Community members express concern about unregulated plaza use
Though Sandy prides itself on its independence of the Metro area, it has not escaped unscathed by the social and political divides that have emerged nationwide over the past few years.
Those fissures will come into sharp focus Saturday, June 26, with a rally by Universal Pentecostal Church Pastor Russell Collier, and an LGBTQ2SIA+ pride event by the Sandy student group Students Advocating for Equality (SAFE). Both events are scheduled at Centennial Plaza, and people connected to the pride event are expressing concerns for their safety.
Some of those concerns were aired on June 21 during the Sandy City Council meeting. Students, parents and community members joined the hybrid meeting to ask the council to denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right organization described as a hate group by members of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Proud Boys have been attending events in Sandy since last year, most recently at the March 20 rallies in downtown Sandy where they came to allegedly support Collier as he exercised his First Amendment rights.
Multiple commentors mentioned the recent riot that broke out between Proud Boys and leftist protestors in Oregon City on June 18, sharing concerns that some of the people involved in the fight that took place in Clackamette Park have also attended events in Sandy.
"A lot of those people that were down rioting in Oregon City have attended numerous flag waves and other events in Sandy," claimed a citizen named Meg. "A lot of them have extensive criminal history and a couple are even still on probation for prior crimes related to their violent activities at allegedly peaceful rallies. They themselves have documented their crimes on social media, but I've witnessed their intimidation and threats personally, too."
Meg said she had attended the Have a Gay Day event hosted behind City Hall on March 20, and witnessed a group of self-proclaimed Proud Boys "patrol the park in packs, lurk on the sidelines of the Have a Gay Day event space and, at one point, stroll menacingly through the middle of a group of kids, telling everyone to 'F*** off. It's a free country.'"
"It was appalling to see armed out-of-town adult men intimidating local queer kids," she added. "How does that even happen in Sandy?"
Co-manager of SAFE Amaya (whose last name will be omitted for the minor's safety) also spoke to council, reading statements from herself and other students about the fear they've felt hosting public events in Sandy.
Amaya called the city out for "failing to condemn both the Proud Boys and the local church who harbors them."
"(At the Have a Gay Day event) it got to the point where people were afraid to cross the street and we were forced to hide behind City Hall to ensure our safety," Amaya recounted. "We should not be expecting to celebrate love and be met with hate. … I'm 16 years old, and I should not have to fear adult men preaching against my existence and threatening my safety."
In an interview on June 22, Collier countered the insinuation that his church "harbors" Proud Boys by saying, "There are no Proud Boys in our congregation. Also, we are not a right-wing extremist organization threatening local LGBQIA+ youth."
Collier went on to say he does not decide who attends the rallies or flag waves that he attends or promotes.
"We are a free country," Collier said. "The LBGTQIA+ community cannot control who attends their events. It's a free country. We are still America."
He added that when he originally scheduled his rally for 1 p.m. June 26, he was unaware of the SAFE group's intentions for a pride event. Since finding out the two groups had laid claim to the plaza at the same time, Collier has rescheduled his event for 10 a.m. to noon the same day.
Complicating matters further, Saturday is expected to be the hottest day of the year thus far with temperatures approaching or exceeding 100 degrees.
A concern voiced by commentors in the June 21 council meeting and echoed by Collier is the lack of a permitting and reservation process for Centennial Plaza, which allows for conflicting events.
The city in 2020 intentionally forewent a permitting process for the plaza with the reasoning that it's a "public space." But now plans to establish a reservation process and fee beginning July 1.
But, until then, the plaza remains a first-come, first-served space.
"Whenever we were getting permits for our rallies in the past, I felt that was a good system," Collier said. "I have shared with the planning department, the city manager and the Sandy Police Department my concern about future events where multiple groups could want to use the plaza at the same time. And now that concern has become reality."
To date, Collier added that his rally — "A Time and Place for Healing" — has not received nearly as much of an online response as his March 20 "Celebration of the Heterosexual Family," which he speculates could mean fewer out-of-town visitors to the plaza.
"I'm not promoting any kind of Proud Boys involvement — whoever comes comes," he said. "We have worked to accommodate the pride event. I'm trying to be very cooperative by moving the time. I personally don't have a concern about safety. And I do plan on going to their event to stand across the street with a couple of signs sharing my own message. I've never tried to incite violence at all. We do certainly speak what we believe."
Both groups were asked why they didn't reschedule for another day or location when realizing they'd double-booked the plaza.
Collier said he tries to host at least one event a month and June 26 was the last Saturday to do so in June. Amaya with SAFE said the group hoped to have a more public presence with their pride event, so they wished to stay at the plaza.
"We kind of had to weigh our options since we'd been advertising for a few weeks by (the time we realized the conflict)," Amaya added. "We considered moving back behind City Hall, but we specifically chose the plaza to be public and not appear like we're hiding."
Sandy Police Chief Ernie Roberts has confirmed that officers will be present in the plaza on Saturday to keep all in attendance safe.
"The police will be present at the event including officers working overtime shifts," City Manager Jordan Wheeler explained. "I asked the chief to reach out to the event organizers to hear their concerns and share how we police these situations."
We also have agreements with neighboring agencies for mutual aid assistance if needed."
In response to the people who voiced concerns during the council meeting, Wheeler said: "I thought it was moving and courageous of the students and parents (to express those concerns)."
Wheeler said the city of Sandy takes safety and security seriously, adding that no significant safety incidents have arisen from unpermitted use of the plaza.
He also said tensions have surfaced when multiple groups emerged during the pandemic when the city was not taking reservations for the plaza.
"Even with these situations our police department communicates with the event organizers to understand their plans and hopefully keep tensions down," Wheeler said. "In prior events, there have been verbal exchanges and other obscenities, but no physical altercations or crimes committed."
Going forward, Wheeler said the permitting process will help the city better manage these situations.
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