Snohomish grads document ‘What Happened on First Street’

A documentary film about the May 2020 events in downtown Snohomish debuts on Oct. 16.

This article includes details that may be distressing to some.

SNOHOMISH — “Too bad he didn’t kill the guy.”

Clips of people hurling insults at those protesting for George Floyd in downtown Snohomish flash one by one.

“Justice for George, really?”

The clips, recorded in late May 2020, are part of “What Happened on First Street,” a documentary created by two former Snohomish School District students who are recent college graduates.

On May 31, 2020, a group of locals — many armed, some waving confederate flags — “hijacked the narrative” of what was supposed to be a night of protest against racism, said Snohomish city council member Judith Kuleta in a 2020 meeting.

Carolyn Yip, Glacier Peak High School alumna, and Drake Wilson, Snohomish High School alumnus, began making the documentary in June 2020.

“We kind of took it on as a way to just have a historical record of the events that had occurred in Snohomish,” Wilson said. “And also to give an opportunity to kind of highlight the experiences of Snohomish’s Black and brown residents leading up to May 31. Because, a lot of us weren’t super surprised when we saw Proud Boys and Confederate flags being waved down on First Street.”

About a third of the film documents the May 2020 events on First Street, Wilson said. The rest centers on the experiences of people of color living in the community, as well as educators’ perspectives on how to tackle ignorance in school.

While it confronts difficult truths about the community, it’s a hopeful, forward-looking film, said Tabitha Baty, president of Snohomish for Equity.

“It’s not to necessarily shame people,” she said, “but it’s just to say … how do we do better? How do we do different? How do we come together?”

People of color from Snohomish were interviewed about their experiences leading up to and following the May 2020 protests for a new documentary produced by two Snohomish youth. (Drake Wilson)

People of color from Snohomish were interviewed about their experiences leading up to and following the May 2020 protests for a new documentary produced by two Snohomish youth. (Drake Wilson)

The documentary mentions the lack of condemnation of the May 31 events from Snohomish’s top leader, but it is not intended to be political, Wilson said.

Mayor John Kartak told the Daily Herald he has two statements about the documentary.

“First — never heard of it. Second, I stand with my community which happens to be the most friendly community on earth,” he said.

Last year, Kartak told two local conservative talk-radio hosts that all those present on First Street — including those bearing “distasteful and disagreeable” speech — had a right to be there.

Wilson said some city leaders who were mentioned in the film did not respond to requests for comment.

The documentary is intended to spark thoughtful conversation about how to improve the quality of life for all who live in Snohomish, Wilson said.

“I think it’s important that we can learn from this,” he said. “This project is definitely out of care for my community. I just want it to be an inclusive place for everyone and I want people to have the best experience possible.”

A Snohomish mother jumpstarted the project.

Carol Robinson, a longtime Snohomish resident, said her two daughters are the reason she got involved with the protests for George Floyd in downtown Snohomish.

“Once I was there I was like — this is really powerful. Really, really powerful,” she said.

Robinson said she reached out to Wilson, a local protest organizer, and Yip, who she knew as a talented local filmmaker, to create something that would help the community learn from the events on May 31.

“That just really hit me and I thought, we need to record this,” she said. “These are stories that we are not hearing. These are stories that are absent from some of our history teaching. And we need these voices to be heard.”

Wilson, Yip and Robinson met once a week for over a year to conceptually develop the nearly 1-hour film, in addition to hundreds of hours in interviews and editing. Yip, who studied design at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, was behind the camera and production. Wilson, who studied journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois, led interviews.

The documentary was a passion project. It didn’t have any investors backing it, just the emotional support of community organizations.

Baty said several of Snohomish for Equity members’ children, and their friends, were involved in the 2020 protests, and through both the protests and the creation of the documentary, “we’ve just kind of been a support system for them.”

Snohomish for Equity helped organize the May 30 rally in Snohomish.

The next day, armed locals came downtown, purportedly to defend businesses from leftist looters — an apparent social media hoax that may have been started by a white supremacist group. In the ensuing days, students marched nightly in downtown, often passing armed individuals standing guard in shop doorways.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed legislation banning the open carry of weapons at organized protests in public places and on state capitol grounds.

The law applies to people who knowingly open carry a weapon within 250 feet of a permitted demonstration. It includes an exception for people who are on private property that they own or lease. The crime is a gross misdemeanor, which carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

People might have thought twice about coming to Snohomish with weapons had the law been on the books in 2020, Rep. April Berg, D-Mill Creek told the Herald earlier this year.

The documentary detailing the May 2020 events and people of color’s experiences in Snohomish will debut Oct. 16 both in-person and online. The screening is free and tickets are available online through Eventbrite.

The Snohomish Education Association is a co-sponsor of the screening, and has supported Snohomish for Equity’s screenings of other films, including “13th”, a documentary about racial injustice following the abolishment of slavery.

“The conversation about how to make a more just, equitable society is very much in alignment with what we do,” said Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association.

For Wilson, the issues discussed in the documentary are personal.

“When I see people lining my First Street, openly carrying assault rifles, openly drinking alcohol, brandished with vests … and Confederate flags — that is a very blatant threat to identities like mine,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are when you have Black skin. And you can immediately be seen as different in a community like Snohomish where there’s just not a whole lot of diversity.”

Those involved in the filmmaking say they hope the documentary can be both informational and inspirational.

“I feel like it’s harder for people to deny there’s an issue if you’re seeing the actual footage,” Baty said. “And then at that point, I guess, if you continue to deny then it really becomes a matter of you’re just not willing to face reality. … One would hope that people would take a second look and say, ‘Wow, well that’s not how I want my town to represent me.’”

Reporter Katie Hayes also contributed to this reporting.

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.

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