About 140 people rallied in downtown Sequim on Saturday to recognize Juneteenth, and protest a dispute over a parking space that turned into an allegedly racist attack one week prior.
The protest, called the Juneteenth Protest Against Racism and Hate, was held in the early evening at the Washington Street and Sequim Avenue intersection.
The rally, which police said was staffed more than normal and peaceful, was organized by Sequim Protests Against Racism, Etc., (SPARE) after a disturbance on June 12 in the alley among several businesses, including Blondie’s Plate on Second Avenue and Sequim Kabob House on Washington Street.
According to social media posts, the co-owner of the Kabob House was unable to move her car out of a private parking space after another vehicle had been parked too closely to it. That set off an argument that reportedly involved one man pulling a knife, another brandishing a pipe and racial slurs spoken.
Sequim police say they continue to investigate the June 12 incident as possible malicious harassment, or a hate crime, after they received a 9-1-1 call at nearly 8 p.m. June 12.
Law enforcement said they take the incident seriously and are following all leads, though they have declined to provide details until a report is made to the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Not pressing charges
After Saturday’s rally, Amalia Awawda — the co-owner of the Kabob House who had been in the parked car — was interviewed in her restaurant. She did not attend the rally.
She said that, whatever the results of the police investigation, she does not plan to press charges.
“We love Sequim, and what happened doesn’t change how we feel about it,” Awawda said.
“All five of us (her husband and three sons) work at our businesses, and we just want to focus on work and the future,” she said.
Awawda’s family moved to Sequim about 13 years ago from California, where her sons were born, and they opened the Sequim Kabob House in 2017 to serve authentic Palestinian food.
Since the previous Saturday, she said the response has been “so beautiful” with cards, flowers, hugs and words of encouragement.
“I tell them that the good is overshadowing the bad,” Amalia said.
She said her son Adam’s account of the incident posted on his social media account was correct. He had written that his mother’s vehicle was blocked in Blondie’s Plate’s parking lot by an unnamed employee of Blondie’s Plate. The employee “started laughing at her and making fun of her while watching her attempt to back out of the parking lot,” he wrote.
He said his father, Jim, asked the employees to move the vehicle. They went inside and another unnamed man, whom Blondie’s Plate staff say does not work there, came out with a camera behind him.
Adam Awawda wrote that the man “turned it into a screaming match” and “then pulled a knife on me and my dad and pointed it at us telling us to get off the property.”
He said the man called them “immigrants,” “telling us we’re in America now so we have to ‘follow his words,’” and “get out of his country and come back when we are citizens (which we are).”
He added the man made fun of his father’s accent, told him to speak English, and uttered more racial comments.
At about the same time as the rally, a social media post appeared online from Blondie’s Plate employee Taña Villella.
“You wanna know what really happened at Blondie’s Plate in Sequim last Saturday? Me!,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
“I’m the one who pulled in ridiculously close to an illegally parked vehicle that had been there on two previous occasions in my spot next to the dumpster.
“I had no idea who the vehicle belonged to.”
She said she laughed at the driver of the other car’s efforts to leave, then went back to work.
“There were no words exchanged between us or any staff members,” Villella said. “There were no slurs of any kind directed at the family by any employee of Blondie’s Plate!”
She added that parking too close “was a mean-spirited thing to do! But I can be that way sometimes. Parking too close to someone is not a crime!”
Villella wrote she is “a champion of humanity,” a “fierce contributor to the LGBTQ community” and “to call me racist is comical.”
She wrote that the incident has become “a vehicle for something else entirely and an excuse to crucify a local business owner,” and that employees there are not racist but “guilty by association.”
To help calm issues from the incident, Josh Armstrong, who purchased Blondie’s Plate last June, said Saturday he’s canceled his other business’ construction contracts for the week. He also closed Blondie’s Plate last Saturday night to “prevent any hostilities.”
He said he’s trying to be positive and that if the protesters had marched over, he would have considered speaking to them.
Armstrong said the incident wasn’t a racial event and that “officers need to have time to investigate that.”
“It’s in their hands,” he said. “What transpired after the (parking situation) was a threatening situation that got de-escalated without someone getting hurt.”
As he stated in an earlier online post in which he apologized for employees’ actions, Armstrong said he’s “not a racist person and I’m being labeled unfairly.
“I have no negativity towards (the Awawdas) and we have an ethnically diverse crowd that works here,” he said.
His goal for the situation is for people to “be less divided and spend less time with negativity,” he said. “It never brings positivity.
“And I want people to think about their actions.”
Armstrong said he was on his patio catching up on emails when the incident occurred and he did not become aware of it until police arrived.
His online post about the situation stated that the unnamed man does not work for Blondie’s or Armstrong’s construction company (Olympic Coast Construction) but them man was wearing one of the construction company’s shirts.
Awawda family members told the Sequim Gazette the pipe held by Jim Awawda was not intended to be violent toward people but rather to break the neighboring vehicle’s window, if needed, to move it so Amalia could move her vehicle.
Courtney Thomas, founder of SPARE, said some at Saturday’s rally originally had planned to march to the restaurant but opted not to for safety reasons.
Thomas said the group wanted to create a safe place to share and she’s proud of Sequim for “not putting up with racism and holding people accountable.”
A handful of former Blondie’s Plate employees spoke at the rally, including Maggie McDougal, daughter of former owner Kim McDougal. She said the parking situation and other negative stories circulating in the community makes her sad about the impact on the business’ reputation and people involved.
“It’s just really shocking,” she said. “It’s absolutely nothing my mother would have allowed or stood for.”
Other former employees said that, under Armstrong, racist, homophobic/transphobic and sexist phrases had been used.
Stacey Sevier of Sequim said she worked for Kim McDougal for about three years and Armstrong for about three days and that the culture has changed where people don’t feel safe or respected.
Sevier encouraged Armstrong to take responsibility for the actions of the incident, be more sincere in his posts, and apologize to people in person.
“I want them to realize that their actions and their words cause extreme hurt, and I hope they change for the better because of this situation,” McDougal said.
Thomas and others promoted a hashtag to boycott the restaurant at the protest and online, saying that speaking with dollars holds businesses accountable.
Protestor Dr. Kelley Temple said she was a customer of Blondie’s and that “I don’t think we can tolerate businesses that operate like this.”
She added, “There are too many businesses we can give our money to. I like their Brussels sprouts, but not enough to support their business.”