On the Murder of Aidan Ellison

by Theo Whitcomb

Aidan Ellison's death highlights the cracks in Ashland's response to white supremacy.

I wish I was writing this note about something else.

Hopefully, by now, our subscribers have read about what happened Monday morning (November 23rd) at the Stratford Inn. Aidan Ellison, a 19-year old Black teenager, was in his car listening to music early in the morning when a 47-year-old White man named Robert Keegan, who was armed illegally, shot and killed Ellison.

It was first reported by KTVL and NBC5, who implied the murder was “caused” or a “result of” the loud music Ellison was playing in his car. KTVL also included a quote about Keegan’s attributes as a father. Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara also implied that the murder was a result of the loud music. KTVL and O’Meara have since corrected these mistakes, with the news station calling their original reporting in “poor taste” and O’Meara making clear he was not blaming Ellison for his own death.

Local Black leaders were quick to condemn this response, calling out both the local media and the Ashland Police Department for how they framed the crime. Precious Edmonds, a spokesperson for the Southern Oregon Black Leaders, Activists and Community Coalition (SOBLACC) spoke to the Oregonian about the response.

“He was listening to his music too loudly — that’s irrelevant,” Edmonds said. “It doesn’t change a thing, how good the man who shot him was. All of those things are not relevant to what occurred. But that’s the narrative, that’s the frame of white supremacy.”

Online, where the story seems to be spreading quickly, dialogue is already falling into a few camps. Some claim that both were at fault, or that Ellison should have turned his music down. Others claim that the “system worked,” Keegan is in jail, and the community should not be upset. More are calling for justice, and see Ellison’s death as the result of a culture of white supremacy in the valley.

To say the response is discouraging risks understating the obvious: the Rogue Valley is completely unprepared to deal with what seems like a very clear hate crime. There has been an eerie silence over the past three days from local officials and businesses, many of whom spent the summer with Black Lives Matter signs adorning their windows. Additionally, the story is already buried on each local news site – which, notably, are Sinclaire group’s progeny, a media corporation with ties to right-wing ideologues who have spent decades hollowing out local journalism.

I heard about this first on Tuesday. My family did not get the news until Thursday morning. That day, at a vigil for Ellison, a speaker noted how he had not heard about the event even though he was shopping the next day at Safeway, across the street.

This will, and should, catch a lot of attention in the media outside of the Rogue Valley. Since Keegan has already pleaded not guilty, there will likely be speculation about the nature of self-defense. Many will attempt to absolve Keegan of his racially charged crime, and I expect a deluge of color-blind attempts to paint the murder as race-neutral.

As details come out about Ellison’s death, our community needs to understand how white supremacy functions and to fight one of its most powerful tools: historical amnesia. This crime is tragically similar to that of Jordan Davis, who was murdered in Florida for the exact same reason: playing music. In the murder of Jordan Davis, which was just months after that of Trayvon Martin, the killer attempted to claim self-defense. Under the arcane stand your ground laws in Florida, his argument got traction. The jury could not unanimously convict him for shooting through the window of a parked car towards three unarmed Black teenagers listening to music.

You can read more about that case here. It is far too familiar.

Understand that what happened this week is another instance of America’s culture of white supremacy, where armed white men feel emboldened to carry out their own executions. As a community, we cannot passively accept this. The media’s lack of attention, the failure for officials to make statements about the issue, and the narratives floating around online all make me fear we are passive to white supremacist violence.

A family member recently said to me that because this was not out of the ordinary people will be numb to it, continuing their lives as is, and disengage. The term ‘out of the ordinary’ stuck with me all day. Was Ellison’s murder – listening to music in his car, houseless, and shot by a white man with an illegal firearm – ordinary? I am terrified of a future where this is true.

Theo Whitcomb is a Counterbound co-founder, editor, and writer.

  ︎      ︎      ︎