(Via WashingtionPost) ORTING, Wash. — They were so preoccupied with the volcano shadowing their town, with forecasts and evacuation drills, that few people here noticed the other disaster taking shape around them. Life for Orting’s 8,000 residents depended on predicting what would one day come roaring down the slopes of Mount Rainier, 30 miles away. They had sirens for lava, sensors for earthquakes and alarms for the volcanic mudflow that geologists believed would one day bury the town. Tension was always building inside the volcano, considered the country’s most dangerous, a pressure that intensified with each foundational shift in the earth. The only question was when it would finally blow.
So at first nobody paid much attention in the fall of 2013 when what came winding around the mountain and into the valley was another U-Haul carrying a new family into town. The truck was loaded down with a handmade crib, a living room set and a sign designed to hang on a front door. “Welcome to Our Love Story,” it read. Here came three more people into one of the state’s fastest-growing communities. Here, in the driver’s seat, came Orting’s newest employee, a police officer in a place where crime had begun to rise. Gerry Pickens stopped downtown to pick up his badge, and only then did it become obvious in Orting that this hire was unlike any the town had made before.
The place once known as “The White City,” in part for its lack of diversity, had hired a black police officer, its first since the town’s founding in 1889.
“Congratulations! Welcome to our team,” read a letter that Pickens received with his badge.
Eighteen months later, if Orting can still agree on anything about Pickens’s arrival, it is that his first day was also his best day — the one when questions of race and policing still felt like problems for bigger towns. Pickens, 28, had not yet been suspended for an allegation of stealing that was never substantiated. He had not yet been terminated shortly before the end of his standard probationary period. His car had not yet been spray-painted with a racial epithet and a threat. The NAACP hadn’t yet arrived for a news conference. Residents had not yet fractured into hostile groups as the pressure built, erupting onto hateful Internet message boards and petitions demanding the police chief’s resignation. Pickens had not yet made plans to file a lawsuit unless the town paid him $5 million in damages, nearly twice the annual budget, enough to bury the town.
The one clear thing that first day was that there had been a subtle shift in the foundation, a change in Orting that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. A local politician posted a message on Facebook: “Not a cow town anymore.” The city administrator called Pickens’s hiring “a proud moment for our modern, growing community.” The police chief said he had made “a tremendous value hire” by filling out his staff of 11 with an experienced officer. Pickens had spent three years policing on the midnight shift in Atlanta, where he had responded to hundreds of the drug crimes, break-ins and violent robberies that were only beginning to encroach on Orting as development spread south from Seattle into the valley.
“So happy to be home,” Pickens wrote to a friend that day. He had gone to high school a few miles outside town, and he had taken a pay cut to bring his wife and daughter back to the Pacific Northwest. He missed its green hillsides, its soft-and-steady rain and its two-lane roads that cut through dairy farms and daffodil fields. He missed the Old West feel of the one-block downtown, where the most prominent structure was a playground and where shops had names such as “Bucky’s,” “Wild Rose” and “Big J’s Outdoors.”
He found a rental house outside town, on a dead-end road with a view of the mountains. The volcano sometimes made his wife uneasy, but Pickens told her not to worry. He had grown accustomed in high school to the evacuation drills and sirens, preparing for a disaster that was always coming, until finally he stopped expecting that it would. He no longer thought about the magma and molten rock churning beneath the trees and glaciers. For him, Mount Rainier was just a landmark, a snow-capped peak visible for hundreds of miles. The view was tranquil and familiar. It meant he was home.
He was already aware of the town’s reputation — a conservative place, an insular place, a white place — and he had heard rumors in high school of police officers intimidating black drivers and of white supremacists meeting in the woods. But they were just stories, everything subterranean and easy to dismiss, because during his teenage years, Pickens had never felt discriminated against or even disliked.
His parents had taught him some guidelines for living in a place that was almost entirely white: Don’t talk about being black. Act grateful. Get used to people staring and always smile back. “Gerry could fit in anywhere,” read an inscription in his high school yearbook, and it was a skill honed from necessity.
His father had been in the military, so Pickens spent his childhood moving every few years. He learned to make jokes in Spanish to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, dropped his name from Gerry to “G” in a black neighborhood of Detroit and went cow tipping with friends from a predominantly white high school when he moved near Orting in ninth grade. His parents left for Atlanta but he stayed in the Pacific Northwest to work after college, selling Toyotas on straight commission. “Know Your Customer,” was the dealership’s motto, so Pickens jokingly sang Garth Brooks lyrics to farmers looking for pickups and fist-bumped teenagers shopping for something fast. He cleared $90,000 that first year, a rookie record, with little expertise in sales strategy or transmissions. What he knew was how to make people laugh.
