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Racism alleged in Riverwalk neighborhood complaints

A family in the Riverwalk neighborhood of Ashland is ready to engage legal counsel to address alleged racial discrimination after landlords brought a police officer to stand by during a home inspection — the culmination of a three-month dispute over homeowners association rules and compliance.

In a 16-minute video livestreamed on Facebook, James Williams, who is Black, is seen answering the door to three white people, including two landlords and one Ashland police officer standing off the front porch.

Landlord Fred Epstein visited the house March 5 to complete a home inspection after finalizing a private offer on the house to a third party, he said.

Williams, a father of seven, said he felt threatened, harassed and unsafe opening the door to an armed officer for a home inspection, after being subjected to repeated complaints from a neighbor and the Riverwalk HOA over the past three months.

Epstein said Monday that showing up as a frightened white man with a police officer at his back was the “most insensitive thing I could have done.”

“It took me just a moment to see things from James’ point of view, and I regretted it immediately and I still regret it and always will,” Epstein said. “It was a mistake.”

In the video, Epstein said he requested the officer’s presence out of concern for his safety, and recounted a noise complaint from the previous evening about loud rap music being played late into the night. The officer said his role was not investigatory, but to ensure the encounter remained civil.

Williams’ partner, Mahalath Gordon, explained that the music was turned down immediately in compliance with police requests, while Williams pressed Epstein for an answer: “What are you afraid of?”

Covenants, conditions and restrictions

A notice of violation from the Riverwalk HOA dated Dec. 19 lists three rule violations associated with Williams’ address: suspected business operations in the home, parking a utility trailer in the driveway for an extended time, and installing an unapproved privacy screen on the back porch in view of green space.

According to the document, neighbors reported industrial storage shelves being delivered to the house and installed in the garage, and rental trucks unloading “sizable amounts of items on pallets.” Suspected business activities and parking, idling and traffic congestion issues are cited as troublesome for the quiet residential neighborhood.

The violation notice demanded truck deliveries and suspected business activities cease and marked the start of a 30-day period to correct the violations before a $100 per week fine would begin to accrue. A second document dated Feb. 2 claimed the first violation regarding business operations was not resolved.

The HOA board findings cite new truck deliveries, “activities that appear to be business transactions at strange hours of the day and night,” street activity “in what appears to be some kind of transfer of goods into backpacks” in the early-morning hours, a loud party Jan. 29 and unauthorized parking.

“The neighbor stated, ‘It feels intimidating and it’s really disruptive to the neighborhood,’” according to the document.

Gordon described the complaints as “ludicrous” and some as inaccurate, such as the length of time the trailer was parked. The house was listed as the registered address for Williams’ hemp coffee business, but production and shipping activities are conducted in Nevada, she said.

Epstein said activities described in the HOA notices and complaints made him concerned and suspicious, including a tip March 4 that there was significant activity around the garage — where neighbors alleged business activity was occurring — involving moving trucks. Epstein said the amount of detail supplied by neighbors gave their allegations credence.

At minimum, Epstein said playing loud music at midnight on the patio represents a “fundamental lack of courtesy and respect” in the neighborhood.

Williams attributed a higher-than-normal level of traffic in recent months to visiting family during the holiday season. He refuted an accusation that the garage was emptied in anticipation of the landlords’ visit.

In an email dated Jan. 18 to city Code Compliance Officer Andrew Barrow, Williams reiterated his business is based in Nevada and not operated at home.

“It is my belief that the complaint you received was racially instigated because my family is the only Black family on my street,” Williams wrote. “At this point my children don't feel safe in my house, and I don't feel safe having my children even play in the front yard because the neighbor may feel it necessary to continue to harass me and my family through more complaints.”

In February, Williams received a letter notifying he had 90 days to vacate the house because it had been sold. Gordon said prior to receiving the letter, the homeowners had not communicated imminent plans to sell the house.

Williams said his previously positive relationship with Epstein ended when he learned he would be moving his family out of their house during a pandemic because of complaints by racist neighbors, he alleged.

“Our relationship went out the window when you just showed up with a cop saying you’re scared,” Williams said Friday.

Epstein denied that selling the house was a way to force Williams and his family out of the neighborhood and said a sale had been in consideration for two years.

In the video, Epstein confirmed he had not received any complaints about the family in three years as tenants, prior to those that began three months ago regarding traffic, noise and “truckloads” of goods leaving the property.

‘Forget about the color thing’

During a conversation inside the house recorded on video, Epstein asked Williams to “forget about the color thing for a minute” while they discussed the facts.

Gordon said the statement triggered her, sitting in a house full of Black and mixed-race children for whom race is a constant, months after a young Black man was murdered with a similar instigating factor involved: loud music. Williams posed whether the response would have been the same if his family blasted Tim McGraw instead of rap.

“The same thing I’ve been doing I’ve been doing for years — I’ve been living here,” Williams said. “Minding my own business and taking care of my family like a good father is supposed to do. I thought I was in a safe environment, but now I feel extremely threatened. My kids don’t feel safe now because their friend just got shot by playing rap, Black music.”

“It put my mind in a whole frenzy of disappointment and disbelief, especially with my kids having to witness it,” he said. “This is going on in 2021 in my home — about rap music being something to scare my landlord.”

Williams said he intends to report the incident and engage legal counsel to address the alleged discrimination and notice to vacate.

Incidents of bias, harassment or intimidation can be reported to the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity at 541-819-0560.

Williams said at this point he’s ready to leave the neighborhood. At the same time, he worries about setting an example for his children of running away.

Gordon said after the landlords and police officer left, she found Williams’ 8-year-old daughter in her bedroom. She had listened to the encounter unfold from the moment her father opened the door to an officer.

“She came out and she said, ‘I had so much anxiety, my heart was racing, and all I kept thinking was please don’t shoot my daddy, please don’t shoot my daddy,’” Gordon recalled.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara said in general, for disputes between a landlord and tenant, a police officer may be called for civil standby to ensure the tenant’s rights are respected and to protect both parties in case of confrontation.

The person who requests a police presence is not required to prove their life is in danger, however, O’Meara said this interaction opens a dialogue about how APD officers are activated on civil standbys when the threat is unclear. Typically when someone asks for help, police don’t study the request in-depth, he said.

Williams said his presence was intimidating, but the officer did not threaten or impose undue power in the situation and explained he was there for everyone involved. The officer remained outside on the front porch throughout the encounter.

Overall, O’Meara said he is satisfied with how the officer performed his job.

Based on information the officer received from the requesting party, which included allegations the tenant had refused to cooperate in the past, the officer’s presence was appropriate, O’Meara said.

“I am going to make sure that when we get requests, the officers are scrutinizing them and making sure that we’re not going to be used as a tool for intimidation,” O’Meara said. “It does not appear that that is the case here, this request seems to be legitimate. But I think it’s a fair thing and a reasonable thing for us to be wary of, to make sure that we’re not duped into lending ourselves towards somebody’s intimidation.”

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

Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschEmpty Streets in downtown Ashland.