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Dispatch from Rogue River, Oregonby Sam Becker
In Rogue River, Oregon, members of the Rogue River Police Department and self-identified militia from the Rogue Valley collaborated to cancel an educational, family-friendly event seeking to facilitate dialogue about the local impacts of systemic racism.
On August 29, 2020, protestors advocating for racial justice, along with right-wing, heavily armed counter-protesters, converged outside the Rogue River City Hall. The two groups were divided by two lanes of asphalt that crawled with flag-toating vehicles armed with air-shattering engines and local and county law enforcement.
The event was organized by the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity (SOEquity), a group of community members seeking to dismantle racist systems through education. Symptomatic of the incendiary and delusional media drip-fed through cable news and Facebook, the event was naturally caught in the line of sight of far-right agitators. Antifa, the infamous boogeyman of the moment, was going to loot and destroy Rogue River. Marxists were building their insurrection here. The Black Lives Matter Movement, apparently a hotbed of terrorist activity, was coming to loot and burn the town. The counter-protesters gleefully struck fear into the hearts of sympathetic bystanders, brandishing their newly-minted rhetoric.
Threats of violence towards organizers and attendees, including death threats, accumulated in Facebook comment sections. No one was killed or seriously injured, and, unsurprising from a would-be BBQ for racial justice, no looting occurred, but the event was a harrowing reminder of the zealous, extreme grip the ruling political party has on America.
The counter-protest itself was intimately and very apparently tied into the political platform of the current Republican party's fringe base: a second amendment armed, almost exclusively white, fearful collection of rural voters. The event itself was a microcosm of a broad, tense, and violent political war waged by an extreme-right faction against the growing movement away from status-quo American politics.
Standing in the afternoon sun, I got the sense the counter-protestors were not solely out supporting their leader, Trump, despite the flags. He was a means to an end, and he himself was not the end.
He gave them this platform. Quite literally a flag to rally around, and an ideology hollow enough – and an information sphere so far removed from reality – that delusional fantasies and far-right politics sweep in to fill the vacuous space at the heart of American politics.
Liberals are left only to respond, with little to no counter program which proposes a positive version of this society, other than being slightly more appealing than the man who presides.
And how could you respond, really? The only reality of Trumpism is that it exists in its own universe.
Early in the protest, a white counter-protester asked me why I was carrying a sign that read, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” “In America,” I said, “we live in a society in which Black people have and continue to be treated poorly because of the color of their skin. Until Black lives matter just as much as white lives, I will be advocating for Black lives.” He wasn’t sold and proceeded to go on a rant about the importance of patriotism and military service – how it related, I am still unsure.
The psychological and rhetorical untangling required to reach a point of common understanding takes much longer than a few sentences. It takes relationships. And even then, the notion that reaching across the aisle is a plausible solution feels a long shot. I found myself questioning its efficacy.
I arrived at 10:15 am. By then, engines, an exceptional symbol of industrial power, already drowned out the voices calling for racial equity. It was an anxious, unfiltered noise born from the ignition of fossil fuels.
The air was thick with exhaust, and it felt apropos; the pollution of profit, extraction, and industrialization framed the counter-protestors, whose party green-lights similar political projects with reckless abandon.
An unmasked Jackson County Sheriff officer’s bald head glimmered in the hot sun.
Over 100 people gathered on each side. Those of us protesting the layers of systemic racism baked into our county and country gathered peacefully to listen to people of color share their stories about its psychological and physical consequences. A counter-protester on the other side of the street routinely made a revving motion with her hand to the fleet of motorcycles stationed on her side of the street. More noise and exhaust.
The gun-toting counter-protesters joined Rogue River Chief of Police Curtis Whipple, along with a number of Jackson County Sheriff officers in not masking. “It’s my choice,” Whipple told me as he wove his way between opposing sides. The COVID-19 fallout is yet to be determined.
Various renditions of Trump 2020 flags, along with the Blue Lives Matter, American, Don’t Tread On Me, and Confederate flags, were held erect by counter-protestors. They mirrored those billowing from trucks and motorcycles, whose drivers yelled obscenities, flashed white power symbols, and held out middle fingers.
I immediately felt them leveraging the negative externalities of American capitalism: white power, in the form of police-militia collaboration, patriarchy, in the growling anger of middle-aged men, and pollution, as vehicles discharged exhaust into the afternoon. At protests for racial equality across the country, including Rogue River, male-dominated police and militia have each others’ back, a performance to maintain control amidst a world that is increasingly disgusted by their power.
On our side of the street, those talking through a megaphone were patient, waiting for the industrial din to die down. We listened and we chanted; we held space for voices oppressed by the ideology displayed on the other side of the street.
They condemn cancel culture, which, to them, is an affront to the First Amendment. But, from the police-militia collaboration to cancel the event, along with the use of noise pollution to drown out organizers, they use it liberally. A deeper, more vile form of repression exists though. The intolerance to voices demanding equal justice, and the determination to uphold a racialized-class hierarchy (to “Make America Great Again”) has, and always will, directly and indirectly, ended in the cancellation of people’s lives, especially people of color.
Volleys of yelling crossed the two lanes of the street. People touted their homeownership as a means of justifying their presence at the event. People swore at each other. At the slightest sign of a potential altercation, attention was diverted; heads turned and people were drawn into the no man’s land only to be broken up by law enforcement.
I replayed the events of the day that night at 2:00 am. The animosity, faces frozen mid-yell, held in contrast to the call for justice. I never would have imagined the state we are in.
Sam Becker is an organizer from Talent and an editor with Counterbound. Twitter: @samhbecker
This article was written with editorial support from Theo Whitcomb, a writer from Ashland and an editor with Counterbound. Twitter: @theo_whitcomb