Beaverton parents organize peaceful demonstration
After tense nights of civil unrest in neighboring Portland, Desiree Williams-Rajee and fellow members of the Beaverton Black Parent Union weren't sure what kind of crowd to expect at Southridge High School on Sunday afternoon, May 31.
The Black Parent Union had sent out a message to families two nights earlier encouraging them to show up Sunday for a peaceful march to protest police brutality and systemic racism, after George Floyd died May 25 while a Minneapolis police officer pressed his neck into the ground with his knee. The officer, Derek Chauvin, who is white, has since been fired from the police department and arrested on murder and manslaughter charges. Floyd, who was black, had been detained after allegedly giving a counterfeit $20 bill to a cashier. An independent autopsy found Floyd died of asphyxiation caused by pressure on his back and neck.
Later Friday night, large-scale protests in Portland devolved into scenes of police lobbing tear gas, demonstrators smashing windows at Pioneer Place and the Multnomah County Justice Center, and graffiti and fires being set. Portland police declared a riot.
The next day, organizers of the Black Family Unity Walk in Beaverton began asking attendees not to share the event on social media. Recognizing people's anxiety over everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the clashes between police and demonstrators in Portland, they also put together a list of safety precautions for their march. And on Sunday, until 4 p.m., they waited.
'It was really unbelievable'
"When you put something out, you don't really know," said Williams-Rajee, admitting her expectations for how many people would show up were low: "We thought we might get, like, 70 or 80."
Instead, it was more than 500 people who marched from Southridge High School down to Southwest Scholls Ferry Road, along the state highway to Southwest Murray Boulevard, and then back again on the Tigard side. Demonstrators wore face masks, stayed out of car lanes and waited at crossing signals, doing what they could to practice social distancing and not obstruct traffic.
Joe Fischer was returning from some errands to his home near Southridge High School when he drove past marchers gathering outside the school.
"Ironically, I fired off a Tweet shortly before that wondering 'what can I do?'" Fischer said. "That Tweeting and posting stuff only goes so far."
Fischer pulled over, got out of his car and walked with them. He took videos along the way with his smartphone and shared some footage on Twitter.
"It was really unbelievable," he said, marveling at the size of the crowd in his Beaverton neighborhood. "It was something that I didn't think was ever going to happen."
The demonstration drew officials from the Beaverton School District, the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, and others, including U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Beaverton mayoral candidate Lacey Beaty.
"As an elected official, I knew my role was to listen," said Beaty, who has been on the Beaverton City Council since 2014.
Beaty and the other elected officials didn't have a speaking role at the march. Instead, she walked with marchers, having what she estimated was about two dozen conversations along the way.
"People are hurting. I heard, over and over, the word 'hurting' is what I heard. Not anger. … Not despair," Beaty said.
She added, "When the black community is hurting, our entire community is hurting."
Demographically, Beaverton is diversifying. More than one in every five city residents was born in another country, and people of color now comprise nearly 40% of the population. However, Beaverton's black population accounts for only about 2% of all residents.
Williams-Rajee believes it is important for the local black community to organize and have representation. After thinking for years about ways to connect black families in Portland's Westside suburbs, she and other parents in the Beaverton School District formed the Black Parent Union in November, motivated by their desire to see money from the Student Success Act go toward equity programs and initiatives.
"I think in Beaverton, because there's no community-organizing organizations like there are in in Portland … our presence here has felt largely invisible," Williams-Rajee said, adding, "For us as parents, our primary goal is to create an environment of safety and opportunity for our black students."
'Number one, we live here'
Williams-Rajee and Susan Elliott are Southridge parents. They said the administration at Southridge has been very supportive, and they were heartened to see Southridge school staff and others from the Beaverton School District and Jesuit High School at Sunday's demonstration.
But they also said their families haven't always felt safe in Beaverton, a politically liberal suburb with a low crime rate.
"Simon was pulled over by a cop about three months ago," Elliott said of her son who graduated last year. "She saw how scared he was and put her hand on her gun. He was shaking. She asked if he was reaching into his glove compartment to get his gun. He said no."
The police officer, Elliott said, told her son to "calm down" and let him go on his way.
"He's still traumatized," she said. "Thank God nobody was shot."
Beaty said she had conversations with people at Sunday's march who told her stories about their interactions with law enforcement — some positive, and some negative.
A U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Beaty said she's been thinking a lot since Floyd's death about her time in the military and the "militarization" of police departments across the United States. Many police forces are equipped with military surplus equipment or military-style gear, which have been on display during unrest in Portland and other major cities.
"We need to delineate those things," Beaty said. "Rolling in with paramilitary, it really does send the wrong message."
Beaty said she wants to see stronger civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies. In Beaverton, she suggested, residents should be consulted on use-of-force policies and de-escalation techniques, and an independent team should be set up to respond to complaints against the police.
It was important for Williams-Rajee and other organizers to be able to demonstrate in Beaverton, even if Portland has grabbed much of the attention in the region lately.
"Number one, we live here," she said. "And that was really important that we were able to do a demonstration in the places where we live. … This was an opportunity to see each other being a community and be seen in Beaverton."
Passersby were largely supportive, Williams-Rajee said, describing Scholls Ferry Road as "a honking mess" as motorists sounded their horns in support of marchers. Neighbors cheered them on from their balconies or front yards or came out to join them.
Fischer said one image that sticks in his mind is seeing a young girl on her front lawn, watching raptly.
"That little girl might remember this for the rest of her life, seeing this mass of people walking by," Fischer said. "People are doing these kinds of things to make their presence felt and seen so that people in these residential neighborhoods, they can see that people not just in Portland, but Beaverton and some of these smaller suburbs, they feel the same way."
Beaverton and Tigard police were aware of organizers' plans. Officer Matt Henderson, spokesperson for the Beaverton Police Department, said there were no incidents with Sunday's march, and police weren't called upon to intervene.
"It was a picture-perfect example of people exercising their First Amendment right," Henderson said, adding, "We would welcome more of that, as opposed to the other route."
While footage and images of violence and looting in Portland and other major cities left him feeling discouraged and worried, Fischer said Sunday's march in Beaverton made him hopeful.
"The more I think about it, and the more I see what I saw yesterday and what people are feeling," Fischer said, "this is a very pivotal moment where the straw broke the camel's back, and the camel might not be able to get up again."
Williams-Rajee said after years working on race-related issues, she is seeing a difference today in how many people are approaching the topics of policing and systemic racism in government.
"I think there's a national conversation, I think there's local conversations, and then I think there's a hyperlocal conversation," she said, adding, "What we would like to do is leverage this moment, because we're seeing unprecedented numbers of people who want to engage in conversation."
"Clearly, we're at a breaking point in this country," Beaty said. "I think we have the capacity to bring the right people to have meaningful change. We have to have meaningful change. This can't continue in the direction it's going."
She added, "Yesterday was about grieving together, and today needs to be about change. And I think that's what the community is asking us to do."
By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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