Gresham High grads organize East County protests
"You goin' stop?" Jaylen Welch belts out through his bullhorn at a Black Lives Matter protest Friday, June 5, in Troutdale.
"NO!" yells a crowd of around 500 protesters in unison.
It's still drizzling rain and the mass of people, all ages and races, are soaked to the bone after walking from Reynolds High School to Mayor's Square in the pouring rain. Their spirits aren't dampened, though, and they continue to shout back as Welch, an 18-year-old Gresham High School graduate, points at slices of the crowd and chants rhythmically, "You goin' stop?" again and again.
Behind Welch, Shemar Lenox, 21, nods his head as the back-and-forth ramps up.
One thing is for sure, say longtime friends Welch and Lenox, they won't stop. Not until they see change. Not until they see police and school reform. Not until they make the East County community a safer place for their friends and families.
"I have a little sister, she's 7," Welch says. "My brother's 12. I think about them all day, every day. I don't want them growing up having to live in fear or questioning anything or feeling like they're different just because of their skin color."
From riding bikes to planning protests
The friends started organizing protests in East County shortly after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Video of the murder, captured on a bystander's phone, went viral, sparking global Black Lives Matter protests.
Welch, who worked at Shari's restaurant, and Lenox, a musician who also worked for Uber and Amazon before the coronavirus pandemic, had been hanging out during the lockdown — "just riding bikes and doing what we could," Welch says.
When the George Floyd video took over the internet and protests filled city streets, the two set up a groupchat on the Snapchat app to get the word out about a Gresham protest and posted their plans on Instagram and Facebook. They didn't expect much on May 31, but 60 people showed up at the Gresham Arts Plaza. They took that as a good sign.
Less than a week later, 600 people showed up for their second organized protest, including a school superintendent, local mayor, city councilor and state representative. At one point, Lenox says, he looked around and thought, "Whoa, this is crazy big right now."
A Troutdale protest came next, followed by Gresham again on June 7, with 200 in attendance. Somewhere in there, Lenox and Welch created the Gresham Standup Movement, which now has more than 1,000 followers on Facebook.
The pair set up a Telegram (encrypted app) chat, allowing them to communicate instantly with followers, and are moving forward with having T-shirts made with the slogan Gresham Standup, as well as Standup to Justice, I Can't Breathe, No Justice No Peace, and Black Lives Matter.
Wednesday, June 10, Lenox was asked to sit on a panel with then Mayor Shane Bemis, Gresham city councilors, Gresham-Barlow Superintendent Dr. Katrise Perera and several area black pastors. At the televised meeting, called a Black Lives Matter Race and Reconciliation gathering, Lenox laid out his requests for police and school reform.
He asked that all East County officers wear and use body cameras; undergo mental health evaluations; attend mandatory de-escalation and racial profiling training and carry Tasers at all times to decrease use of a deadly weapon. He also asked for greater transparency, including public police policies and procedures, annual public statistics on arrest-related injuries and deaths, public body cam footage, and policies that require officers to keep their partners in check if they are doing something wrong.
His school reform requests included the termination of any teacher or principal who is aware of discrimination or racism and does nothing about it; anti-racism curriculum in all schools; and banning "Hick Outs" — a Barlow High School tradition in which Lenox says students dress in flannels, denim and cowboy boots at football and basketball games and carry Confederate and Trump flags. In addition, Lenox asked for mandatory classes on racism and white privilege and for students who make racist remarks to be expelled.
Both Lenox and Welch say they were disappointed with the city-led panel discussion, because Lenox was the only one who came to the table with actionable reform suggestions.
"We're tired of the talk," Lenox says. "We want action."
Racism in East County
Both men say they experienced discrimination and racism first-hand during their childhoods in East Multnomah County.
Lenox recounted years of discrimination on Gresham High's baseball, football and basketball teams, to the point that he and his parents filed a Civil Rights lawsuit against the school district. After five years of "getting nowhere," Lenox dropped the suit because he "wanted to move on with my life."
