Residents air concerns about local racism in protests

By Megan Stewart
For Lebanon Local

Best friends Mitra Aflatooni, a student at Washington State University, and Josie Williamson, a Lebanon local now attending the University of Oregon, want to see improved race relations in the community.
That’s why they have organized two protests in front of Pizza Hut in the past two weeks, which have spawned at least one other, held by local pastors.
The first was on June 7, which drew around 100 people throughout the evening.
Aflatooni described Lebanon as a city that “needs special attention.” Williamson said she believes racism is more prevalent in rural areas than big cities. When they saw “no one was doing anything” in Lebanon, Alfatooni said the two college students took it upon themselves to start their own protests.
Aflatooni said they believed Lebanon citizens had “wanted to be out here” protesting, but were too “scared.” She felt she and Williamson provided them the “ability” and the “confidence” to step out and protest locally.
Jane Gerson, who has lived in Lebanon for almost 28 years, was one of the locals who joined the protest on June 7. No stranger to protests, she found out about the event on Facebook and wanted to show her support.
“It’s one thing to protest in a large city, but the message has to reverberate throughout all communities,” Gerson said.
Gerson said she and her husband have done a lot of research on race relations and know the U.S has a “dark history” when it comes to racial equality.
“It’s hard to put everything in a catch phrase,” she said, but encouraged people to research systematic racism. Gerson listed off various “injustices,” including denial of loans to black veterans after World War II, redlining districts, the FBI’s past targeting of black leaders, and even Flint, Mich., which she says never would have happened in affluent, white neighborhoods.
“We’ve needed change for decades, it’s nothing new,” she said.
Local resident Denise Smith said she also found the event on Facebook and had been waiting for people to a start a protest in Lebanon. Now 63, she remembers witnessing “such chaos as a child,” due to the racial tension at the time. She said after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “people thought it fixed everything.” In reality, the act just “forced racism downwards,” making people “sneaky” about their prejudices.
“Cellphone cameras brought it back out,” said Smith. “It made it so easy to say it didn’t exist without them.”
She said “there’s always been a certain group that has everything handed to them,” corporations being one example in present day.
“People who think everything is OK – if you sit down and think about it – even they have [experienced] injustices.” She listed inefficient healthcare and pay as problems everyone faces. She said she had been encouraging people online to demand improvement in various aspects of their lives before Floyd’s death.
These “protests are a sign that things are changing,” Smith said. “I hope it keeps going for everyone.”
“People need to realize their power, and if we work together and try to make things equal, I think we can make the world a better place,” she said.

Leticia Barbosa, also from Lebanon, attends Western Oregon University. Barbosa said she took part in the protest in hopes of one day making the world a better place for her nieces. Leticia she said the children “have a lot more melanin” than she does, and they often get picked on because of their skin color.
She had her sisters Martha Lopez and Lucia Barbosa, along with family friend Juan Barajas, with her. All four are Mexican and said they’ve experienced racism in Lebanon, including at school, with their co-workers, and even in restaurants.
“We want people to know we’re over people being blatantly racist,” said Leticia.
She recalled a teacher during her sophomore year of high school telling her and a group of her Mexican friends not to sit next to each other in class because they “looked too scary” together and would “frighten the white students.”
When they speak Spanish in public, they’ve all been told on occasion “This America, speak English,” said Barajas. They often see Confederate flags flying in the air in Lebanon, too.
Barajas said their parents have told them all their lives to “stay quiet and move on,” and not to “cause more problems” for themselves, but he believes “they’ve let it happen for too long.”
Lopez said she wants to finally make a difference by the time her kids are grown up.

On Sunday, June 14, more than 300 people congregated a little before 1 p.m. at Century Park in Lebanon for the Unity March, including four police officers on bicycles, who observed the scene a few yards behind the forming crowd.
Karissa Doyle called everyone together for a quick announcement before they marched over to the gazebo at Academy Square Park, where eight speakers would take the stage. Doyle, one of the co-organizers along with Jesseca Wolter, Micah-Lyn Borden, Jack Bauer, and Elati Bourgeois, urged the crowd to remain peaceful, even if dissenters tried to antagonize them.
During the march to Academy Square, protesters chanted slogans such as “No justice, no peace,” and “Black Lives Matter,” and saw no opposition – only support – from onlookers as they passed through residential areas.
When they reached the gazebo, Doyle, a graduate from Lebanon High School who now lives in Salem, started off the speeches. Rian Gayle of Salem and Tie Burcham of Corvallis, both black and deaf, worked as sign language interpreters at the event.
“Today we’re going to hear many retellings from many people of color of their painful encounters, not only in Oregon but in Lebanon,” said Doyle, who’s white. She said these encounters have happened everywhere in their town, in the schools, on the sidewalks, in the grocery store, and even in “the walls of our homes.”
“You see, I stand here today as a member of this community who recognizes that our town has profound roots in systematic and institutional racism,” she said to the applause of the crowd. “It’s sad for me to say this about our home, but when the roof in your house is leaking, you don’t ignore it just because it’s not leaking directly on you.”
Doyle admitted she hasn’t always been aware of the racism in Lebanon, nor has she always spoken up in the past when she witnessed it, but she said she’s now using her “privilege to speak out and speak against” racial injustice.

