Living history: Silvertonians give first-hand accounts of Portland protests

August 2020 Posted in News, People
A Black Lives Matter memorial on Tom McCall Waterfront Park near the protest blocks in Portland. Photo by Melissa Wagoner.

A Black Lives Matter memorial on Tom McCall Waterfront Park near the protest blocks in Portland. Photo by Melissa Wagoner.

“You watch what’s going on for years and it leads to this underlying angst and agitation,”45-year-old Jay Shenai said in response to the question of why he chose to attend the Portland Black Lives Matter (BLM) Protest on Saturday, July 25. “This one just felt like I needed to.”

Shenai, who admits to avoiding crowds as often as he can, doesn’t do a lot of protesting. Even attending the BLM protest in his hometown of Silverton brought on more than a little trepidation.

“When we had the gathering at the Eugene Fields site I honestly wondered if someone was going to give us that look – but they didn’t,” he said.

“That look,” Shenai, a person of color (POC) explained, is one of dismissal. Dismissal for the “Black Lives Matter” sign he and his wife, Beth, raised at the protest. But also, dismissal of a cause, which – to a predominantly white town located far from the scene of George Floyd’s murder – might seem unimportant. However, to Shenai’s surprise, that was decidedly not the case.

“This is a suburb, and people were screaming out the names of victims – here,” he said, “where it didn’t happen. That gives me hope. And to see people break through that polite barrier, that got me thinking.”

Because, while Shenai has often contributed financially to the organizations that work to end racial injustice, that has generally been his sole means of support. Until now.

“I think, you watch the news, you see the Wall of Moms and you see them getting gassed. You see the Leaf Blower Dads and it just felt like a call to action,” Shenai, who is also a father, related. “It felt like this was close to home.” And he is by no means alone. Elizabeth Neves, 55, felt a similar call to action, attending the Portland protests on July 20.

“I felt called to participate because police brutality is a symptom of racial injustice and POC are disproportionately the victims of police violence,” she explained. Adding, “I believe the protests are important to illustrate our solidarity and amplify POC’s demand for systemic change, specifically, but not limited to changes in policing practices.”

Those policing practices, originally brought into question by the murder of George Floyd, have become ever more fraught as the Portland protests have gone on – currently over 70 days – with both police and federal officers utilizing a variety of controversial methods – teargas, flashbangs and pepper balls – in an attempt to subdue the crowd.

“I am a Criminal Justice Major, a Veteran of the US Army, and an ex-Ranger,” 43-year-old Jared Kofron, who also attended the protests on July 25, said. “I have studied policing and spent hundreds of hours working with police officers in Oregon while attending college. I have friends that are police officers at the local, state and federal level. I take an interest in police culture and police corruption.”

This interest, as well as a curiosity about how “peaceful” the protests actually were, prompted Kofron to join the Wall of Vets, standing for BLM as well as offering protection to peaceful protesters.

“We started at the front of the BLM march, but peeled off to stand in front of the Federal Courthouse,” Kofron said of his initial route. “It was a diverse crowd as far as age goes but looked 95 percent white. Medics walking through the crowd looking for injured, eyewash stations…The protests felt like a fair. There was free food (Riot Ribs), free water, drum lines, drum circles, music, art, graffiti.”

This peaceful description matches the one 40-year-old Allison Hill – who has spent numerous nights protesting in downtown Portland, both in front of the Courthouse and the Justice Center – gave when she said, “It was powerful. Standing there on the streets I kept reminding myself about why we were all out there holding signs and yelling. It was inspiring to be around so many other passionate people. The sense of community on these two blocks is very strong. People are very supportive of each other and are trying to stay on message.”

And spreading that message, was well worth the hour drive into Portland, according to 33-year-old Brianna Wolterman. “I truly don’t believe any of us are free until we are all free – and there are so many people who aren’t free in this country. Until then, I’ll fight for that,” she said.

Neves, too. is in favor of Silvertonians and anyone else who feels called to do so exercising the freedom of speech in order to address the systemic issues that she views as both currently and historically dysfunctional.

“In joining larger events, you realize that the cause is bigger than a few isolated cases,” she stated, “and that collaborative goals can be worked on in smaller communities.”

Jared Kofron and fellow veteran standing with the Wall of Vets at the Portland protests. Submitted Photo

Jared Kofron and fellow veteran standing with the Wall of Vets at the Portland protests. Submitted Photo

While the majority of Portland’s protests have been peacefully conducted, Kofron admitted to witnessing some graffiti, property damage and taunting of federal officers.

“The graffiti, and property damage are minimal and a small price to pay to get policing that doesn’t brutalize us or our children,” he contended.  While similarly Hill maintains that the media coverage has been largely overblown. “Unfortunately, we live in a time of misinformation,” she began. “Even well-intentioned media outlets get it wrong sometimes. It is hard to know who to trust. I think that in this case (the two-plus months of protesting in Portland) there is a deep context for what has been going on that many outsiders do not understand. Since these protests are not permitted events, but a collective of many organizations and groups that go out into the streets each night, there are many voices speaking and a lot of different actions happening.

“The big media outlets are showing the sensational parts of the protest (i.e. the vandalism and late-night confrontations), but they are not showing enough of what happens before all that – each day and earlier in the night.”

Also escalating the negative late-night events, according to Kofron, were the seemingly unwarranted actions of the federal officers.

“As soon as the feds came out, they started shooting pepper balls into the crowd,” he said. “I was standing 20 feet from the fence and didn’t see a single object get thrown back at the feds until the less than lethal rounds were shot into the crowd… Seeing policing like that broke my heart. Actions like that would have gotten soldiers court-martialed in Iraq. They were preemptive, indiscriminate, and brutal.”

While difficult for Kofron to witness, these events – along with a strong belief in the First Amendment, the certainty that police brutality and the mistreatment of minorities is wrong and the sense that federal troops have overstepped their boundaries – have inspired Kofron to continue attending protests.

“Last night they flash banged and shot up the same Vet group I was with Saturday for standing outside the courthouse on public property,” Kofron said. “So, yes, I am going back to stand with my brothers and sisters.”

Shenai too plans to attend more protests, though for a different reason.

“When [32-year-old, Heather Heyer] was killed [at a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017], that resonated with me,” Shenai admitted. “The fact that she was out there, this white lady – someone who didn’t even have to do it – going to a protest, and then she died for it… That happened for me. That happened on my behalf. I’m going back.

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