Lopez Island in the San Juans has long had a special reputation, which they advertise before you come.

“Don’t be startled,” the visitors bureau cautions, “when people wave at you from their cars. This is the ‘Friendly Isle.’ “

But that nickname has become a rueful joke to some Lopezians this summer, as the bitter cultural and political fights of the nation suddenly broke out on the rural island.

Somehow it’s gotten so tense that as the summer closes, small bands of islanders have taken to staying up all night holding vigils, by the side of the road, to guard against the destructive trespasses of some others.

“It’s like our own Charlottesville,” one resident said of recent events on the island.

It all boiled over the morning of Aug. 12, when Dwight Lewis, a well-known island local since 1974, showed up near the island center of Lopez Village with an excavator. According to sheriff’s deputies, he used the machine to mow down a series of Black Lives Matter memorial signs that other locals had put up along the roadway.

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The signs feature local artists’ depictions of Black men and women killed in recent years by police, along with flowers and brief memorial inscriptions. When some other islanders tried to save the signs, Lewis allegedly swung the excavator arm at them.

Police recommended he face charges including reckless endangerment and malicious mischief. In a video later recorded for YouTube, Lewis was defiant about why he did it.

A Black Lives Matter sign lies on the ground on Aug. 15 after the memorial was damaged for a third time. Residents now take turns guarding the signs all night long. There are plans to soon decommission them.   (Rhea Miller)
A Black Lives Matter sign lies on the ground on Aug. 15 after the memorial was damaged for a third time. Residents now take turns guarding the signs all night long. There are plans to soon decommission them. (Rhea Miller)

For starters he has a Trump 2020 sign on his property, near the ferry dock, that keeps getting defaced with paint, so he felt an urge to retaliate. But beyond that, he issued a general lament against the tenor of the political times.

“I felt I had to make a statement,” Lewis said. “I’m getting this Black Lives Matter shoved right down my throat all the time … I don’t want to go home to Lopez Island every night and see Black Lives Matter and have it shoved down my throat.”

He said the police killing of George Floyd was wrong, but “do you punish the whole United States because of that? No … I moved to Lopez Island to get away from all that … so I went down and mowed a few signs down, to make a statement.”

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Statement received, to say the least. The “Friendly Isle” erupted like a volcano — online, anyway — into what one resident called “multiple expressions of vitriol, suspicion and hate.”

Take the Lopez Island Community Board on Facebook. Typical post there during normal times: “Cow on the loose on channel road next to the gravel pit.” But when videos about Lewis got posted, some commenters went so ballistic with threats, including against Lewis, that the site administrator, Samantha Olson, ended up pulling the posts down and calling the police.

“I wanted to just have a community board,” she says. “Then George Floyd and COVID-19 happened, and everything spiraled out of control.”

“It’s been frightening to see, all this stuff coming to the surface that’s maybe been buried here all along,” says Rhea Miller, who owns the property where the memorial signs sit (they’re in an easement for the county road).

“There’s some very deep resentments coming out,” she said, citing some overt racism that was startling on the bucolic island, and also “provocative anger and intolerant exchanges coming from the left.”

Islanders repaired the signs and put them back up. Two nights later, someone mowed most of them down again.

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“Whatever happened to the ‘Friendly Isle?’” a local bemoaned on the community board, where Olson says she now has to preapprove all postings in order to keep it civil.

Miller said islanders repaired the signs for a third time (they had also been defaced with paint earlier by yet another angry islander, who during her attack on the signs ended up spray-painting a fellow islander who intervened). There have been continued threats against the display, Miller said, so now there are rotating shifts of locals holding a night watch along the roadway, all night every night, to guard it.

“Surveillance cameras seem like a strange idea for Lopez, but I’m feeling like we need them now,” one islander lamented.

The debate has been notable for its almost total lack of Black voices. One resident said there is only one African American living on Lopez this summer; the last census, back in 2010, reported the island is 0.3% Black or African American (which would have equaled seven out of the 2,383 people counted then).

“I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but most everyone here is white,” someone pointed out on the community board, in exasperation at the difficulty white people can have on topics of race.

It’s been a demonstration of the country’s tribalism and pitched differences, carried out in one of the nation’s far-flung places. “American social and political culture doesn’t end at the Anacortes ferry terminal,” another resident summed up.

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Miller, a former County Council member, said islanders feel they’ve found a path out — they will decommission the memorial signs in a ceremony on Sept. 6. The signs wouldn’t survive the fall rains anyway, she said, and it provides a way to try to close this chapter of island life in a purposeful way.

Upon reflection, maybe the saga of the signs has been good for Lopez, she said. Because part of the point of putting them up in the first place was to rattle some cages.

“I’m sorry to see all this resentment surface in our community, but it’s better to see it come out than to keep it buried.

“Also, just so you know, we are all still waving at each other.”