SNOHOMISH — Mayor John Kartak reached a breaking point earlier this month, when someone mailed a box to his home address.
Inside was a cookie shaped like male genitalia, with an obscene message spelled in cutout newsprint, telling him to eat it.
It prompted Kartak to write a Facebook post showing the stack of “hate mail” he has received since May.
“You make it embarrassing to say we are from Snohomish!”
Some letters and virtual messages were explicit.
People quickly started to point out that the mayor had also shared his critics’ return addresses. Kartak removed the post, then uploaded new pictures of the messages with scraps of paper covering sensitive information.
“ … if someone wants to remain anonymous, why would you add your return address on something?” he asked on the edited post.
It has been an exhausting year all across the country — between a pandemic and widespread social unrest — but few small cities in the Pacific Northwest have seen vitriol and divisions come to light quite like Snohomish.
The tipping point came on May 31, when crowds of people gathered downtown, some carrying guns, in response to a rumor that a local anti-fascist group planned to loot downtown businesses.
No rioters showed up. Instead, news cameras captured images of Confederate flags and men flashing racist symbols. Kartak said in radio interviews that only a small fraction of the people who showed up were affiliated with fringe groups, on either the far right or far left, and that they do not define the town.
“Our community tends to be welcoming to all people of all races, all colors, all genders,” Kartak said earlier this year on conservative talk radio.
What happened on May 31 has become a frequent topic of debate at Snohomish City Council meetings. In response to what they saw and heard, concerned citizens have spent hours sharing other experiences of racism in the city.
This month, Kartak has uploaded two Facebook posts that he later apologized for. First he posted a meme that showed a toy car running over plastic people. One of those people was being crushed under the vehicle. Across the image, big white letters read: “Coming this Christmas new Hasbro ‘Peaceful Protest’ action set.” The car resembled a Dodge Challenger that hit Heather Heyer at a protest in Charlottesville in 2017, killing her.
Kartak removed the post within minutes. He said it was a mistake, and that he didn’t realize what was being depicted.
Some things have changed in Snohomish’s leadership since May. After people called on former police chief Keith Rogers to resign, he was reassigned within the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and has since been promoted to captain. The city contracts police services through the county. Sheriff’s Capt. Robert Palmer took on the role of Snohomish police chief.
Former council president Jason Sanders moved away from Snohomish for other opportunities, leaving an empty seat on the council.
One of the more progressive council members, Linda Redmon, has since become president. On Tuesday, the council chose between eight candidates to fill Sanders’ vacated seat.
The vote ended in a tie between two finalists. Kartak cast the deciding vote for Felix Neals, a human resources director who has lived in Snohomish for four years and served on the city’s public safety commission for two.
He is expected to be sworn in Nov. 3.
City leaders plan to keep that city council meeting short because it begins at 6 p.m. on Election Day, when much of the country will be tuned into one of the most contentious presidential races in our nation’s history. As a result, public comment has been eliminated for matters not on the agenda.
In the past four months, city leaders, church groups and others have tried to heal wounds of those who have shared their pain. They have held roundtables and town hall meetings, and have listened to struggles they may never experience.
Still, some feel little progress has been made.
Kartak’s recent social media posts have reawakened concerns about Snohomish being safe for everyone, the new city council president said at a public meeting this month.
“On behalf of the council I want to say very clearly that Snohomish does not welcome or condone violence of any kind,” Redmon said. “We want everyone regardless of age, race, national origin or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability or economic status to know Snohomish stands together to welcome them warmly.”
She also made it a point to condemn white supremacy.
At the end of the meeting, Kartak apologized for not looking at the image of the toy car more carefully before posting it. He’s currently running against incumbent John Lovick to become a state representative in the 44th District.
“I want to point out, that was a huge failure at a sensitive time like this, as a mayor like myself, to post something accidentally in a situation that was just so avoidable, had I spent a few more seconds studying what I was going to put up on my personal page,” he later told The Daily Herald. “So I own that.”
He said he thought the image showed a demonstration around a parked car with people climbing on top — not a car crashing into people. He saw it as a reflection of his belief that violent protests have been described as peaceful in the media.
“What I saw was pretty akin to another meme, that I think was pretty spot-on, and that’s a meme of the Pearl Harbor attack with bombs dropping, flames and fire everywhere, and the meme was basically explaining that if the media today was to report on that, they basically would describe that as a mostly peaceful protest,” he said at the meeting Oct. 6.
