I’ve recently learned, after living for three years on a ranch outside of Echo proper, that moving to town and opening a business and renting a studio is a little like living with someone after having known and admired them from a distance. Suddenly all the little quirks come to surface and begin to annoy you. And soon enough, those seemingly small things become big important things.
I’m referring to the recent incident of hate speech by Lou Nakapalau and the reluctance of the city staff and council to address the problem head-on, as I witnessed in the last meeting. As a result, a quasi apology was made to a very limited audience, and only after some pushback from constituents and the community at large.
I think this situation is a symptom of a larger problem. In my attendance at the past few council meetings, I’ve been shocked, as well you may be, at the lack of public participation in the process. In fact, the first time I attended a meeting with a full audience, council members seemed surprised to have so many visitors. Sadly, I suspect that many of my fellow voters only pay attention to an issue when it directly affects them.
I’ve sensed a complacency and a reluctance on the part of the council members to speak with conviction when discussing matters of importance during meetings. Their comments are often inaudible, and it sometimes appears that members have not read the informational packets ahead of time. This gives the appearance of simply going through the motions, and as an observer, I’m often lost as to what is happening. And, the newly implemented policy of council members not commenting on public remarks only underscores that impression.
The reason for the situation, as I see it is two-fold: we have many people in town who are struggling financially and have turned their attention and energy to keeping food on the table and clothes on the kids.
Secondly, I don’t see the political environment of Echo as an hospitable one. There seems to be an Us vs. Them mindset that probably roots deeply into institutional memory. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Surely that must be the reason that I was recently warned to “be careful and not piss off the folks in city hall or they will make your life miserable.” Dana and I are currently being shunned by the folks at city hall for speaking up against hate speech, but we are not really miserable. It’s entirely worth it. We are, however, perhaps a little mystified that freedom of speech doesn’t seem to go both ways. Perhaps, too, this is why people feel like they have to whisper to us on the street, “We’re with you.” Let me just say here that there is no “them” or “you”. It’s US. All of us.
We can no longer hide in a river bottom a mile off the interstate. We are digital citizens, and when any of us logs onto the internet, we travel into the larger world. And just like Interstate 84, that highway goes both ways. When we log on, we also invite those teeming masses into our own homes and hearts.
When I tried to address Mr. Nakapalau’s disturbing digital hate speech toward the LGBTQ community in meetings with city officials, I was told that the fact that his remarks were aimed at someone half a world away didn’t really do any harm. I was also told that, at that point, not many people had read the East Oregonian article. The underlying message being, if it doesn’t affect us here in Echo, we need not address it. And, I’m afraid that it appears that reluctance to address it may mean you secretly agree with Lou’s homophobic attitude.
Alas, the digital world. It didn’t take too long for the story to be picked up by the Miami Herald, the Washington Times, the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News and World Report, to name a few. Just this morning, I looked up Mr. Nakapalau’s name on Google and had to go through five pages of results to get past newspaper and magazine articles, TV broadcasts and blog posts that tie him and his hate speech to Echo. This is what we look like to the rest of the world. We didn’t turn the lens on ourselves. Lou did.
In the council’s quasi apology, which I can no longer find on the city’s Facebook page, I recall a second paragraph, the purpose of which seems to remind us that council members are unpaid volunteers. While that is true, I would like to respectfully remind them that they are public servants. That is what they signed up for both when they ran and when they took the oath of office.
To use an education phrase, this is a teachable moment. What are we going to do to make ourselves better citizens? How will we make people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations feel safe in our community? What kind of leaders will we ALL be? We can have a beautiful arboretum and hanging baskets of stunning posies all we want, but we can’t hide the ugliness by removing the city’s Facebook page or enlisting citizens to counterbalance the way the outside sees us by giving it meaningless five-star reviews.
At Echo High School, I have the most amazing, intelligent high school students I’ve ever had the privilege to teach. On Monday, I was praising them for their level of tolerance and acceptance of newcomers, students of other races and people who are unique in their own ways. More than one of them responded, and here I paraphrase: “Yes, we’re comfortable if a guy wants to wear makeup to school, but we don’t think he would be safe in downtown Echo.” I’m afraid that the council and administration’s lack of concern about one of its representative’s intolerance — and he does represent all of us — tells me what is currently in their own hearts.
The rest of us are moving on to make this an inclusive community. You can come along with those kids and us — because you are also a part of the us — if you’d like.
Mr. Nakapalau’s actions while self-identifying as an Echo city councilman are unacceptable, and I am asking him to do the right thing and resign.
Pam Reese and husband Dana own the Butter Creek Coffeehouse in downtown Echo, and she teaches English at Echo High School.