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Racist road rage stirs Lake Oswego's emotions
A Lake Oswego resident's blog post about a belligerent, openly racist road-rage incident in which he was called the N-word has gone viral over the past week, generating dozens of online comments and sparking a broader discussion about diversity and discrimination in the city.
The encounter was unfortunate, Lake Oswego resident Nathan Sheppard says, but the reaction from the community to his post has been exactly what he hoped for: a conversation about the racism that African Americans regularly encounter.
"When you're black, it can affect everything," Sheppard told The Review on Friday. "People don't understand how much it affects you or your family. I'm Stanford-educated, a police detective, with a family, a home — but there's still stuff to overcome for me, and there will always be stuff to overcome."
In the blog post, which can be found online at bit.ly/2sPi7it, Sheppard details what happened on a Sunday a few weeks ago, when he was driving home after dropping his wife off at an event at Millennium Plaza Park. As he drove, a white BMW with tinted windows began to follow him at an uncomfortably close distance — close enough, Sheppard says, that he couldn't see the car's headlights in his rear-view mirror.
Sheppard says he was already driving quickly, so he tapped his brakes, hoping to prompt the other driver to slow down. But the other driver didn't back off. Sheppard decided to pull onto a side street, and signaled to make the turn. The BMW driver signaled too.
But when Sheppard turned, the BMW driver didn't follow him, and instead sped off down the road. At that point, Sheppard says, he decided that the driver's behavior had crossed a line from reckless to outright bullying.
"The driver of that BMW tried to, what, strike fear in me by pretending to follow me?" he wrote in the blog post. "And then what? It was at that split second I decided — you're trying to be a bully, and that's not OK."
Sheppard told The Review that as a police officer, he prefers to view traffic stops as a learning experience rather than a strictly punitive exercise. That's why he says he decided to confront the BMW driver about his behavior — not in his official capacity as a Portland police detective, but just as a fellow driver.
Sheppard turned around and followed the BMW to a nearby parking lot, stopping a few spaces away, and got out of the car at the same time as the other driver. In the blog post, Sheppard says he told the driver, who was white, that his tailgating behavior wasn't OK, and says the driver initially responded by saying Sheppard shouldn't have tapped his brakes. But when Sheppard pressed on and told the man his driving could get someone hurt, the driver changed the subject.
Here's how Sheppard describes what followed:
"You live around here?" the man asked him.
Sheppard replied that he did.
"You don't look like it," the man replied.
When Sheppard asked what that was supposed to mean, the driver responded by using the N-word. He also questioned where Sheppard went to school, stating that he didn't "look educated." At the time, Sheppard says, he was wearing his Stanford University sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Sheppard says he left it at that — he says the man's young children were in the back seat of the BMW, and Sheppard didn't want to push the situation any further. And in the initial days after the confrontation, he says he largely brushed it off.
"I got called a bad name — that's what it comes down to," he says. "He wanted to disrespect me, and it was just the easiest route for him to go."
But he says the incident continued to bother him, and rather than let it slip away, he decided to share his story to try to bring attention to the day-to-day racism that African Americans face — behavior that too often goes under the radar.
A week later, he wrote the post describing what had happened, adding his own thoughts about how it fits into his experience as a resident of Lake Oswego.
"I was tired of not speaking out," he says. "I was done with people saying (about racism), 'Eh, it's not really a problem anymore.'"
Sheppard says he later learned that the BMW driver was a fellow Lake Oswego school parent, but he decided not to name or identify him in the blog post. Instead, he referred to him simply as "Mr. Man" and blurred his face in a photo Sheppard took during their exchange. He said his intention was to draw attention to the incident, not the driver, so that it could serve as a learning experience.
"I wasn't overly affected by 'Mr. Man' calling me that word," he wrote. "It was more how he said it. 'Mr. Man' was smirking as he spoke. 'Mr. Man' didn't yell, or raise his voice really. He just said it as he smiled, letting it roll down his nose at me."
Sheppard published the post on his blog, along with a link to it on his Facebook page, and he says his goal at the time was simply to share it among a few of his friends. But the post went viral — it was shared on the social network site Nextdoor and dozens of times on Facebook by groups such as LO for LOve and The Parent Club of Lake Oswego High School.
