Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.
This February, the Daily Beast, an online publication based in New York City, explored Noma’s story in an in-depth, 5,200-word article entitled “This Republican Prosecutor Stood Up for Black Lives Matter Protests. Haters Ran Him out of Office. Coincidence?” Journalist Kate Briquelet talked with people from the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, many of whom, like Noma, attributed his experiences in the county to racism.
The article also described an anonymous Facebook page called No More Noma that said Noma had created a hostile work environment in the Prosecutor’s Office and behaved unprofessionally in court. The page published statements from current and former staffers who described Noma’s conduct as abusive and inappropriate.
Since he stepped down from the prosecutor’s job in mid-January, Noma has reflected on his time with the county in interviews with the Methow Valley News — one shortly after he left office, and again this month.
Noma is currently building a private legal practice in the county, specializing in criminal defense and in employment discrimination, harassment and police brutality. “It’s been four months — I’m just trying to move on with my life. I’m way past it,” he said.
No More Noma
The No More Noma Facebook page was created at the end of last July with a stark purpose: “We are here to educate the citizens regarding Prosecutor Noma’s inability to provide justice and safety to Okanogan County.”
Their campaign was committed to holding an elected official accountable for his actions, the page moderators said. A primary concern was “the danger imposed on our families by criminals Arian Noma failed to prosecute.”
After Noma announced his resignation in December, moderators on the page said “accusations of systematic racism” were “very inaccurate.” They pointed to other posts targeting white officials.
Since they launched No More Noma last year, the page administrators didn’t respond to several requests from the Methow Valley News for comment or an interview. But after the Daily Beast story was published, they sent a brief statement, along with a copy of a letter they’d sent to the Daily Beast.
“We were under fire from Noma; he was utilizing our page to martyr himself. See below for a e-mail we sent to a NY reporter whom tried to twist our purpose for the benefit of racial injustice,” they said to the News by email, including a copy of their letter to the Daily Beast and a link to the article. “This will be the only information we give.”
“Our page and community was founded when Mr. Noma began releasing murderers and rapists from jail,” the page administrators wrote to the Daily Beast. “Our primary purpose was to inform; as we stated regularly. No intimidation was intended; our goal was to show the citizens the truth to keep Mr. Noma from being elected again.” They included a list of people they said Noma had released from prison, along with descriptions of the violent crimes they had committed.
After half a year of attacks from No More Noma, Noma said that the stress and the fear for his family’s safety had taken such a toll on his health that he had to step down.
No More Noma said they had obtained all materials through public records requests. They withdrew their requests after Noma resigned, they said.
Although No More Noma vowed the Facebook page would remain active, it is no longer accessible.
“We were forced to remove our page for our safety. Mr. Noma discovered the identities of some of our personnel and was making threats towards them,” the site administrators said. “We stand firm on our anonymity and will never reveal our sources or implicate our beloved officials, rest assured; we had support from many places.”
Several staffers in the Okanogan County Prosecutor’s Office described a hostile work environment under Noma. Some said employees were belittled and reduced to tears; one described the environment as “turmoil.”
Noma was the first to agree. But he has a different take on the source of the tensions.
As Noma tells it, he was never welcomed by county staff or other elected officials, and had little contact with them during his two-year tenure. “I was never made to feel that I was a part of the government,” he said, wondering if he should have reached out more.
“I agree that it was a hostile environment. But I didn’t create it — I was the victim of it,” Noma said.
Noma said he’d asked his staff for suggestions on improving the office, and encouraged them to be loyal to public service, not to any individual. He contends that a small group of employees were determined to undermine the Prosecutor’s Office.
Noma denied that he was a micro-manager. “My voice goes up and down. I’m not yelling — that’s just who I am. I’m a passionate person,” he told the News.
The caseload was overwhelming when he took office in 2018, Noma said. He’d had no idea of how behind the county was in its workload when he ran for office. The department needed another eight attorneys to handle all the cases, he said.
Since being appointed in January after Noma’s resignation, Prosecutor Melanie Bailey has described the caseload as “high, but manageable.”
Noma admits that there was room for improvement during his term as prosecutor. “Are there things I could have done differently? Better? I bet you there are,” he said.
Noma, a Republican, ran in 2018 on a platform of reforming the county’s justice system, including what he called “over-criminalization” of minor infractions, particularly for young people, and excessive bail.
“This county missed an opportunity — I was the first person of color to be elected in this county,” Noma told the News. He was disappointed that this milestone hadn’t received attention, although he acknowledged that he never brought up his ancestry during the election campaign, opting to highlight his qualifications for the job.
Noma said he answered questions about his background only when people asked. Many assumed he was Mexican. In fact, his mother is Sicilian and his father is Black, Native American and Filipino, he said.
“Mr. Noma claimed numerous nationalities through his campaign and tenure at the Prosecutor’s Office,” No More Noma wrote to Briquelet and the Daily Beast. “We do not care that he is proud of his heritage, however; he utilized bits and pieces of his nationality to gain rapport with different groups in our community. In our opinion, if you are proud of your heritage then do not hide bits from certain groups to gain support. Ironically enough one of our sources and authors is native american or ‘indigenous’ as you called it.”
Noma said he hadn’t spoken publicly about his background or the social justice demonstrations until he decided to address a June rally in Omak for the Black Lives Matter movement as a private citizen, not as an elected official. “I knew it was political suicide. I needed to show my children that you have to stand up for your beliefs, even at the risk of your job,” he said.
The rally drew about 500 supporters of Black Lives Matter, plus 100 to 200 armed community members who said they were there to protect local businesses. Noma told the News he could understand both perspectives. But he recognized that some people felt intimidated by the armed individuals. At the rally, he spoke about his ancestry, Constitutional justice, the country’s history of slavery, and the prison system.
Among all the attacks on the No More Noma Facebook page — some of which put the title “Prosecutor” and “man” in quotation marks and chided “Bad Arian,” as if scolding a child — Noma said the one that stung him the most was a description of him as a chameleon. Last summer, the Facebook page said Noma had described himself as “African American” at a Black Lives Matter rally. They accused him of being a “chameleon blending in to whatever group he can to gain trust.”
That charge tapped into painful childhood memories of not feeling fully accepted by either side of his diverse family, he told the News. “I believe in civil rights for everyone. This county clearly doesn’t,” he said.
Looking to the future
Noma is still committed to making changes that will give people — especially young people — a better chance at reform, so they don’t become ensnared in the criminal justice system.
But he knows he won’t be in politics again. As a public servant, he felt stifled, unable to fight for the changes he wants and to speak his mind, he said. “I’m not a politician — I tell it like it is,” he said.
Noma has lived in Okanogan County since 2014 and his youngest child was born here. But he still has concerns for his family and hopes he won’t have to leave the area.
He’s convinced that racism is the only explanation for the organized campaign against him. “My story is, to some degree, part of the national narrative,” he said.