On Oct. 10, Kartak posted the pictures of his mail.
Protesters during the summer had given out blank postcards addressed to Kartak’s home. Britta Grass, 39, used one to write a strongly worded letter to the mayor.
“I know you to be a basically nice person who wants the best for your community,” she wrote. “Your recent statements about Snohomish, my home town, show that you’re prone to selfish thinking, conspiracy theories and an alarming lack of remorse. Please resign. Listen and learn.”
She included her address in case Kartak wanted to respond. She has sent similar messages to other elected leaders, and sometimes she has received letters back.
“It would never occur to me to hide my address from one of my leaders in my community,” Grass said. “There’s a certain amount of trust that they aren’t going to use that for any kind of nefarious purpose.”
Grass lives in Snohomish with her three children, all of whom have gone to Snohomish schools.
She admits she didn’t realize the letter was going to Kartak’s home, and wishes she would have done more research before sending it. In retrospect, she would have rather mailed it to City Hall.
In the same series of protests, one of her daughter’s classmates was punched in the face while marching on First Street. Both incidents were caught on camera. Grass wonders if counter-protesters and agitators saw her address.
“It doesn’t feel like a very big leap to be concerned about my family’s safety with that context,” she said.
While Grass is disappointed in Kartak’s leadership, she does not think he was knowingly trying to cause harm by posting her address — an intimidation tactic known as “doxxing” when it’s intentional.
“I just don’t think he was thinking, but you know the impact of your actions is what carries out, not your intention, and the impact could have been way worse than it was,” she said. “I have had this stress of dealing with it, and it should have just been me sending a letter as a constituent and maybe receiving an answer back. That should have been it.”
‘Can it get any worse?’
One of Kartak’s closest allies on the council, Larry Countryman, accused Snohomish for Equity of being responsible for the anti-Kartak messages.
“This is ALL coming from the Snohomish for Equity group,” he wrote on Facebook.
Countryman did not respond to requests for an interview.
Snohomish for Equity had nothing to do with the mail, President Tabitha Baty said.
The group offers online equity training and hopes to spark conversations about dismantling racism in the city.
Snohomish for Equity was established in 2018 by a group of mothers with children who experienced racism in the Snohomish School District. The group seeks to build partnerships with the city government, school district, businesses and faith community, “to change and inform policies or practices within the city as a whole, that are diverse and inclusive of all people of all races,” Baty said.
Baty has noticed a divide in town since the gathering on May 31. Some downtown business owners thought the armed civilian response represented a community coming together. Others, like Baty, saw the exact opposite. She and other Snohomish for Equity members feel nothing has changed since then.
“I don’t think we ever thought it was getting better,” Baty said. “I think as each thing happens you’re like, ‘Can it get any worse?’ I mean, when is it going to stop?”
Someone from the group attends every city council meeting. Baty was present Oct. 6, the first meeting after Kartak posted the car meme.
After hearing from four people criticizing the mayor, Councilmember Steve Dana stepped in. He didn’t want to spend the meeting listening to complaints, but acknowledged people have strong feelings about the controversies of the past four months.
“I would certainly encourage people to provide input to the city if they have concerns, but I’m really not interested in hearing a bunch of other people coming up here talking about how they demand or they want the mayor to resign,” Dana said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate for the business of the city.”
Redmon said those concerns are important to the city. She has heard from people who no longer want to visit Snohomish because of its reputation. It hurts businesses and the people who live here, she said.
Public comment continued.
Dana has lived in Snohomish most of his life. His family moved here in the 1960s, and he graduated from Snohomish High School in 1968. He joined a Snohomish citizen review board in 1987 as a volunteer. He later was elected to the city council and carried out two terms, from 1990 to 1997. During that time he also served as mayor, from 1991 to 1995, when the city had a weak-mayor form of government.
Dana then spent about 20 years on the city planning commission. In 2009, he lost a Snohomish County Council election to Dave Somers, who is now the county executive.
Dana’s family owned The Hub, a well-known restaurant in Snohomish, for 50 years. He closed it amid the Great Recession in 2010. He took about a decade-long break from politics, and was elected to the Snohomish City Council again in 2017.
He’s not the only lifelong Snohomish resident on the council.
Countryman graduated from Snohomish High School in 1960. He has said he does not believe prejudice is a significant problem in the city.
“Maybe it’s because of my white privilege,” Countryman said at a June council meeting, “but I don’t see the racism everyone is talking about.”
