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Despite prior rumors of outside agitators, St. Helens march remains peaceful

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Hundreds of Columbia County residents — the majority wearing masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic — gather at the Columbia County Courthouse plaza in St. Helens for a Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday, June 3.In an era defined by pandemic shutdowns and racial unrest, St. Helens took its turn in the spotlight last week.

A Wednesday, June 3, march in St. Helens brought roughly 800 protestors out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While protests in Portland have continued nightly for nearly two weeks — drawing thousands of protesters and resulting in hundreds of arrests — smaller and more rural communities have seen their own protests.

Students in St. Helens originally planned to march in protest of the police brutality that has killed many black Americans.

Soon after initial plans emerged, some members of community Facebook groups began to make racist statements and threaten violence. The backlash was intense enough that the original organizers backed out.

But others took up the cause and the protest continued on June 3.

"If you were commenting threats, racist comments, and 'all lives matter' on previous posts about the protests, please be better," Ross Cahill, a St. Helens High School student and one of the original organizers, wrote in a Facebook post after the protest organization was taken over by other volunteers. "Kids at my school are already incredibly racist and embarrass us at school events, we don't need you to reinforce them."

In the days leading up to the protest, misinformation swirled online. Posts claimed that left-wing agitators planned to arrive by the busload to wreak havoc on St. Helens. Some claimed that Antifa, the anti-fascist protest movement, planned to attend, rioting and looting local businesses.

"I didn't want that to happen to our little town. We just went there as a deterrent," said Nathan Gotcher, a 20-year-old St. Helens resident who joined a group of armed civilians at the protest.

Gotcher said he supported the marchers, but acknowledged after the protest that those walking by may not have been able to differentiate between those who were armed and may have been eager to provoke an altercation, and those who were merely concerned about threats to local safety.

"I was really happy with things. I didn't see any form of malicious intentions from anyone there," Gotcher said.

St. Helens Black Lives Matter MarchSt. Helens police officers and deputies from the Columbia County Sheriff's Office were out in large numbers at the protest, also assisted by other law enforcement agencies. Some of the armed civilians said they coordinated with law enforcement.

Shana Cavanaugh, who organized the protest, disavowed the armed groups. Those civilians, she said, were vigilantes "who weren't asked for, who were not needed, but who still showed up in an extremely threatening manner... because of this Antifa-boogeyman that no one could ever provide evidence of."

"If there were black men walking with guns with us, what would have happened to them?" Cavanaugh said.

The march faced little vocal opposition until a stretch below South Sixth Street on Columbia Boulevard, where one man screamed insults and "All Lives Matter" at marchers, while others told protesters "We don't need this in our town."

At the same time, Cavanaugh added, she was amazed by the amount of support from the community.

"It was a really hopeful and heartening thing to have happened," she added.

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