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Community members gathered June 19 to hear speakers, commemorate the day slavery ended

PMG PHOTO: CLARA HOWELL - Willie Poinsette gives the opening speech at Respond to Racism's Juneteenth event. The purpose of the June 19 gathering in Millennium Plaza Park was not just to hold another protest. June 19 — or Juneteenth — is the celebration of a holiday commemorating the day slavery ended.

Lake Oswego community members gathered with Black Lives Matter signage and listened to compelling speakers — speeches were both educational and personal — at Millennium Plaza Park Friday, June 19.

Lake Oswego's Respond to Racism, in collaboration with other community partners, organized the event. More than 10 people spoke including Respond to Racism leaders Willie Poinsette and Terri Kraemer, Oregon Sen. Rob Wagner and Portland State University professor Shirley Jackson, as well as students and business leaders. The speeches also concluded with a short march around the area.

Juneteenth

Speakers provided background about Juneteenth — which celebrates the day remaining enslaved Black Americans in Texas were told they were free in 1865 — while also sharing the local history of systemic racism and calling for action to evoke change in institutional and systemic racism.

Poinsette said that after the Emancipation Proclamation was already in place, it took more than two years before the slaves in Texas finally got the word they were free.

"There were over 250,000 slaves in Texas who didn't know that they were free," Poinsette said during her speech.

Poinsette said Black communities usually celebrate Juneteenth with music, dance, speakers and a feast.

"Well not this year — that coronavirus, it just got in the way again," Poinsette said. "Food is important to us and they had great food — barbecue, fried chicken … fried fish, macaroni and cheese, some greens, some black-eyed peas, a little bit of potato salad, and for those of you who like okra, it's not my favorite but they do have okra, and they have red drinks: strawberry soda."

Poinsette said though she may have left out some important foods, her point is that it's a time of celebration and uniting families.

"When the slaves were freed they wanted to find their relatives, find their family members, so on Juneteenth it's a great time to come in a setting like this except with food and all the music and dancing," Poinsette said. "We would have had a parade, not a march like we're having today but a parade that showed off our culture … it is just a joyous time and celebration because we want to honor the fact that 155 years ago people who look like me discovered that they were free."

Kraemer brought up the June 16 City Council meeting, where more than 60 community members spoke during public comment to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, while also pressing for reform in the schools and the police department, and the evaluation of police policies. Some also shared personal experiences with racism or the stories of these experiences from others.

"The work we're doing is difficult and it can get really messy and moving the needle is not easy," Kraemer said. "A lot of times it feels like we're hardly moving it at all. We take two steps forward and one step back. But I would say that we are listening to and hearing the Black and brown people as they tell us about their pain and trauma."

Kraemer added that people are spending a lot of time on education and sometimes they get stuck on it — but that will change.

"We are going to be kicking it into gear, starting now and taking action as we did for the City Council meeting," she said. "We want our community members to get outside of their comfort zones, to really work on the actions that we're going to focus on this year. So get on our mailing list if you want to join us."

John Middleton, vice president of operations at Direct Transport, shared his perspective of being a Black business man in the Portland metro area.

He said he's been working in this role for about 12 years and deals with a lot of businesses, but has only seen a handful of people that look like him.

He said his position at Direct Transport hasn't excluded him from racist incidents in the workforce.

"When I do attend meetings, I'm often not called on. If I do speak up, I'm often not taken seriously. My favorite one is when they speak to me on the phone and then I show up and I get that shocked look because I'm Black and sometimes, yes, it slips out of the mouth: 'Oh you're Black,'" Middleton said. "You guys are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, wives; you are them, you know them, you have access to them and in this community you have the leaders of businesses in the Portland metro area. They are the ones that hire, fire and make decisions; they are the ones that open and run and can successfully run the companies and businesses in this area, and that's something you should be proud of and that's also something that comes with great responsibility."

Middleton asked the crowd to talk to their family and tell them to give people of color the same opportunity they gave their friends and their families. He said they should understand what systemic racism means, read books by people of color, reflect on if their actions match their words, dispense with the idea of fake news and learn to think critically for themselves, and ask business owners to support Black Lives Matter and donate money to organizations that support underprivileged people and people of color.

Sen. Rob Wagner discussed what's on the table for consideration in the upcoming emergency legislative session, where lawmakers are expected to discuss how to improve police accountability.

Wagner said considerations include a ban on chokeholds, the creation of a statewide database for police discipline, a system for Oregon's attorney general to lead outside investigations around the use of force and an arbitration reform bill around police misconduct. "Next week we are going to get it done," Wagner said.

He also shared that Gov. Kate Brown proclaimed June 19 as Juneteenth in Oregon. On Twitter, Brown said she would introduce a bill in 2021 making it a state holiday.

"Celebrating Black freedom this year is fiercely important as people around the world protest systemic racism and undeniably show that Black Lives Matter," Brown said in a tweet June 19.

Wagner said systemic racism doesn't end or begin with the bills under consideration.

"We have to address broader systems changes in our government," Wagner said. "We have a legacy of discrimination in Lake Oswego and we need to be honest about it."


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