“My role and Larry’s role is to provide, I guess you could call it, the long-term history of the community,” Dana said in a June interview with The Herald. “That institutional memory that you want for people who can remember when things were different, or how things were different.”
‘We can overcome’
City council members and others gathered over a Zoom video call in June for a town hall meeting to discuss recent events and address racism in the city. Attendees included church leaders, the Snohomish School District and Snohomish for Equity board members. Many participants were people of color.
After three hours, as the meeting came to a close, Dana spoke up. He objected to the insinuation that Snohomish is a “white supremacist city.”
“I have experienced this before when trying to talk about these issues,” Redmon responded. “There is a certain amount of defensiveness that gets invoked when we try to talk about issues that you personally haven’t maybe examined — how structures that we have, have been built upon history that is racist.”
Dana spoke with The Herald the next day.
“I felt that if nobody pushed back from the characterization of Snohomish as being a white supremacist racist community, that everybody would just come to the conclusion that we all believe that,” he said.
Dana describes himself as politically conservative. He said his opinions are in the minority on the council. He thinks it’s good to have varying outlooks, to have more than one position on each council decision.
Often he uses his public Facebook page as a kind of blog to share his political musings.
“Why is it now okay to say ‘people of color’ but not ‘colored people’?” he wrote in August. “Don’t get me started on the word NEGRO. Who decided that word was persona non grata? Is its usage a racial slur? If a few people decide they’re offended by a word usage, when does it officially fall out of favor? Who makes the rules for these things?”
Speaking with The Herald, Dana said he knows racist people probably live in Snohomish, but doesn’t believe the whole town should be characterized that way. One reason, he said, is because he hasn’t seen many concrete examples of discrimination.
“I think I’m old fashioned enough that I want to see an offense,” he said. “I want to see something that I can respond to, rather than, ‘Am I woke enough in order to be conscious of the stuff that’s going on?’ And clearly, at my age, I’m not looking to be ‘woke.’ I’m looking to deal with the bread and butter issues of the community.”
He has heard people’s worries, but doesn’t think the city council is equipped to make the kind of social changes they want to see.
“The role we have by statute is to ensure we have police departments there to protect us, clean drinking water, good streets, parks, the services people expect out of a city,” he said. “Our budgets are not built out of social services.”
Redmon has pushed back against some of Dana’s statements at council meetings. She was elected to her position almost two months ago. No one else was nominated, and all present voted in her favor.
“I think this selection is very good,” Kartak said. “I don’t know anybody who works harder than councilmember Redmon.”
Redmon moved to Snohomish in 2009, working as a nutritionist and a massage therapist. She began to attend city council meetings a few years ago, when the city was preparing to tear down Hal Moe Pool. She also heard rumors that the city was considering the removal of a skate park where her son and his friends spent most of their time. Her son spoke to council members in favor of keeping the skate park.
Redmon kept attending meetings, and eventually she ran for city council. She was elected in 2017.
“I try to make sure the marginalized people in our community have a voice, too,” she told The Herald in June.
Redmon understands feelings people have expressed in the past few months. She said she has been a target of discrimination herself because of the color of her skin. Her mother is from Thailand. She was among the people who felt afraid on the night of May 31.
At one city council meeting, Redmon publicly shared what happened to her that night. She and her husband run a health care practice downtown. They locked up around 4:30 p.m., just as people started to stand guard with guns outside of shops.
“I was concerned, and I think the people who were concerned have every right to be,” she said. “I’ve lived that experience other people are talking about, feeling fearful. I hear them.”
She went home, then returned downtown two other times that night. She said each time it had grown rowdier.
“So I can see how people have different views on what actually happened down there,” she said, “because if they went down there at those three different times, they were three different events.”
On her last trip around 10:30 p.m., she said, people yelled at her to, “Get the ‘F’ out of their town.”
Moments after she spoke, Dana questioned whether that truly happened to her.
“I have no way of knowing whether or not (her) experience was accurate or not. I mean, that’s not my life experience,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s not true, I’m just saying that we haven’t had complaints filed in the interim. So I question whether that’s an issue that we really needed to wrestle with.”
Four months have passed since Redmon shared her story. She’s hopeful that moving forward people in Snohomish can “focus on caring about rather than fearing one another.”
“If we each try,” she said, “to understand that we all want to be treated with fairness and respect, that we accomplish more working together than against each other, we can overcome this anger and fear dividing us.”