In the 13 years that Joshua Okrent has run Seattle's Punk Rock Flea Market, there have been some hitches. Last year, after the 7 Seas Building (once home to the Lusty Lady) was determined to be unsafe by the Seattle Fire Marshall, Okrent had to postpone the May event and scramble to find a new venue. The flea market was ultimately moved to the old Value Village space on 11th Avenue, which is currently being demolished to make room for housing. That's what the Punk Rock Flea Market does—takes over spaces that aren't being used, brings in vendors, and hosts a big, cheap, biannual all-ages event in buildings that would otherwise sit empty.
This year, the original location for the December event was supposed to be Imperial Lanes in Rainier Valley, but after beginning to work on the space, Okrent and the other organizers realized it was just too unsafe. With just a week before the event, they were able to convince Vulcan—Paul Allen's investment firm—to let them house the market in the old Red Apple grocery store on 23rd and Jackson, which Vulcan will soon re-develop into housing and retail. It wasn't the first time the event would be held in the historically black Central District neighborhood, but this year, Okrent and his three co-organizers, all of whom are people of color (and who prefer to remain anonymous for privacy's sake), made a concerted effort to get the neighborhood involved. They had less than a week to turn the old grocery store—which still had shelves, scrap metal, and refrigerators in place—into a useable venue. With the help of dozens of neighborhood volunteers, they did it.
"We had 30 to 40 new volunteers of literally every age there every day," Okrent says. "There was this guy Freddy, who had to be 75 years old, and he wound up bringing a dozen of the younger people in his world to help break down all these shelves and get them to the scrap yard. It was a massive effort, and a great experience."
The event was held on the weekend of December 8 and 9. They had 145 vendors, DJs, a brass band, and other live performances, and around 7,000 shoppers stopped in over the two days. They donated $2,500 in proceeds from the event to the Low Income Housing Institute. They felt good about it.
But then, everything changed.
On Monday, December 11, the day after the flea market ended, Okrent started getting messages online—lots of them. People were calling him racist, alleging that he was a Nazi sympathizer, that this passion project he's been involved with for over a decade was a front for white nationalists who were using it to recruit new members.
The root of the rumor came from a brief confrontation that happened at the market on Sunday. According to three witnesses who spoke with The Stranger, someone who was shopping at the market became upset after seeing a vendor selling a t-shirt with a drawing of the Pillsbury Doughboy in a "Heil Hitler" salute; the text underneath read "White Flour." The customer began yelling at the vendor and tearing goods from the booth. Okrent wasn't in the immediate vicinity, but was alerted to the situation and quickly attempted to diffuse it. When that didn't work, one of his fellow organizers called security, who escorted the customer out. The vendor's other wares were mostly random goods: shoe horns, moose antlers, bike bells, and that one inflammatory t-shirt, which Okrent immediately asked her to remove. She did, and, Okrent says, she seemed embarrassed that it caused such a scene.
Okrent assumed that was the end of it.
The "White Flour" image isn't new, and it didn't always create controversy. In 2012, a group of white supremacists gathered for an anti-immigration rally in Charlotte, N.C. Their message was deadly serious, but they were met by counter-protesters, hundreds of them, wearing clown noses, playing kazoos, and holding up signs reading "Dwight Power!" after a Charlotte Hornets player, and "White Flour!" with drawings of the Pillsbury Doughboy. The counter protest was organized by the Latin American Coalition, and they confronted the racists with ridicule, humor, and mockery. “The message from us is, you look silly,” Lacey Williams, a coordinator for the group, told local television station WCNC. “We’re dressed like clowns and you’re the ones that look funny.” The protest ended without violence or arrest. (A similar protest took plack in Olympia in 2005, when a neo-Nazi march was met with hundreds of counter protesters dressed like clowns, and, according to the New York Times, they "turned the occasion into a celebration of diversity and unity.")
Five years later, one of those t-shirts bearing the same message sparked social media outrage in Seattle. Following the event, a firestorm was ignited on the Punk Rock Flea Market's Facebook page, which has been inundated with criticism from people calling the event and its organizers racist, fascist, Nazi apologists. The story spread and mutated online. Okrent, a Jewish father of two with Holocaust survivors in his family and a Spanish wife who was born under a fascist dictator, was being written off as cis white Nazi scum who kicked a woman of color out of his flea market. It looked bad, but according to the witnesses I spoke to, that's just not what happened. The unhappy customer (who I’ve been unable to track down) appeared to be caucasian from eye-witness accounts, and all Okrent did was try to alleviate a tense situation. But that's not what people were hearing.
