‘(Racism) is a problem, but not like it is in other parts of Idaho’

The parking space painting designed by Tamia Williams, as seen in this screenshot from Facebook.
The parking space painting designed by Tamia Williams, as seen in this screenshot from Facebook.

After last bell at Mountain Home High School Thursday, students caught the bus, looked for their parents and began shuffling home.

A lone Confederate flag waved from a house across the street. One student stood in the school parking lot over a painting of a black woman with #blacklivesmatter written under her, and spit directly on it while his friends laughed. He declined to say why he spat.

It was a different scene from the previous two days, when students protested the possible loss of paintings done on the asphalt as a fundraiser — including that tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. Counterprotesters gathered in front of a home across the street, waved Confederate flags and at one point, students say, brought over fried chicken and watermelon.

If resident Elyssa Johnson had known how things would escalate and that the sit-in was about protecting students’ paintings, “I probably would have just told everybody to mind their own business,” she said.

Johnson most of the time keeps one Confederate flag up outside her home. She said her children told her Tuesday there was a Black Lives Matter protest at school. So, she moved the flag out onto her gate where it was more prominent.

“I think they’re pushing that black lives are more important than everybody else,” she said of why she doesn’t like the national movement.

The space where she hung her flag became a gathering spot for the counterprotesters. Johnson said she only recognized some of them. “They were mostly friends of my kids,” or friends of friends, she said.

High school administrators had approved the paintings in the parking lot. Seniors each paid $45 to create a design that would last until graduation. But James Gilbert, the school district’s superintendent, said Monday those administrators had made a mistake and district policy didn’t allow for students to paint the lots.

Gilbert agreed Wednesday to work with the students to find a solution, and the students ended their protest at 4 p.m.

The painting project was similar to fundraisers at some other U.S. high schools. It’s been done at at least one Nampa high school, Nampa School District spokeswoman Allison Westfall said.

About 3 percent of Mountain Home students are black, according to the Idaho State Department of Education.

People in Mountain Home willing to talk about the controversy Thursday said they thought it had been blown out of proportion. But it also clearly exposed some complicated questions about racism in town, to the point that the mayor and officials from nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base expect to release a joint statement on the paintings flap Friday.

“I do think that (racism) is a problem, but not like it is in other parts of Idaho or the country,” said Tamia Williams, the black student who designed the Black Lives Matter painting. She said she’s been exposed to racism in Mountain Home, but was surprised by the negativity directed toward her painting and sit-in.

Rebecca Lampman is parent of an MHHS student. She said she expects a city like Mountain Home, with an air base bringing in diverse people with different backgrounds, to welcome everyone. But over the years, she’s run into racist comments and symbols that surprised her and compelled her to support the students’ protest.

It shows in small, persistent ways, Lampman said. As example, she described speaking to a local business owner who was relocating about why he was leaving town. He repeatedly used a derogatory term referring to black people's hair to express why he wanted to move, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of people on the air base who are very tolerant and used to diversity but there’s a definite strong vocal conservative (group),” she said.

Gilbert was out of the office Thursday, and teachers at the high school deferred comment on the matter to him.

But other students leaving school were willing to share their thoughts. Sophomore Trever Dockstader said he saw the protest as pointless since the painting would ultimately be washed away.

“They could have written anything. It’d still have to be washed because it wasn’t approved by the (school) board,” he said.

Though junior Alena Estes thought the initial controversy was just a misunderstanding, she said she was impressed by the effort the student protesters were making. “I guess it’s kind of cool that they stood up for it, but I don’t think it had anything to do with them discriminating (against) people.”

She was less ambivalent about the counterprotesters.

“Honestly I think that was pretty stupid,” she said.

Erin Fenner: 208-377-6207, @erinfenner