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Vigil for Aidan Ellison calls for white allies to step up

Accountability. Allyship. Justice. History. Community. Words echo through the crowd who gathered to remember Aidan Ellison, bouncing off teachers, students, city officials, friends, parents and toddlers of all races.

Bare fingers clutch the edges of hand-written signs and shoes scuff the edges of chalk messages on the sidewalk.

“Say his name.”

“Rest in power.”

“White silence is violence.”

“You are loved.”

Each person could describe what the words mean based on life experiences — what called them out to stand in the cold, wrap their hands around a simple candle and speak Aidan Ellison’s name aloud — but the Dec. 2 vigil was a time to let Black voices explain, said Kayla Wade, founder of the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity.

Roughly 350 people gathered on the lawn of the Jackson County Justice Office to honor Ellison, to spotlight Black voices and to awaken white allies to the realities people of color experience as residents of Jackson County.

Ellison, a 19-year-old Black man, was killed Nov. 23 in Ashland. Robert Keegan, a 47-year-old white man, said he fired a single gunshot in self-defense when a confrontation Keegan instigated over Ellison’s loud music devolved, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Investigators have not discovered evidence to substantiate Keegan’s self-defense claim. Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said detectives are determining whether sufficient evidence exists to add a bias crime charge to existing charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, reckless endangering and possessing a concealed firearm.

The FBI has joined the case to investigate any violations of federal laws.

“While, at this time, this has not been substantiated, under state or federal law, to have been a bias crime, it is important to examine all aspects of this case and determine whether a bias crime has been committed,” according to a Thursday a news release.

Since Ellison’s death, activists, community groups and allies have rallied around his name to tear down what they see as white supremacy embedded in Southern Oregon’s institutions and social fabric — whether apparent or washed over by ignorance and idealism.

Addressing the issue

The Southern Oregon Black Leaders, Activists and Community Coalition leadership team issued a statement Wednesday, prompting the public to consider their own roles in perpetuating white supremacist culture and practice.

The group cited historical and political ideology, white vigilantism and institutionalized anti-Blackness as components of a system “people born, raised and living in Southern Oregon are acculturated to operate under,” according to the statement.

From the steps of the Justice Office, Wade asked white allies to do the work — to embrace discomfort, steep themselves in stories shared by Southern Oregon’s Black community members and address the effects of internalized white supremacy on an individual and community level.

“A lot of people here, especially the white folks here tonight, you’re probably going to hear some things that you don’t like,” Wade said. “You’re probably going to hear some things that are frustrating to you ... Tonight, I really need you to listen, and when you feel uncomfortable, I need you to sit with that.”

The road to peaceful coexistence and dignity for Black lives, Wade said, requires attention, focus and willingness to hear that Black people in Southern Oregon have at some point been told “how we’re living our lives is unacceptable, and that we need to tone it down, or we need to be quiet, or we need to be silent.”

Dominique Toyer, Research Director for SOEquity, spoke of her frustration with white behaviors in Oregon, which she encountered as an high school student and adult in the Rogue Valley.

For Toyer, it’s a white man telling her something isn’t a race issue but a class issue. It’s watching quotes plucked from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s history come January, and his name written in the shorthand “MLK” without recognizing his credentials.

It’s ignorance embedded in social media posts from white women in box braids tagged with “Black Lives Matter.” It’s watching football teams recruit Black teenagers and groom them for a victorious career in the sport on behalf of Oregon — later, she said, dismissing their struggles when they’re no longer entertaining.

“I am tired of my Blackness being trendy,” Toyer said.

Defining accountability

Gina DuQuenne, newly elected to the Ashland City Council, attended the vigil with an eye on using her own background and future position to build up the county using pillars of inclusivity, equity, transparency and honesty. Conversations may start as uncomfortable, she said, but there is nowhere else to begin reckoning with more than 400 years of unjust Black deaths in the U.S.

“Accountability, to me, looks like the man who will remain nameless is held accountable for what he did. He took a life,” she said. “I am hoping that this man is held accountable and that we can all take note from that, because until that happens, more Black bodies will die.”

For DuQuenne, the murder of Black people is personal, frustrating and exhausting. Positively, she said, the group that turned out Wednesday was a diverse one, full of different ages, colors and backgrounds.

Stepping into a role as a city leader in the new year, DuQuenne said her life experience as a Black, openly queer woman will benefit the City Council — a body which has never before included a person of her identity.