So it surprised him when he arrived back in Orting in the fall of 2013 that one of the first jokes he heard featured him as the punch line. A resident had seen Pickens on patrol and called 911. “There’s a police car being driven by a black juvenile,” the resident had reported, and for the next several weeks some of Pickens’s co-workers had referred to him as the “black juvenile.” What he wanted to tell them was that he wasn’t a rookie, and that he had responded to more 911 calls than any of them while working in Atlanta — but maybe it wasn’t meant to be racist so much as it was just a bad joke. He decided to laugh. He decided, then and again, not to blame his experiences on race.
Maybe it was because he had the least seniority that he had been given an older car, with a battery that occasionally went dead when he turned on his police lights. Maybe the police chief was only trying to be thoughtful when he mentioned, in Pickens’s memory at least three times, that Pickens should be vigilant about his self defense because Orting was an old-fashioned place that believed in the Second Amendment, where white supremacist groups remained active and well armed. And maybe Pickens had only himself to blame when his imagination began obsessing about those groups between 2 and 6 a.m., when he was the only officer on duty. He sometimes wondered: If one of those groups ambushed him, would anyone provide backup? How long before help would arrive?
Only when the police chief suspended Pickens for a week in April 2014 did he become convinced that racism was the cause, and that it was no longer enough to act grateful and smile back. Another Orting officer had been able to stay at work while being investigated for using excessive force on a teenager; Pickens was sent home based on an accusation of lifting weights at a local gym without paying for the visit. Pickens decided not to complain directly to the chief or his supervising lieutenant. “I didn’t want to have the race talk with anyone I saw every day,” he said. Instead he called the mayor, Joachim “Joe” Pestinger, and they met at a park.
“I keep saying to myself that this doesn’t have anything to do with my race, but something’s going on,” Pickens said he told the mayor that day.
“We don’t see race here,” Pestinger remembered saying. “That’s not an issue for us.”
“Then why does it seem like I’m being set up to fail?” Pickens said.
“Nobody wants you to succeed more than we do.”
They talked past each other for 10 minutes until the mayor shook Pickens’s hand and walked off, leaving him more confused than before. “I’m just trying to understand . . .” Pickens wrote on his Facebook page, because it seemed to him that so much about race in Orting was cryptic and awkward, a tension so papered over with niceties that in some ways he began to appreciate the handful of residents who talked in the harshest terms about black and white. At least they weren’t afraid to be honest. At least he knew exactly what they thought.
One of them was Tracy Conklin, 43, who remembered telling Pickens once that “black and white don’t mix.” She sometimes called him “mud blood,” but she liked how Pickens issued warnings instead of tickets, and how he played basketball in his uniform with teenagers in the park. “Probably the best officer we have,” she wrote of him once, in a note about his performance, so she started meeting with Pickens to give him information about local fugitives, drug activity and the increasing tension in Orting.
“This used to be a country town with no outsiders,” she remembered telling Pickens. “So when a strange black man comes riding into town in a police car, well, I’m sorry, but that’s very ‘new Orting,’ and people just don’t know how to react to that.”
How much change could one place take? How many shifts before the foundation began to crack? The town of Orting had been built on a base of volcanic material 15 feet deep, evidence of the several dozen times Mount Rainier had erupted. An explosion came every few hundred years and would one day come again: heat and gas upsetting the volcano’s fragile balance, melting Rainier’s 25 glaciers, uprooting trees, unhinging boulders and hillsides, all of it collapsing down the mountain at 50 miles an hour in an avalanche of earth known as a lahar. In a worst-case scenario, geologists predicted Orting would have as little as 42 minutes to evacuate. Then the town would be flooded with 20 feet of mud.
In the psychology of a town at the base of the volcano, change wasn’t merely awkward or even scary. It was the catalyst for a disaster to be held off at all costs.
So for decades, Orting adhered to the tenets of stability and consistency: population always about 2,000; demographics steady at 95 percent white; membership consistent at the Lions Club, the Masons and the Kiwanis; a princess crowned at the Daffodil Festival each spring. Volunteers worked to hold the town in place, raising the levees to prepare for a flood and bolting houses to the ground in case of an earthquake. They practiced evacuations twice each year, filing students out of schools in orderly lines. The same police chief remained in charge for 30 years, parking his car on the main road into town not because he wanted to write tickets but because he liked to honk his horn and wave at every resident who drove past. “The Orting Way,” people called it.
