Two billboards, two messages
Along the most highly trafficked road in St. Helens, two new billboards have appeared in recent weeks.
One billboard, which was unveiled at the end of June, features white block letters on a black background reading "Black lives matter," and below that, "United we stand together against racism." The other billboard, which was unveiled in late July, reads "Back the blue" and "Support our law enforcement" on a multicolored background that looks like the blur of emergency vehicle lights.
The two billboards, located just a few hundred feet apart, present views that many believe are in opposition.
Caden Willaby, who organized the Back the Blue billboard, was one of the original organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest that took place in St. Helens in early June. Willaby, a Black man who graduated from St. Helens High School the same week as the June BLM protest, said he started the billboard campaign after receiving backlash from BLM supporters because he said he supported law enforcement.
"It's a hard situation because I believe that Black lives do matter," he said, while adding that he disagrees with the international organization's push to defund police.
"It's going to be hard if people want to bring the two together," Willaby said. "I believe the sentiment that Black lives matter, but the movement, I've moved a little bit away from because I don't think it's productive for my way of thinking."
Willaby said the Back the Blue billboard wasn't organized in response to the BLM billboard, though he said many people have told him they believe otherwise.
"For BLM, a lot of the people are fighting for equality for everyone, so I feel like both billboards should be allowed to be up," Willaby said.
Willaby's crowdfunding campaign originally had a goal of $2,000, which would fund the billboard for one month. As of Tuesday, Aug. 4, 172 donors had contributed more than $7,500.
The Black Lives Matter billboard was organized by Thomas O'Hanlon. As of Aug. 4, that campaign had raised $4,832 from 130 donors.
O'Hanlon said that after the June 3 protest, he was "inspired to find a way for our community to keep that message of support and solidarity going."
O'Hanlon said he had no doubts that the fundraiser would reach its initial goal, but he was surprised at the level of enthusiasm. O'Hanlon also said that discussions on the Columbia County Republican Party's Facebook forum "saddened and disturbed me because it showed their true intentions and wasn't about backing the blue."
In a July 10 post sharing the billboard fundraiser, Willaby wrote that while participating in Black Lives Matter organizing, he found that the liberal Democrats cared only about Black votes. "They don't care about Black Republicans, they don't care about Black Trump supporters, they don't care about Black babies that are killed every day," he wrote.
The message BLM organizers were spreading was, in Willaby's view, that only certain Black lives matter.
"As a Trump supporting Republican I don't stand (for) that," Willaby wrote.
O'Hanlon also created a fundraiser for a second billboard, this one depicting a Trump-alien figure and the words "VOTE/OBEY." Some who had supported the initial BLM billboard spoke out against the new billboard, including Moving Forward Columbia County, a new progressive political action committee.
MFCC issued a statement describing the Trump-parody billboard as a "vanity campaign" and "an optics competition with the conservatives of Columbia County." Further, MFCC wrote that the fundraising campaign for the anti-Trump billboard "actively work(ed) to monopolize airtime and funds that could be used to uplift marginalized voices and progressive policy." That fundraiser earned $1,610 before O'Hanlon stopped accepting contributions; the billboard with the Trump-alien figure has not yet gone up but is set to do so.
Both Black Lives Matter supporters and Back the Blue supporters have organized rallies and protests in recent weeks.
A Backin' the Blue cruise is planned for Saturday, Aug. 8 at noon, when drivers will gather at Scappoose High School to drive through the county with signs and American flags.
Columbia County Coalition for Human Dignity has also organized a BLM vigil every Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Scappoose totem pole.
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