More than 140 people gathered in John Day Friday for a peaceful protest and march in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
The march made its way down to Third Street and past Chester’s Thriftway, turned around at Timbers Bistro and traveled back down to Highway 395, past Canyon City Food Cart.
The protesters, ranging in age from 4 to 90, waved signs, mostly addressing racial inequality, police brutality and systemic racism.
The demonstration, organized by yoga instructor Ashley Stevick and Prairie City School Board Chairperson Lindsay Sain Rausch, was in response to the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. He was handcuffed and lying face down during an arrest as police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, killing Floyd.
Several bystanders caught the incident on their cellphone cameras, and Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers on scene have been charged with aiding and abetting a homicide. Floyd’s death spurred an international outcry and prompted protests across the country. Some devolved into rioting and looting.
Stevick and Raucsh first announced plans June 3 for “John Day is with you! BLACK LIVES MATTER.” John Day Police Chief Mike Durr said he met with Stevick beforehand to ensure it would be carried out peacefully.
Despite the organizers’ efforts to dispel rumors that the group Antifa — short for “anti-fascists” and an umbrella term for leftist militant groups that confront or resist white supremacists at demonstrations — was busing in members from outside the county, armed citizens concerned about rioting and looting lined the streets in front of businesses throughout downtown John Day.
Throughout the country, the theories about Antifa were deemed false by both Twitter and Facebook and traced back to white supremacy groups like Identity Evropa and American Guard, and some members of these groups, according to an AP article, have been caught posing as part of the Antifa movement.
An armed group of citizens referring to themselves as “peacekeepers” met in downtown John Day ahead of the demonstration. Organizer Samni Bell said the group intended to support law enforcement.
“We are here as peacekeepers only,” said Bell. “We support anybody who wants to protest. That is their constitutional right, and it is our constitutional right to bear arms.”
Bell had specific guidelines for the group that included not engaging in discussions with protesters and staying in groups of two. None were to point their weapons at, or toward, any of the demonstrators.
These peacekeepers said they were sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause and agreed that Floyd’s death was unjust and that America still has a problem with racial inequality.
“There’s racism out there,” Greg Jackson said. “We all have to admit it.”
Jackson said the racism goes “both ways.”
“I’ve traveled all over the country, and I’ve seen black racists, I’ve seen racist against Chinese, Japanese and, you know, Asian races,” Jackson said. “Everybody’s racists. Birds of a feather flock together.”
He said the racism is not so bad in America that it justifies the rioting and the looting that has taken place in many American cities.
Jackson said, while he thought the violence could happen in John Day, it was unlikely it would. He said he was also concerned the organizers would bus in outside protestors.
“I don’t understand why they’re coming to John Day,” Jackson said. “We obviously had nothing to do with George Floyd.”
Jackson said he supports a protest if there is a reason for it.
“I think we’ve been, should have been, doing a lot more protesting with the shutdown,” Jackson said. “Because that was constitutionally illegal, in my opinion.”
Durr agreed with the protesters’ sentiment regarding Floyd.
“To me, I find it embarrassing for my profession that we have people that do that,” Durr said. “We’re not out there to punish people. We’re out there to hold them accountable, and there’s a big difference between that and what we saw on the video.”
Durr said all Americans should also be embarrassed about the violence and the rioting that took place during some demonstrations.
“One of our constitutional rights is to protest peacefully,” Durr said. “And I am really disappointed when a portion of the crowd decides to burn buildings, cause property damage and loot. I don’t see any excuse for that.”
Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer said he did not see the images or footage of Floyd’s arrest and death. As the march winded down, Palmer said the protest overall had been “quiet.”
Another small group of counterprotesters also gathered downtown. When asked what they thought of the situation, Evan Hodge said, “I think these dumb (expletives) need to get the (expletive) out of our town. And if you’re one of them, you can get the (expletive) out too.”
Stevick said out of the nearly 140 people who gathered together, fewer than 10 were not from Grant County, and they had ties to the area.
Stevick said there was a definite distinction between the peacekeepers and the counterprotesters.
“While it was physically uncomfortable to walk past citizens and their guns, and while I do think it was meant to be intimidating, I also understand that they were afraid,” Stevick said, referring to looting and violence in other locations.
Stevick said a few of the armed peacekeepers came back to her house and talked with the protestors afterward. She said it was very encouraging.
“I ask now that we don’t antagonize and that we engage in thoughtful discussion without demonizing either side,” she said.
Stevick said afterward that the demonstration had been peaceful, and the group shined a light on the racial inequality across the country.
Shaun Robertson, longtime resident and president of the Grant County Farm Bureau, said he believed the protest was hypocritical. He said that was his personal opinion, not that of the Farm Bureau. He said he was in town shopping, joined friends among the counterprotesters and stayed to watch because he “wanted to see the demonstration of hypocrisy” himself.
“Some of the marchers are the biggest bigots in Grant County,” he said. “Teachers who plaster their walls with so-called ‘progressive’ messages, lecture on their personal opinion not within their curriculum and then bully students who have contrary opinions. Government employees who hide behind their employment protections and use their power and privilege for retribution against critics. Elitists who lecture about inclusiveness and respect for diversity but treat locals with disdain and contempt and who really only consider more extreme versions of their own voices.”
Robertson said news of looting and violence elsewhere was concerning. He said “extremist groups will resort to anything to disrupt other people’s lives.”
He said he was not aware of police brutality being an issue in Grant County but misuse of police powers for personal agendas was a problem.
“Apparently, since that discrimination is directed at white people, it doesn’t fit the marchers’ narrative and doesn’t warrant their attention,” he said.
Robertson said he saw the footage of Floyd’s death.
“I was as horrified as when I watched the video of LaVoy Finicum being murdered by white police officers and the unnamed Asian shopkeeper being beaten with two-by-fours yesterday by five black people and the internet videos of white cops being shot and killed by black drivers pulled over on the freeway,” he said. “The justice system will judge the four officers (charged in relation to Floyd’s death), hopefully with more veracity than the court of public opinion comprised predominantly of people who protest for entertainment but really do nothing to solve true social issues have.”
Robertson said he has “experienced firsthand the bigotry and discrimination directed at all colors of people by all colors of people; nobody has a monopoly on racism. That’s why I believe it’s primarily about abuse of power rather than race. When people have nearly unchecked power over other people, abuse is certain to follow. These protest marches are distractions from getting at the real heart of the issues.”
John Day resident Justin Davis, who is black, said, while he does not speak for all African Americans, he felt compelled to participate in the protest.
“I’m not going to try and speak for all black people because I don’t,” Davis said. “But I am the only one here, and if these people are here doing this for me, I could show up.”
Another African American resident who requested not to be named had a different view.
“I do realize some people are trying to help, and I appreciate the efforts they are making for change, but at the same time in my eyes, what are a few white folks from John Day going to change?” he said.
He said he had been pulled over three times this month, and every time, the officer walked up with a weapon drawn even when both of his hands were on the wheel.
“I don’t even own a weapon,” he said.
He said on multiple occasions in Grant County, he has heard residents refer to “colored people.”
“I had an older lady come into my work with her husband, and when I was done helping them, the lady said to her husband as they were walking away she didn’t like a colored person serving her food and that they needed to come back when I was gone,” he said.
But he said he felt like the protest in John Day was people jumping on a trend on social media — virtue signaling, at best.
He said the gun-carrying “peacemakers” also weren’t helpful.
“How is someone of color supposed to feel when, whether it’s at work or on the streets or at home, someone is carrying a gun?” he said.