A post in the West Linn Open Forum community Facebook group has sparked the removal of a velvet painting depicting a clown in blackface from a school resource officer's office wall at West Linn High School.
The officer, Jeff Halverson, said the painting was used as an icebreaker to make students more comfortable talking to a police officer.
"It's not something the kids are used to seeing — a painting of a clown on a police officer's wall … Same thing with staff. Like, 'Why do you have a velvet painting of a clown?' Why wouldn't I, you know?" he said. "It was a good icebreaker to make people more comfortable. They were talking to a police officer; some of them hadn't done that before."
Community member Abigail Graves shared two images of the clown painting on the Facebook page. She said the photos originally came from a high school student. Graves received screenshots from her sister, a student at West Linn High School who got them from a friend on Instagram several months ago.
Graves said her sister first told her about it last March, but didn't find the photos until a few days ago.
"When I saw it I was honestly appalled," Graves said in an interview with The Tidings.
"I think that people need to see this image and know that the students were upset about it before COVID ever hit. And that I find it very offensive," she said.
In response to the post, the West Linn Police Department released a statement Monday, Feb. 8, that the painting had been taken down, and apologized for any negative impacts the painting caused.
"The last thing the School Resource Officer wanted is for any student, staff member or member of the public to not feel welcome and safe in his office," the statement read. "He believed the painting represented a circus clown and nothing more. He has removed the painting, as well as all other velvet paintings from his office."
Graves said she didn't find the apology satisfactory.
"I feel the police department and especially the school needs to address why this image was allowed to be hung up in the first place," Graves said.
Halverson told the Tidings he believed the painting to just be of a circus clown.
"The symbolism that people are saying was there — I'm telling you, when I bought this, and up until this post came out, as far as I knew this was just a painting of a clown," Halverson said.
William House from the West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Communities said the failure to understand the history of blackface lets people mistake that type of racial stereotyping for light humor.
House explained that the origin of blackface stems back to the 1830s when minstrel shows rose as a popular form of entertainment. He said the shows featured white actors with blackened faces playing out racial stereotypes that depicted Black people as lazy, cowardly, ignorant people with lax morals.
"The prevalence of these shows in popular entertainment played a prominent role in institutionalizing racism within the fabric of our society. Today, in 2021, we still struggle to disentangle this embedded racism in our local communities and across our nation. The blackface meme is an ugly racist stereotype for those who know its history, thus their indignation," House said.
Rob Ward, a Black West Linn resident of six years and a former sheriff's deputy, said blackface images are a reminder of the systemic racism that still exists.
"It's very degrading. It's an assertion of power," Ward said.
Ward said he's glad Halverson removed the painting.
"It just shows the change that (acting) Chief (Peter) Mahuna is trying to put in place with the West Linn Police Department, and I appreciate that," he said.
Halverson said in the three years the painting has been up, no one who's visited his office had anything negative to say about it.
"Not in three-plus years. I've had everybody in there from the newest freshman up to the superintendent of the school and counselors and teachers in between," he said.
Halverson said one complaint was all it took for the painting to come down.
"We took the painting down because even if one person says 'hey, you know what, I find that offensive,' obviously we take that seriously and the last thing that I would ever want as the school resource officer in my office is for anybody to feel like they weren't comfortable and that they couldn't come in there," he said.
West Linn-Wilsonville Director of Communications Andrew Kilstrom said both Halverson and the district apologized for the painting.
"This is obviously inappropriate … clearly it shouldn't have been up," he said.
Graves said the incident showed that racism is alive and well in the community.
"If anything, I think me posting the image and pointing it out is what's upsetting people," she said.
Some in the Facebook group expressed offense with her posting the images.
"They don't want to address the fact that this community has a problem and is very ignorant in the ways we are handling issues of race," Graves said.
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