Olympia Mayor's Graffiti Comments Grab National Headlines While Clean-up Raises Questions

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After someone spray painted graffiti on Mayor Cheryl Selby's home as two groups clashed in Olympia's streets late June 12, the mayor initially compared the vandalism to "domestic terrorism" in comments to The Olympian.

Selby has since apologized, calling her comments an "overreaction," after her quote appeared in stories published by national news outlets.

"It was my home and it was terrifying to watch it be vandalized," Selby wrote in an apology on her Facebook page Friday, a week after the incident. "It felt very personal, just as it does for our local businesses and residents when we see this behavior in our city. But in a nation that experiences frequent mass shootings, politically motivated bombings, and the violence and systemic injustice against Black people, I know that what happened to me was not domestic terrorism."

Reached by phone Saturday, Selby told The Olympian she published the apology after she "heard from several people" whose opinion she respects.

Just before her initial interview with The Olympian, she had seen video footage recorded in front of her home during the vandalism for the first time, she said. It showed more than what she first saw in security footage, including the "energy of the crowd" at her house and a lit flare. But still, she says, it didn't warrant that comment.

"Once I stepped back and calmed down, I realized that those words were an overreaction to what I'd seen in the video," Selby said.

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FOX News and other national media outlets featured Selby's post-vandalism reaction, with FOX recasting her comments as a flip-flop by contrasting them with her earlier statements about not imposing a curfew and supporting protesters spurred to action by the death of George Floyd.

The FOX story ran online accompanied by a video -- its mainframe: an Associated Press photo from Minneapolis of someone tagging a wall with large graffiti commemorating Floyd.

Selby says seeing FOX News "twist her words" gave her "insight into the divisions" happening across the country.

"It was just jarring to see my words twisted into someone else's narrative, and I learned a lot from my experience," Selby said. "What it really comes down to is, as the mayor of a small city, there's really little I can control about the national narrative, so all I can do is influence the local impact. And the more that we can center the voices of our Black and brown community and rely on each other, that's all I have any influence on, is that."

In her view, the vandalism in Olympia is separate from the Black Lives Matter movement, which she said she supports.

"When I took a knee with local organizers of Black Lives Matter, I promised I would not let them down," Selby wrote in her Facebook apology. "I would especially like to apologize to these people. My words have caused them harm, which I regret."

But she draws a line at property damage. While the city has "taken the stance that people are more important than property," Selby told The Olympian, she thinks destruction of property slows progress on racial justice because it gives people, such as business owners, an excuse to "not be at the table."

Clean-up controversy

In the aftermath of the vandalism and Selby's comments, another point of public contention arose after the city's Clean Team was spotted cleaning up the graffiti on the mayor's house.

The Clean Team's stated purpose is for "general upkeep, repair, painting, trash pickup and cleaning in and around public spaces in Downtown Olympia," according to the city's website. For some, cleaning the mayor's house raised ethical questions. One user on the website Reddit, for example, questioned whether using taxpayer dollars to clean the mayor's property was even legal.

City Manager Jay Burney, not Mayor Selby, directed the Clean Team to clean up the graffiti, according to city spokesperson Kellie Purce Braseth, because the vandalism was directly connected to her role as mayor.

"Our City Manager dispatched them there because the focus on her home was because of her work as a public official," Purce Braseth wrote in a text message to The Olympian. "Something he'd do for any member of the Council."

The team also cleaned up private businesses downtown that occurred in the "same wave" of graffiti, she said in a phone interview, as well as tags in areas outside downtown, such as a pedestrian bridge near the Capitol.

They don't wipe graffiti tags off of private businesses as a routine matter, she said, but might respond to calls if it's something unusual such as "abusive language, threats, or racial slurs."

Selby initially opted not to comment about the graffiti clean-up, but later told The Olympian via text message that she and her husband have decided to pay back the Clean Team for their time spent removing two tags. She wrote that they discussed it Friday, when complaints started coming in.

"It's not to disrespect Jay's decision, we just don't want it to be a distraction for people," she wrote.

The two tags the team removed from the front of her house, she said, read "BLM" and "Abolish." The paint on her front door read "racist," and she said a neighbor who's familiar with wood finishes removed that tag.

Selby wrote that they have requested a bill but don't yet know the total cost.

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