“This ignorance and neutrality plagues Lebanon because it permits and dismisses racism rather than calling it out,” she said, adding that “racism isn’t our only issue in Lebanon; silence is, too.”
“I will never understand the turmoil of being in their [people of color’s] skin, and neither will my white peers, but it’s becoming more visible to me everyday and I hope it’s becoming visible to every one of you.”
Kiera Johnson, Juan Ledezma, Anthony Mobley, Bauer, Wolter, Dana Wolter-Britton, Kenith Brown, Williamson, and Izaiya Taylor followed Doyle’s speech with their own, each with a unique lesson.
“We’re here to prove to our community that we are seen, we are a voice here, and that we do belong here,” said Ledezma, a local resident who is also Mexican. “That is this community is not just white anymore, that as our community grows, we are here to teach them that all life is valuable, than just your neighbor, than just the people that go to your church, than just the kids you grew up knowing since kindergarten.”
He said teachers encourage kids to question the government and speak their opinions, but each time he and his friends try to exercise their right to protest, “we see people drive by and flip us off.”
“I just want to know, why are you mad? Lebanon is 90 percent white, so why do you feel like you’re being attacked? I want to know.”
Ledezma said he can’t speak for the black community, but he can speak to his own experiences as “the son of immigrants” in Lebanon. Growing up, he perceived the word “immigrant” as “shameful” and his life as less valuable than his white peers, who often reminded him of his differences and sometimes questioned his intelligence.
He remembers the first time he ever encountered racism, in second grade at Riverview in Lebanon.
Ledezma said he was talking to one of his friends in Spanish on the playground about what she ate for dinner last night. A young white girl reported them to a teacher on duty, telling the teacher they were gossiping about the girl in “gibberish.” The teacher then told him he needed to “stop speaking Mexican because you’re making everyone uncomfortable,” he said.
Ledezma said people often tell him and other Hispanics that their parents are criminals, rapists, and drug dealers.
Doubling down on Doyle’s point, Ledezma later added, “why is it that in times of injustice, you decide to look the other way?”
He ended his speech with a call to stop erasing history and to “start analyzing and giving validation to other ways of life.”
Wolter, an incoming senior at Lebanon High School, said she feels that, whenever she experiences racism, it’s almost always “swept under the rug.”
The first time she experienced racism, and the phenomenon of “sweeping it under the rug” was in fifth grade at Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis. Before the school day started, a third-grader, toting a knife in his bag, threatened to slit her throat if she wasn’t a “good n*****.”
After she reported the incident, a teacher she told just laughed and called it a “misunderstood joke.” When Wolter informed the principal about what happened, the woman accused her of lying, even after audio and video footage validated her claims, she said.
Partially due to this event, Wolter’s mother moved the family to Sweet Home. On her first day at school there, two girls came up to Wolter and started bombarding her with personal questions, eventually asking whether her father is black. When Wolter said “yes,” they told her they found it “disgusting” that her mom would date a black man and have children with him, Wolter said.
“A well-meaning, but misguided teacher” approached Wolter afterwards and told her just to ignore them, as they “didn’t mean any harm.” Wolter felt the teacher’s words did nothing to help her personally but did everything to excuse what the girls had said.
“Once again, swept under the rug,” said Wolter.
Wolter listed several other “swept-under-the-rug” moments: a boy smacking her in the face with a notebook because she “was a n***** talking out of place”; a student calling her a n***** in the halls; another student asking her if she was allowed to eat anything besides stereotypically “black” foods, like watermelon, fried chicken, and Kool Aid, etc.
“It’s unacceptable for people in this town to say, ‘We don’t have a racism issue here,’ because we do,” said Wolter. “And when you deny it, you sweep my feelings and the feelings of all the people of color under the rug as if it doesn’t matter. I’m tired of having to explain to my three younger siblings why people in this community don’t like them due to the color of their skin.”
Wolter wrapped up her speech with a reminder that God loves everyone equally.
“I know not all, but many of us in this community are religious. God calls us to love all people, not just some,” said Wolter.
Bourgeois, one of the organizers of a prayer rally held June 11 by local pastors, closed the Unity March with a short speech.
“I think the first step is humility and mercy that we must have when we’re talking to each other and our peers,” said Bourgeois. “So I ask you to have the courage to have the conversation with your friends and you family about racism. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Talk about it, pray about it. Black Lives Matter.”