“I would like to be able to make that part of our DNA, and not just by sitting a Black Lives Matter sign in the window,” she said. “It goes deeper than that, to live it and know it and breathe it.”

Vigil attendee Shane Abrams, Humanities Teacher at Ashland High School, scrapped his original lesson plan and brought a discussion about race in Jackson County into his virtual classroom earlier in the week.

While frustrating to attempt a rich conversation virtually, Abrams said his students responded with vulnerability, compassion and recognition of the importance of issues facing their community now. Some knew Ellison personally, while others said they identified with persecution they have experienced because of health conditions, disability and sexual identity.

Racism is a “unique system and experience,” Abrams said, but many students found an entry point to a critical conversation at the intersection of Ellison’s story and their own pain.

Young people are both targets of violence and future change-makers in the world today — schools have an opportunity to confront this early in formalized curriculum across subject areas, Abrams said. For now, educators are working with what they have to get their students thinking.

Learning to be an ally

Louise Paré remembers the last time the Ku Klux Klan marched down the streets of Grants Pass on July 4. She remembers the first time she saw a Black-bodied person, as a 10-year-old in her local church in the late 1950s.

When her family sat down for Sunday mass one day, Paré didn’t know that a group of young Black men planned to attend, though “the word had gotten out” to the rest of the church group, she said

Six Black adolescents walked into a packed, silent church and sat two pews in front of Paré and her family. They weren’t much older than herself. Her most vivid memory is of watching one boy shake profusely in front of her eyes.

The rest of the church waited for the Black boys to take communion first. No one left the church until they left.

“They had to walk through that sea of white-bodied people in silence,” Paré recalled. “I had never experienced hatred, but a word for just this awful feeling that was in the church.”

After the service, she watched the last Black boy boarded a brown Job Corps bus and, for the first time, heard a racist obscenity called out — as church-goers threatened and criticized the boys for sharing the blood and body of Christ.

“I just saw this visceral hatred spewing out of the mouths of these people,” she said.

On the way home, Paré asked her mother what the word meant — and she was told to never use it again. She explained that some people used the word to indicate a Black person is not human.

Paré then asked why one boy was shaking.

“Because he was terrified, Louise. Because when people use that language, usually they want to kill or harm people who have Black skin,” she remembers her mother explaining.

Sixty years later Paré walked behind the Stratford Inn into a space established as a memorial for Ellison. She borrowed a lighter and lit a thick piece of white sage. She walked the perimeter, letting the smoke waft through the air in honor of Ellison’s memory and as a prayer for community healing.

Paré, 71, an Ashland resident today, holds a PhD in women’s spirituality, a master’s degree in religious studies and has published work in social justice and the arts. Born and raised 10 miles outside of Grants Pass on a 6-acre farm, Paré immersed herself in issues of class, race and gender through academic study in Oakland, California, and has spent decades working as a social activist.

She is part of a local group compiling a study using the book “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem, which explores how racialized trauma inhabits different physical bodies, she said.

The group met for the second time Nov. 29 and intends to offer a class on the subject beginning Dec. 21.

After reflecting on her upbringing, education and acquired knowledge, Paré defines being a white ally as acknowledging the embodied racism that gives her privilege.

“If I walk into a store, nobody follows me around the store. If I walk into a store with a Black friend, they probably will have somebody who either keeps an eye on them or follows them around,” Paré said.

To be an ally means to stand and speak up for that person if need be, she said. In her study group, Paré reins in her extroverted nature and waits for a person of color to speak first. She listens with attention, not a presumption of knowing what they have experienced.

She encourages people to be activists through education — to release feelings of guilt and openly ask, “How am I a part of this and what can I do?”

For her, life experiences shape the meaning of the word “ally.” Compassion for the loss Ellison’s mother now bears ties back to a memory from age 9, watching her own mother try to revive her brother, who drowned.

As an educator who watched young men and women graduate high school, Ellison’s loss has a particularly potent sting. In the end, part of being an ally for Paré is “to sit with this and let it disturb me,” she said.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneToren McKnight of Central Point writes a message in chalk Wednesday at a vigil for Aidan Ellison at the Jackson County Justice building in downtown Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneDominique Toyer speaks Wednesday during a vigil for Aidan Ellison at the Jackson County Justice building in downtown Medford.