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Demonstrators, counter-protesters face off in Rogue River

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As a biracial girl growing up in Southern Oregon, Kayla Wade said every time she left her house, she was on display — whether she wanted to be or not.

People treated her like a dog, touching and petting her curly hair.

Although she was born and raised in Grants Pass, people would ask, “Where are you really from?”

When she talked, they would comment that she spoke “so well for a black girl.”

Wade said she doesn’t think people were trying to be racist, but their actions and words still hurt.

“It’s the little things that eat away at a small child,” she said.

The founder and president of the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, Wade tried to organize a downtown march followed by a park cookout in the small town of Rogue River on Saturday where people could share their experiences with racism.

But opponents booked the park facility the coalition wanted to use, and then the Evans Valley Community Association decided not to let the coalition use the association’s community center, citing safety concerns.

Threats had been circulating on social media advocating the killing of Black Lives Matter supporters.

With the cookout canceled, the coalition was left with only a street-side rally in front of the city of Rogue River’s administration building on Saturday. Roughly 100 people gathered on that side of Broadway Street in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Across the street, about 200 people gathered in opposition.

For hours, opponents repeatedly drove past, revving their engines in an effort to drown out the Black Lives Matter speakers. Some of the opponents parked their motorcycles on one side of the street, revving the engines at high decibels.

On the Black Lives Matter side of the street, religious groups hemmed them in, speaking with amplification to further drown out any speakers.

An event billed as a family-friendly space for conversation devolved into people yelling across the street at each other and chanting.

On the counter-protester side of the street, Rogue River resident Dan Moss was carrying a black and white American flag with a blue line to symbolize his support for police.

Protests have swept the country since Black man George Floyd was killed while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police. An officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd was either unconscious or dead — an action Southern Oregon police agencies have widely condemned.

Moss said he has lived in Rogue River for six years and has seen no racial problems. He said the protesters were just stirring things up.

“There are a few bad police, but the majority are good, honest, hardworking people. We need them in society. It’s ridiculous to defund the police,” Moss said.

He said he’s not opposed to peaceful protests, but too many protests around the country have been taken over by radicals.

Also on the counter-protest side, a man who asked to remain anonymous had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a sign saying, “All Lives Matter. Rogue River Supports Our Police.”

He said everyone matters, whether they are transgender, straight, black, white, Spanish, Italian, Nigerian or senior citizens.

“Every life is precious. It seems like Black Lives Matter comes to town and it’s about chaos and disruption,” he said.

The man said members of the Rogue River community have been supporting each other during the pandemic. When COVID-19 restrictions shut down restaurant dining rooms, residents made a point of ordering take-out from a Mexican restaurant in town. He said the Latino owner supports youth sports and other aspects of the community. When the owner relocated his business, community members helped carry equipment during the move.

“Our community loves everyone. That’s why we’re so upset. We don’t want to see our city burn,” the man said. ““Violence is not a solution. Looting and burning buildings never accomplishes anything.”

A woman who gave her name as Sophia said she had recently moved to Rogue River and thought she had escaped the burning and looting taking place in California. She said the protesters were from Portland, which she called a “war zone” because of ongoing protests, destruction and violence there.

“They don’t leave in peace, they leave everything in pieces,” Sophia said.

She said she doesn’t deny that racism exists.

“I understand there’s still a huge amount of racism everywhere. I don’t think burning cities does any good. It’s just creating more division and hatred among everybody,” Sophia said. “They’re coming over and saying this town is full of racists.”

Shavon Haynes, a biracial young man who grew up in Cave Junction and now lives in Ashland, spoke to the audience on the Black Lives Matter side of the street. But he also crossed over to share his experiences with the other side. He said he listened to their fears that protesters had come from outside the area to loot, riot and destroy the community.

“I would encourage everyone to continue having these conversations. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean they’re wrong or you’re wrong,” he said.

Haynes said it wasn’t easy for him and his brothers and sisters growing up in Cave Junction. He would find racist messages of hate written on bathroom walls, and as a person of color, he stayed away from certain parts of town and the Rogue Valley that didn’t feel safe for him.

Since the killing of Floyd and increased conversations about racism in America, Haynes said white friends and acquaintances have been reaching out to him.

“Some people I grew up with are acknowledging things they did in the past were not OK,” Haynes said.

He said he’s gratified to see white friends joining in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re here for you,’” Haynes said.

The majority of people in the Black Lives Matter crowd on Saturday were white.

Haynes urged people of all colors to continue talking to each other openly about issues of race. White people might not realize how they’re hurting others.

“It’s OK to change. If you find out something you were doing or saying is offensive or inappropriate, stop doing it. Everybody can change. We’re all learning,” he said.

Keziah Anderson, a young Black man who lives in Medford, said he used to work at a gas station, where he would greet customers with a smile and a wave.

Some would shake their heads and drive away when they saw him. One customer asked to be served by someone else, so Anderson went into the gas station and sent out the other black employee — a 6-foot, 2-inch man topping 230 pounds with a deep voice, said Anderson, who is of medium size and build. The customer was visibly afraid.

Anderson said he was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, a branch of Christianity that believes strongly in proselytizing. As a kid, he knocked on a lady’s door. She said she didn’t want a n----- child on her doorstep and told him to leave before she hung him from a tree.

Anderson said he has felt alone for most of his life.

“If it weren’t for this community, I would still feel alone,” he said to the crowd assembled in support of Black Lives Matter.

Meanwhile, a white man loudly revved a speed boat engine as he was pulled on a trailer past where Anderson was speaking.

“I would like it if you all would listen to us instead of trying to drown us out,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he wishes the counter-protesters would follow some of the messages written on their signs.

“They say, ‘All lives matter.’ Prove it. Stand with me,” he said.

Rogue River and Medford police officers, along with Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputies, mixed with the two sides and kept them from pushing in toward each other in the middle of the roadway.

Rogue River Police Chief Curtis Whipple said law enforcement wouldn’t intervene unless people began having physical confrontations or got into the roadway, blocking traffic. He said police were trying their best to not take sides and to keep the peace between both groups.

Asked about the loud revving of engines, he said police were not going to concern themselves with enforcing noise regulations during the event.

“Being out here and having an exchange of ideas is important. What we want is for everyone to be able to go home safely at the end of the day,” Whipple said.

Nathan Seable, who lives in Grants Pass and works in Rogue River, said he was at the event just to observe. Going back and forth between the sides, he said the event on the sides of the street was an unnecessary confrontation that didn’t need to happen.

“I don’t think that’s the way people solve problems. They should be out at a barbecue talking,” Seable said.

He said the Black Lives Matter protesters were calling people on the other side racists, and the counter-protesters were calling the protesters communists.

“We have to do better,” Seable said.

A neighbor who gave her name as Lisa was sitting on her front lawn watching the two sides. She said the event was noisy and disruptive, especially for her next-door neighbor, who was recovering from surgery.

“A lot of people here help each other. This is a small, close-knit community. We have different races here. People feel safe walking down the street. Rogue River has nice people,” Lisa said.

She said too many people want to keep looking back at events from the past that can’t be undone.

“We need to make a better future for everyone,” Lisa said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

A Jackson County Sheriff's deputy patrols Broadway Street on foot in downtown Rogue River during a racial justice rally in which{ }demonstrators faced counter-protesters Saturday morning.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Jackson County Sheriff's deputies and Rogue River police stand watch between protesters and counter-protesters at a racial justice event in Saturday in Rogue River.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
An armed citizen snaps a photo down Broadway Street where racial justice demonstrators met with counter-protesters Saturday in Rogue River.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune