Ankur Shah has lived on the Olympic Peninsula all his life. What he saw on June 3 is not the community he knows.
Last week, a Spokane family camping near the town of Forks, Washington, was confronted by “seven or eight carloads of people” demanding to know if they were antifa protesters in a grocery store parking lot as they stopped to buy supplies. When they left for the campsite, several cars followed them. Fearing for their safety, the family tried to go home later that night – only to find trees cut down, blocking their way out.
The Spokane family was described as multiracial, consisting of a husband and wife, their 16-year-old daughter and the husband’s mother, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office. Four Forks High School students cut through the trees, letting the family out.
Shah, who lives in the nearby town of Sequim, heard about what happened through friends and social media before local media broke the story.
“I was absolutely horrified, and completely surprised,” Shah said. “I’m a person of color myself, and I have never in my life heard of something like this happening here.”
A few days later, Shah was on a hike with a group of friends in the nearby forest. The whole group was “equally shocked” about the recent events in Forks, Shah said. They all wanted to reach out, person-to-person, with an apology on behalf of Clallam County. But the sheriff’s office hasn’t released the family’s names, making a personal conversation impossible.
One friend had the idea to place an ad in the newspaper, apologizing in the hopes the family would somehow see it. The group drafted the letter there and then, on a tiny beach tucked away in the forest. They weren’t trying to make a political statement or point fingers at the town of Forks, Shah said. They simply wanted to say “We’re sorry.”
On Thursday, the letter appeared on the front page of The Spokesman-Review.
“As residents of Clallam County, we are saddened and disgusted by the threats and violence that your family encountered while trying to enjoy the beauty of our home out on the Olympic Peninsula,” the ad reads in part. “We apologize for the frightening experience you had, and can only hope you take the actions of the four local high school students who helped you as more representative of our county than those who sought to terrorize you.”
It’s signed “From hundreds of Clallam County families.”
Shah said he originally wanted to collect signatures for the letter digitally, then print them all in the paper alongside the apology. That proved infeasible, but he still succeeded in collecting hundreds of signatures via a Google form. As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 200 people had signed, Shah said.
The Forks City Council apologized to the family at a meeting Monday with a statement read by Mayor Tim Fletcher, the Peninsula Daily News reported.
The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office told The Spokesman-Review last week it was “actively conducting a criminal investigation into the incident,” and Shah said he knew of several friends in Forks who were asking for “legal consequences.” Shah himself called the county prosecutor and his state representative as soon as he heard the story.
Shah said the Olympic Peninsula, a largely rural area dotted with small towns, had come a long way since his childhood there. The locals often complain about Californians moving to the area, but they had brought a great deal of diversity along with them.
Growing up, Shah’s was one of two Indian families in the area. Now there are maybe 10, Shah said, and it is more common to see Black and Hispanic families on the street. But the small towns have become increasingly politically and socially polarized since the start of the Trump administration, and Shah said he couldn’t speak for how safe other minority groups felt.
“As a relatively privileged minority, being Indian-American, I won’t pretend to know the racism and prejudice other people of color experience here,” Shah said.
Residents of the peninsula aren’t typically hostile to outsiders – thousands of tourists flock there every year. The incident was not representative of Forks or its residents, Shah said.
Shah said he couldn’t understand what led up to residents of Forks following that family into the woods last week, but he felt a unique social and political climate contributed. He pointed to armed citizens turning up at Black Lives Matter protests in Sequim, citing rumors on social media that made them feel they had to protect the city from invading antifa forces. Attending the protest with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter, Shah wondered if someone would target them “just because we’re Brown.”
“This wouldn’t have happened two weeks ago,” Shah said.
Before that protest, Shah called the local police department and requested they attend, just in case – something he said he would never have dreamed of doing before. As a person of color, he said he didn’t often associate police with positive interactions. When the police turned up in plainclothes to keep an eye on the protest, Shah described it as “kind of healing.”
Shah may never know their names or how they felt that night. If he got the chance to speak to the family from Spokane, he just hopes he would give them space to be heard. He would take them to see the waterfalls and evergreens they likely never got a chance to see, and he would try to show them “a Clallam County full of love.”
“We acknowledge that you may never come back here again, and we understand that feeling,” the ad reads. “However, if you did return one day, we would be honored to break bread with you and make amends.”