By Friday, six days after the original blog post was published, Sheppard says it had been viewed more than 21,000 times and prompted an outpouring of responses from the community. Dozens of comments on Facebook and the blog post expressed shock and anger about what happened, along with sympathy and apologies to Sheppard.
"I am so deeply disturbed by this account," Lake Oswego realtor Lara James wrote in a comment that appeared on Sheppard's blog and accompanied the LO for LOve posting. "Where the hate has been simmering, I do not know and can not understand. These accounts seem like they belong in another time and era, and yet they are the experiences of today.
"That someone could be so emboldened to say another does not belong because of the color of his skin, because of the hijab she wears, because of the hand that they hold, is sickening," James wrote. "I don't think we can shame these people into hiding their awful sentiments, but we can build bridges and bonds stronger than their weak and cowardly attitudes."
Sheppard told The Review that he was "surprised, yet not surprised" by the public reaction. The surprising part, he said, was the sheer number of responses, and he says he was happy to see such an unexpectedly strong response from his community.
Many of the online commenters expressed shock that such an incident could occur in Lake Oswego, but Sheppard says the fact that it could happen is the part that doesn't come as a surprise to him. It's just that people have a tendency to overlook the kinds of incidents that they don't personally experience, he said.
"It's not like it's a willful ignorance," he says. "It's just not in their face, so they don't see it. It's not part of their reality. But it's part of me."
Sheppard met his wife, Shellie, in North Carolina, where they were both stationed in the U.S. Army. She was a native Portlander, and the two of them came to Oregon to hold their wedding ceremony on the front lawn of her parent's house in Lake Oswego in 2000. They moved to Portland not long afterwards, and Sheppard began working for the Portland Police Bureau, first as an officer and then, since 2012, as a detective.
The couple moved to Lake Oswego in 2010 to give their two young children access to the city's school system. Sheppard says their prior perception of the city was not unlike the view held by many people elsewhere in Portland — that Lake Oswego is a rich, insular suburb with an infamous nickname, "Lake No Negro."
But he says their experience living here over the past eight years has been quite different from that perception, and the Sheppards have become deeply connected with the community. The couple now have two kids in Lake Oswego schools, and Shellie Sheppard is an active member of a Parent-Teacher Organization.
"We were happy to help make the nickname obsolete," Sheppard wrote in his blog post. "There's little doubt Lake Oswego is a special place. For Shellie and I, it's been almost magical."
He says his encounter with the BMW driver doesn't change his opinion of the city, and his goal in speaking out isn't to single out Lake Oswego or its community. Instead, he said, he wants the conversation that began when he wrote the blog post to continue in a way that brings more attention to the racism faced by people of color.
Not surprisingly, that broader conversation is already underway as parents and other community members grapple with a rash of worrisome incidents that have occurred over the past year.
Lake Oswego's schools have dealt with multiple instances of discrimination, bullying and racist graffiti spray-painted on school walls. In recent weeks, Lake Oswego police have been investigating a series of reports of graffitti throughout the city, often featuring racist writing or imagery. And the entire city found itself thrust into the spotlight in March, when former resident Kevin Kerwin organized a march in support of President Donald Trump that drew attention to Kerwin's long history of racist and inflammatory comments.
At the end of his blog post, Sheppard said that the incident with the BMW driver came just a day after a conversation he'd had with his daughter, in which she had asked him for advice about how to respond to a classmate at her middle school who had posted a meme on social media featuring an image of a klansman in full garb.
Sheppard says such discussions are unavoidable, and he tries to keep in mind the teenage context — that the other student posted the image out of ignorance and was likely looking for attention. He says he tries to focus on making sure it becomes a learning experience.
"What can we learn from it?" he says. "What can we help others to learn from it?"
That's the same approach Sheppard says he's trying to take with his own experience, but with the goal of prompting increased awareness in the community at large. The BMW driver himself may not change, he says, but it may cause others to think more about the experiences that African Americans encounter.
"I don't think people really understand the small things that happen to people of color that keep color on your mind," he says. "(Things) that keep who you are on your mind."