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Racism must be fought with 'honesty and boldness'

More than 300 people gathered in Ashland this morning to brainstorm ways to combat racism after an African-American woman was confronted by a white man who told her Oregon law would allow him to kill her.

But being in the room is not enough, said the organizers and speakers.

“Being an ally means going to war together," said Christiana Clark, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor who posted a video on Facebook last weekend detailing her encounter with the man who made the remarks. 

“I believe the war can be fought through honesty and boldness," she said.

“Unpacking Racism, a Community Gathering” was organized by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and held at the Ashland Historic Armory in response to the June 24 incident. Clark was walking her dog in the railroad district when the man, described as white and riding a bicycle, shouted at her, “It’s still a law. I could kill a black person and be out in a day and a half. Look it up. The KKK is alive and well here.” Her video posting about the encounter drew more than 200,000 views in roughly 24 hours.

Today's event opened with some ground rules. Organizers told the crowd that racism and oppression are not the fault of any one person, but it must be addressed individually and collectively.

Mica Cole, also with OSF, reported that on Wednesday she, too, was accosted verbally by a man just outside the theater.

“You can imagine as a woman of color being told by a white man that he was going to kill me,” Cole said. Police told her the verbal assault came from a mentally ill man known to them and did not take action, she said.

“That system not only failed a mentally ill person but it failed me," Cole told the crowd. "If the mentally ill person was a black man threatening to kill white people, would the police do nothing? If I was a white woman threatened, would the police do nothing?

"How do we protect and how do we serve a diverse community?"

Halle Lowe, who is entering her senior year at Ashland High School, quoted her teacher saying her daughter was accepted into an Ivy League school because "my daughter has personality unlike the Asian and Indian kids who also have good grades." As a Chinese person, Lowe said the incident made her “tired.”

Isis Contreras, principal of the Migrant Summer Program at Roosevelt Elementary School in Medford, described walking down streets and having people yell at her, “Go back to Mexico."

Contreras talked about the importance of getting to children early before these ideas become ingrained in their thought processes. “I think it’s time. It needs to start with our children. When they are little, they don’t see color. Support our schools and support our children.”

Numerous people came to the front of the Armory and told stories of aggression toward them throughout the community. Then the audience broke into small groups to discuss causes and possible solutions.

Ashland resident Nina Egert suggested that untreated mental illness needs to be part of the problem discussed. “Status in our culture is established by race, gender and sexual orientation, among other things. A person with poor mental health may find this (verbal assault) as a way of creating a better status for himself,” Egert said.

Some in the group suggested that racism may be a form of a mental health problem. They also agreed that acknowledging implicit bias, the idea that everyone has some form of unchecked bias, be part of the conversation as well as full acknowledgment of white privilege.

The next step in “Unpacking Racism,” according to organizers, will be to look at all the problems and solutions as a group and create action plans around them. The meeting today is expected to be a first in a series.

“I am stoked,” said Ashland Mayor John Stromberg. “This is phenomenal, it’s the most remarkable gathering I’ve been to in 16 years. It holds so much possibility.”

Stromberg was especially heartened by the strong presence of young people. “It’s great to be led by youth with so much imagination, to see young people step forward. I think we’re ready to take some big steps.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Julie Akin at akinsj@sou.edu.