Okrent says he's new to this level of social media mob vitriol, but it's not his first time in the spotlight. Last year, he was criticized for using the term "obsessive compulsive" in a Facebook post advertising the Punk Rock Flea Market; some complained it was ableist and insensitive to people suffering from OCD. But this year's drama is much louder.
Okrent admits he didn't handle the criticism well. When a local black woman wrote on the Punk Rock Flea Market Facebook page that she wouldn't be attending the event in the future, Okrent defended his actions and was dismissive of her threat not to return. "Cool," he responded to her on Facebook. "Tell your friends." The woman posted the exchange on her own Facebook page, and, as of this writing, the post has 250 shares and dozens of people calling for boycotts of the market. (She says she has been targeted by Punk Rock Flea Market supporters, and because of this, asked to remain anonymous. She and Okrent have since spoken and seem to have come to somewhat of a peace, but when I asked if she would be returning to the market, she said, "Honestly, I already often felt out of place as a black woman at the market. If I'm told 'it's just fine if you don't come back,' I don't need to be told twice.")
Okrent has posted a long message on the Punk Rock Flea Market Facebook page, apologizing for his flippant response as well as for making anyone feel unsafe. "For 13 years the Punk Rock Flea Market has always been an extremely welcoming and inclusive environment for all people to hang out, sell their stuff, and feel safe inside a respectful community of outsiders," he wrote. "Of course we align politically with the protester and do not promote any kind of hate, least of all something as vile as white power. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that the public feels safe inside our walls, and any display of anger and aggression, no matter the underlying intention, puts everyone on edge. Ugly messages are also violent of course, and I apologize to anyone who felt unsafe at this shirt's display."
The apology wasn't enough. There are now hundreds of comments on the post, some in support, but most insisting that the t-shirt is racist and Okrent is racist, too. Many people have pointed out the irony of selling that particular shirt at the Red Apple, a historically black grocery store that will soon be turned into condos in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Some have criticized them for holding the event at a Vulcan-owned building at all. Still others have pushed back, pointing out the long history of punk rock subverting Nazi symbols—like when Sid Vicious wore a swastika t-shirt, or Lou Reed shaved an iron cross into his head. Several commenters criticized Okrent for not addressing white customers who wore dreadlocks. Okrent told me that it's possible the vendor was a fascist plant, but he doubts it. She didn't argue with him about removing the shirt from her booth, and when he spoke to her later, she explained that her boyfriend, himself an anti-fascist activist, made the shirt—which can also be found online—and thought it would be well-received at the Punk Rock Flea Market. Subverting Nazi iconography seemed like their kind of humor.
They misjudged. The anti-racist clown protests in Charlotte and Olympia show us that humor and mockery can successfully derail a white supremacist rally. But that was before Trump, before Charlottesville, before the threat of white nationalism had once again gone mainstream. The vendor isn't speaking publicly, but she and her boyfriend told Okrent that they are mortified by what happened.
Things seemed to be calming down by the end of the week, but the conflict has now overshadowed what was, at the time, a widely successful event—one that depended on support from the neighborhood; support that the neighborhood gave.
"There is so much more to this story than 'Punk Rock Flea Market are racist bastards,'" Okrent says. This feeling is shared by one of his co-organizers, a black woman whose family has lived in the CD for three generations, and who is disappointed that the drama has now become the story, rather than the success of the event.
"In a time when so much focus is being spent on negativity in communities, this seemed to work," she says. "It was an opportunity to try to bring some economic development into our community and, in some points, it worked."
As for whether the shirt is offensive or not, Okrent knows it's not his place to say. He's Jewish, but he's also white, and if people of color felt hurt or unsafe by the shirt, he is genuinely sorry, and, he thinks, so is the vendor who brought it. "I'm old," Okrent told me. "I'm going to be 50 this year. I grew up in Upstate New York in a punk rock culture and it saved my ass. I learned to say what I mean, and that's still inside me." That attitude may have served Okrent in life, but it hasn't served him as well on social media, where trial by tweet is swift and unrelenting.
As Okrent has learned, in this era of social upheaval, intent may matter less than appearance. Still, he's retained at least some humor about this whole messy episode. When I asked if there was any truth to a rumor that there was a vendor at the Punk Rock Flea Market selling Confederate flags, Okrent said no, and that human sacrifice was also kept to a minimum.