But then the Fords sold their family dairy farm, and the Williamses offered up 100 acres of white-and-yellow daffodil fields to developers in the 1990s. Soon signs on the main road into town announced cheap houses, and buyers arrived each weekend from Seattle. Look at all that empty space! And look at that mountain! The plots sold before construction crews could level the dirt. The first chain grocery store opened in what had been an open field. Chinese investors bought land. Developers bulldozed Christmas tree farms and sprayed out the perennials. Up went Calistoga Place, with its winding streets and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs. Up went Majestic Estates with its gated entrance. Up went Carbon River Landing, Whitehawk, Village Crest and Village Green as Orting’s population doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled.
“A thriving bedroom community,” advertised one marketing campaign, but longtime residents had another name for it: a town of strangers. Commuters left for Seattle before dawn and returned late at night. The Kiwanis died out. The Chamber of Commerce faltered. The Masons moved from town.
What arrived in their place were mostly young families — a touch more liberal, a few more Hispanics, Samoans, Filipinos and African Americans. The white population dropped from 95 percent to 88 percent. The grind of construction drowned out the coyotes and the rush of two glacial creeks. The two-lane road became gridlocked with commuters, and traffic studies revealed an even bigger problem: The town was growing too big to evacuate. Nobody would be getting out in 42 minutes, not with congestion like this.
Politicians created a plan to build a “Bridge for Kids,” an architectural marvel that would connect the schools to a safety zone in the hills above town. The proposed bridge, more than a mile long, would evacuate all 2,500 students in less than 40 minutes — if only a town with a $3 million budget could somehow raise the $50 million to build it. The mayor trimmed annual expenditures and began saving a few hundred thousand dollars toward the project. A new police chief, hired after the previous one retired, parked on the road into town and started pulling people over, issuing tickets to generate revenue. Sometimes, he found drugs.
Suddenly meth was being produced inside one of the abandoned farms and heroin was coming down from Seattle. Car thefts increased. Home invasions doubled. Then, early last year, a lifetime Orting resident awoke in the middle of the night to a noise in his house, yet another robbery, and when he went downstairs to investigate, he was killed with his own gun — just the second homicide in 50 years, and this one still unsolved.
“Crisis in Orting!” declared the banner of one newsletter after the killing, and on Internet message boards residents began casting blame for the disorder they believed had overtaken their town. It was the teenagers, some wrote. The commuters. The minorities. The gangs. Ten days after the shooting, the city council held a videotaped meeting in the town’s largest room, the school gymnasium, because several hundred people wanted to attend. Some came hoping for a ban on new development. Others wanted a curfew or a citizens’ patrol. They lined up behind a microphone and took turns eulogizing their town.
“Who else misses the old Orting?” one asked.
“Do you even recognize your neighbors anymore?” said another.
“Druggies, dealers and criminals have taken over our streets.”
“Exterminate the rats!”
“I’ve lived in Orting since 1977, and I never had to lock our doors, ever. Our town is different, and I’ve had to learn that. Lock it up. Lock it up. An alarm system is good.”
Bill Drake, the new police chief, stepped to the microphone and stared hard at the crowd. His badge was shined, and his gun was holstered at his hip. He was the vanguard of town, responsible for holding together so many fractured parts, and now he spoke in his Tennessee drawl and warned that he was “coming for” whoever committed the killing. The police department had interviewed dozens of people, administered polygraph tests and identified “persons of interest,” he said. Everyone on his staff was working overtime, including the new officer he’d hired from Atlanta.
“The community of Orting will not go quietly into the night,” Drake said, pounding his fist on the lectern, and the crowd whistled and cheered.
“My city,” is how Drake sometimes referred to Orting, and few people could disagree. In seven years as police chief, he had outlasted a mayor, three chairmen of the public safety committee and 13 members of the city council. His police department controlled 60 percent of the town’s budget. He had a habit of referring to many things in Orting as his — “There’s my school superintendent,” or “my new mayor,” or “my volcano,” or “my toughest drug house,” he liked to say — and if in fact he did have dominion over the town, then most of its residents considered themselves lucky, especially having seen his résumé.
Twenty-two years in the Air Force. Two master’s degrees. He’d scuba dived the Red Sea while living in Saudi Arabia and ridden motorcycles along the Rhine River during a tour in Europe. He’d operated airborne lasers in Virginia, managed ground radar in South Carolina and spent hundreds of hours in the sky above places such as Iceland, Alaska and South Korea, doing international surveillance. Then he had retired to Washington state and become a police officer, working in a big department for eight years before coming to Orting, where he was sworn to protect a nowhere little town tucked against a mountain.
“The smartest, best, most exceptional person we have here,” the city administrator said.
“A worldly man,” one councilwoman agreed.
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