“It’s still an Oregon law, I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive and well here.”
That’s what Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Christiana Clark said in a Facebook post she heard shouted at her by a man on a bike as she was walking her dog down the sidewalk in Ashland's Railroad District Friday evening.
In the post at bit.ly/ashlandracism — which less than 24 hours after it was put up had been viewed more than 62,000 times, and by Monday afternoon was at 149,000 views — Clark said she'd been listening to "Hamilton" on her earbuds along A Street between Fifth and Sixth streets when she could see the man talking to her, so she took out her earbuds and heard his racist threat.
She posted her account of the incident on social media, saying, in part: “I’m disgusted. I feel sick and upset. You all need to know this isn’t a theory or a prejudice that people are holding that being a black person walking around Ashland is not as safe or as beautiful as we dream it to be. I couldn’t imagine a more honest promotion for our Juneteenth celebration coming up on Monday. I’m going to work hard to work this off and find love,” she concluded.
Clark emceed OSF's Juneteenth remembrance Monday in the theater company's courtyard. The event commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — when word reached Texas June 19, 1865, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Messages to Clark were not immediately returned. An OSF spokesman said she was working on self-care and preparing for her performances.
Daniel and Carolyn Verner, who live nearby in the Railroad District, also heard the yelling from their kitchen window.
“I didn’t hear all of the words, but they sounded hostile. The main thing that I heard was a man yelling 'KKK is alive and well here,' ” said Carolyn Verner.
She and her husband came out to see whether Clark needed help.
“I was impressed with her calm self," Daniel Verner said. "I could tell she was upset and offended, but we had a really nice exchange.” He said he’s concerned that the incident happened in Ashland, and the impression it gives about the community. “It really saddens me that this is a way Ashland is represented ... it’s not like this, but (the verbal assault) needs to be addressed and checked out.”
Ashland police issued a news release Monday saying they believe they know who made the racist comments but, after consulting with the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, determined that no crime had been committed. Chief Tighe O'Meara had told the hundreds who attended Monday's Juneteenth celebration earlier that day that the man's words were not a specific threat, but more of an indirect statement, and therefore was not likely a crime.
Eddie Wallace, a spokesman for OSF, where Clark has been an actor for three years and this season plays the Lion in "The Wiz" and Horatio in "Hamlet," issued a statement Saturday, saying, “OSF condemns this ugly incident and all acts of racism and prejudice here in Ashland and across our country. As far too many OSF company members and Rogue Valley residents of color are aware, racist incidents like this happen every day in our community. In addition, LGBTQ+ and differently abled people, among others, suffer through similar episodes.
"We ask our elected officials, our law enforcement personnel and every person in this community to actively take a stand to fight racism and prejudice wherever they see it.”
Southern Oregon University’s Alma Rosa Alvaraz, who teaches Modernism and U.S. Ethnic Literature, also sent out an all-staff email Saturday urging support for Clark and all people of color in the community: “For people of color, the experiences of micro-aggressions in the Rogue Valley, including Ashland, are not uncommon, but this open threat is scary and concerning."
Neither Clark nor the Verners knew the man who yelled the racist comments. On her post, Clark describes him as "a white man, late-40s to mid-50s, sandy sun-blonde short hair. He had a backpack, was wearing a blue T-shirt, and riding a bike."
Daniel Verner said it’s important for people in the community to stand by each other. “I’m glad we had our door opened when it happened," he said. "If he came back, I would be there.”
Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.