Welch says he also experienced discrimination on Gresham sports teams, and recalls one instance in the Gresham High gym when a white boy yelled the "n" word at the top of his lungs directed toward him. He adds there was one female white teacher present at the time, and she looked at them and walked away.
By the time Lenox reached his senior year, he said he felt beaten down by everything he'd experienced. It was hard to go to school and harder to get up in the morning. But he did manage to graduate.
When he ran into the then-principal later that summer, the principal told him to stay out of trouble and that he didn't want to get a call at 3 a.m. about him.
"I knew what he was implying, to not get picked up by the cops. I've never been in trouble with the cops," Lenox says. "I was like 'What?!'"
Both Lenox and Welch can remember being about 5 years old when they got 'the talk' from their dads about how to behave around police officers. Welch recites it quickly from memory.
"If you ever run into police, always comply, be cooperative. They're trigger happy, and they'll pull it on you for no reason," Welch says. "No sudden movements. Hands visible. Don't get snappy. Be respectful even if they're not respectful to you. And my Dad reminds me every few months too."
For Welch and Lenox, police brutality is a cycle they've watched repeat itself — an innocent black person gets killed, which is followed by outrage and protests. The police officers involved aren't arrested or convicted, and the cycle starts all over again after the next killing.
Lenox says he was particularly disturbed by the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman while walking through a Florida neighborhood in 2012.
"I could relate to Trayvon so much," he says. "He was just walking through a store with a hoodie on. I do that all the time. That's me. He didn't have nothing in his pocket. He had Skittles."
Lenox also was deeply disturbed by the shooting of Michael Brown, who was shot six times by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. And the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. And the disputed suicide of Sandra Bland. And on and on.
Keeping it peaceful
In the day or two after Floyd's murder, Lenox and Welch set out for Portland. It was the only place to protest, and they wanted to experience it. But they ended up with the "wrong group," Welch says.
"There were two groups of protesters — a peaceful group at a park and a violent group by the justice center," he says. "We didn't know, so we end up with these people who are throwing bricks and rocks at the justice center and trying to climb the fence around it. The police came from behind us and fired tear gas. We missed it by a few feet. We ran and got out of there."
The pair have no interest in violent protests, and they've spelled that out in their posters.
"We made it clear, if you have those plans, don't come," Welch says. "We have people asking if it's OK to bring their kids to our protests, and we say yes, you can. We've had 4- and 5-year-olds speak in front of the crowd at our protests."
They are upset by the violence and destruction in Portland, and say the people doing it are not a part of Black Lives Matter.
"Those are not Black Lives Matter people. I saw them," Welch says. "They're mostly young white kids with skateboards."
Both young men have aspirations to run for public office. Lenox has his eye on a Gresham City Council seat. He says he may even run for mayor in light of Mayor Bemis' June 17 resignation. As for Welch, he says he's interested in a seat on the Gresham-Barlow School Board.
The turnout they've seen for their protests has encouraged them, and inspired them to continue the marches until they see tangible change.
"We have so much support from the community, it's crazy," Lenox says. "The city has really come together. I know a lot of people on the City Council now, and higher power people are coming to the protests and talking to me."
At the Troutdale protest, Lenox says the Multnomah County Sheriff's department asked if they could march with the protesters.
"I couldn't believe it," Lenox says. "Sheriff Mike Reese actually got up and spoke in front of everyone. That's the first time I've ever heard a cop in uniform say 'Black Lives Matter.' It's a good step in the right direction."
Still, Lenox says, they won't stop until they see change.
"The protests have been amazing," Lenox says. "But we need to see action. As a black community, we need to see accountability and reform. We been beating a drum for a long time and no one's been listening. I think now that we've done this, people are going to start to really stand up. And that's what I would say to people. You don't have to be silent no more. All you have to do is speak up."
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