George Floyd protests arrive in Washington County
It's been a rough week for America.
Last week, video of a black Minneapolis resident named George Floyd dying as a white police officer restrained him with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring Floyd's pleas for air, was widely distributed across social media. Since then, a whirlwind of outrage, frustration and, at times, destruction has swept through cities across the United States.
But while outraged by what occurred the evening of May 25 on that Minneapolis street, protestors in Forest Grove made their frustrations heard peacefully Tuesday, June 2, on Pacific Avenue under the Big Flag at the east end of town.
Black, white, Latino. Old, young. Tall, short. Gray hair, purple hair, even some green. People of all walks of life were represented beneath the Stars and Stripes, and all in an effort to move the country forward from an equally shameful not-so-distant past.
Xochitl Contreras, 20, and her brother Jerry Bandito, 30, were two of the primary organizers of the event. Contreras started her protest at the Forest Grove City Library with her mother Sunday night. The next day, they were joined by about 30 more people. And on Tuesday afternoon, they rallied alongside more than 300 people, waving signs at the base of the flagpole and eliciting mostly supportive honks from passing vehicles on Highway 8.
The Forest Grove resident was moved by what she saw in last week's video to try to make a difference in her community.
"I kind of felt for a long time that I needed to do something," Contreras said. "I didn't feel right just sitting at home and reposting and sharing information on social media. I felt like my passion needed to be put somewhere in 'real life.'"
Bandito agreed with his sister. He pointed to the country's history of oppression as a source of his exasperation.
"I think why we're here is similar to why a lot of people are starting to gather, peacefully, for the inequalities of black lives," he said. "Historically, I think there's a systemic racism that our country has not only created, but embraced. And it's one that we have lived with for too long."
Among the first to show up for Tuesday's peaceful demonstration was Pete Truax, who has served as Forest Grove's mayor since 2009.
The mayor was on hand to "show his solidarity" in the wake of an "injustice," he said.
"I'm old enough to remember 1968," Truax said. "And I get a little frustrated that we have come a ways since then, but the frustration of having a long ways to go gets to me."
Also present was interim Forest Grove Police Chief Henry Reimann. Demonstrators and police have had an uneasy coexistence at protests in many cities, spilling over into exchanges of glass bottles, rubber bullets, fireworks and tear gas at times. But Reimann said he was there Tuesday in support of the protestors' right to demonstrate peacefully.
"We're here to support our local community and their right to speak out in regards to the injustice of last week's events," Reimann said.
Of Floyd's death, which the Hennepin County medical examiner ruled a homicide earlier this week, Reimann added, "It was a terrible, terrible unjustified thing. We don't have all the facts, but what I've seen is not condoned by anyone in our profession."
The officer who had his knee on Floyd's neck in the video, Derek Chauvin, was fired from the Minneapolis Police Department last week, and he is facing murder and manslaughter charges in connection with Floyd's death from asphyxiation.
'This gives me hope'
In Forest Grove, most protesters wore masks, encouraged to reduce the risk of viral transmission as cases of COVID-19 have surged in the community. Many also carried signs and wore T-shirts and hats with slogans like "Black Lives Matter," "Be the Change," "Silence is Violence" and "We Will Not Be Silent."
They also repeatedly chanted:
"What's his name? George Floyd!"
"I can't breathe!"
"No justice, no peace."
"This is what community looks like!"
Elizabeth Burnard, 22, was part of that "community." The Forest Grove and Oregon State University graduate held a sign that said "This Was Preventable," and she cited a long history of racial violence that presaged Floyd's death. She participated in protests last weekend in downtown Portland, and after that, she was impressed by what she saw in Forest Grove.
"It's absolutely amazing to see this many people fighting for such a good cause," Burnard said.
Most passersby were supportive, honking their horns, extending fists or peace signs, or saying "thank you" to the demonstrators. There were some, however, who showed their opposition, jeering the group at the flagpole — something that didn't fall lightly on Burnard.
"It's heartbreaking to see people stand up for something they really believe in, only to have people try and tear it down," she said. "We're fighting for something we truly believe in, and it's hard to believe people can be so rude."
Anthony Washington has seen that rude behavior firsthand, and not just at demonstrations like Tuesday's. The Portland native, who has lived in Forest Grove for nearly a decade, said he's seen his share of racism up close and personal.
Floyd's death brought many of the emotions of his close encounters to the surface, but despite his anger, Washington said much of what's occurred in its aftermath could have been avoided had the four officers who detained Floyd simply been arrested after he died.
"If the next day those guys are under arrest, none of this happens," Washington said. "That's all that should've happened, and everybody would be clapping."
Instead, the situation has crystalized. The result has been turmoil, unrest and sadness, and for many people of color, the sense of a recurring nightmare playing out all over again.
Can that change? The protestors certainly hope so, and Mayor Truax believes they just might hold the key.
"This gives me hope," Truax said. "These people are considerably younger than I am, and they're our country and our planet's future. Their belief in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their belief in one world, one planet. And their belief in protecting the planet, sustainability and all of it, it's now on them. We had our opportunity and we kind of blew it, so hopefully they have their North Star.
"Protests like these are not part of the problem, they're part of the solution."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.