They’re Turning Up for Black Lives Matter in Rural and Small-Town Oregon, Too
In Hood River, 150 people blocked the overpass to an interstate highway.
In La Grande, hundreds of people gathered outside of city hall.
In St. Helens, organizers at first scrapped plans for a planned Black Lives Matter rally due to threats of violence, then decided to persist.
After the caught-on-video killing on May 25 of Minneapolis man George Floyd, who died as a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, protests broke out all over the country. In some ways they were similar to other large street demonstrations, especially those of the past decade in response to the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police or racist vigilantes.
But demonstrations in the past two weeks have felt different in many ways—including where they happen.
“I think there’s a lot of energy in rural Oregon,” says Hannah Harrod of the Rural Organizing Project, a nonprofit founded in 1992 as part of the No on 9 campaign, an effort that helped defeat an anti-LGBTQ ballot measure.
Harrod notes the current wave of rural antiracist organizing didn’t spring up out of nowhere: In recent years rural Oregonians have also led demonstrations against family separation at the US border and held Know Your Rights trainings for immigrants.
Sonya Kazen, 71, moved from Portland to Tillamook seven years ago, when she retired. She and her husband, Fred Bassett, helped organize a Rally for Justice and Equality June 6 in the coastal community.
Speaking to Portland Monthly on the eve of the march, Kazen—who also helped organize a Women’s March on the Oregon coast in 2017 and has helped put together Know Your Rights training for Latinx immigrants—said progressive organizing in Tillamook has been something of a struggle, with most of the interest coming from other white retirees. The county is about 93 percent white, or 84 percent white non-Hispanic.
But she feels the need to do something, in part because she occasionally sees Confederate flags in the area and has heard whispers of a re-formed KKK chapter nearby.
“Our country’s in a real scary state right now,” Kazen says. “When you live out in a remote area it’s easy to watch from afar and say, ‘What can I do, what difference what I make? Because nobody’s really paying attention to what’s going on out here.’”
Harrod grew up in Drain, a town of about 1,100 people between Eugene and Roseburg, and often felt isolated as someone with progressive values in a small town. When she got involved with the Rural Organizing Project—first as a volunteer activist and then as staff—she discovered she wasn’t.
She says the current wave of protests helps “break this myth of rural communities as this white, conservative monolith.”
Oregon is nearly 87 percent white, according to US Census data (and 75 percent white non-Hispanic), and only about 2 percent of residents identify as Black or African American—compared to 13 percent in the United States as a whole. Just over half of all Black Oregonians live in Portland.
Several demonstrations throughout the state have been organized by white allies, or by Latinx people, who make up Oregon’s largest ethnic minority. In some rural communities, such as Ontario—where hundreds of people showed up for demonstrations Thursday and Friday night—Latinx children make up more than half of students in public school.
Other demonstrations have been led by Black Oregonians.
In St. Helens, a quiet Columbia River town 40 minutes north of Portland, less than half a percent of residents identify as Black.
Eighteen-year-old Savannah Manning, who identifies as Black and Native, tells Portland Monthly she was one of “just a handful” of Black students at St. Helens High (she graduated Friday in a physically distanced commencement ceremony) and has dealt with racist comments all her life.
When organizers scrapped plans for a rally in St. Helens, Manning voiced her disappointment on Facebook—and ended up speaking at the rally that happened anyway.
“The entire plaza square was just covered with people, peaceful people,” she says.
While the roughly 700 people who showed up for the June 3 event were peaceful, Manning and other demonstrators say passersby in cars spat on the street in the direction of passing marchers, shouted at them that they were disgusting, and told them to go home.
“There was a gentleman [sic] that was yelling racial slurs and, you know, Black lives don’t matter and all that sort of things. I just stood and looked at him in the face. I wanted him to look me in the eye and tell me my life didn’t matter,” says Chrissy Marquardt, 37, who emigrated from Jamaica 20 years ago and has lived in St. Helens for the past decade. “As I did that I felt nine or 10 people surround me, kind of to protect me.”
Marquardt did not take her three children to the demonstration out of fear for their safety. But in that moment, she knew her community had her back.
“It was really kind of great to be surrounded to be friends when that happened,” Marquardt said.