What was initially planned to be a family-friendly cookout at a public park in Rogue River turned into a Black Lives Matter protest in front of city hall Saturday afternoon.
Hundreds of people showed up, taking whatever side of the road that corresponded with their political beliefs. On one side, crews of motorcyclists loudly revved their engines to drown out BLM protesters. They flew “Blue Lives Matter” flags and brandished a variety of handguns and rifles. They screamed curses and insults.
“Go home, scumbag!”
“We don’t want you here!”
On the opposite side, a crowd circled around Kayla Wade, a young Black woman who helped organize the cookout.
“We are here to promote equality,” Wade told the crowd. “We are here to take care of our community. We are not here to start a fight. There is only one group of people that is here today to promote violence, and it is not us.”
Wade grew up in Grants Pass and now lives in Ashland. She heads the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, or SOEquity, a grassroots organization. Wade says a Rogue River resident had reached out to them after a city council meeting in early August in which councilors said they didn’t think that racism existed in their town. SOEquity organizers saw it as an opportunity to educate the public about racism through a youth-focused cookout in the park.
“We expected maybe like 30 people to show up,” Wade says. “We did everything we could to cooperate with the city of Rogue River to make sure that it was going to be as peaceful and as open to as many community members as possible, and we were met with violent threats against our safety.”
SoEquity posted screenshots from the messages they received.
“I’ll bring the shepherds,” one person wrote alongside a photo of two German shepherds.
“vroom vroom! Run them over! So sick of this ****!!” wrote another.
One commenter wrote that if this group came to Medford, “don’t expect to leave the way you came in. In other words severely beaten or dead.”
After receiving these threats, organizers decided to bring the cookout indoors to a local community center, Evans Valley Community Association. The center approved the event but rescinded its approval with short notice.
“To ensure the safety of everyone, it was decided to cancel the event entirely,” the center wrote in a press release the night before SOEquity’s event.
But it wasn’t canceled. Instead, it had transformed into something else.
“We ran out of spaces to host a casual, relaxed family barbecue,” says organizer Emily Mann of Central Point. “So we gave the town what they wanted. We gave them what they expected of us. We gave them a protest.”
Among the counterprotesters stood Claudia and Allen Williams of Rogue River.
“We are not racist by any means,” Claudia Williams says. “We just don’t want the problems that have been brought to the bigger liberal cities into our small community.”
Those problems, she says, included rioting and looting, none of which occurred in Rogue River that day.
“Actually it’s been very peaceful here,” Claudia Williams says of the protest. “It’s actually been really good.”
“If we could reason together, that’s OK,” Allen Williams says. “We just don’t want no trouble. We’re not here to start trouble. We’re here to keep it from starting.”
Although the day was full of heated yelling matches, threats and name-calling — many involving heavily armed people — it ended by early afternoon with little to no violence. Protesters walked to their cars in groups to ensure their safety. Meanwhile, a leftover group of counterprotesters glared from across the street, one of them unsuccessfully trying to revive a dead motorcycle engine that had overheated after a day of loud revving.
NOTE: The following videos may contain offensive language.
BLM side. Some armed counter protestors are on this side yelling at them. pic.twitter.com/7v2xlzHrDu— April Ehrlich (@AprilEhrlich) August 29, 2020