West Linn is no stranger to racism in policing. Earlier this year, the largely white suburb found itself in the national spotlight after new and damning details of a 2017 WLPD arrest of a black Portland man, Michael Fesser, were revealed following a $600,000 settlement payment from the city's insurance provider.
That same year, Tom Newberry, a West Linn officer, was fired for encouraging violence against Black Lives Matter activists and making other racist and dangerous comments on social media.
Now, as protests against police brutality and racism grip the country following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, West Linn adds its voice to chorus.
Since Sunday, May 31, students from West Linn High School have supported the Black Lives Matter movement by protesting at the 10th Street on-ramp to I-205.
Thursday, June 4, several dozen families gathered for a demonstration of their own at Willamette Park. At Thursday's protest, Mayor Russ Axelrod, City Councilor Jules Walters, Rep. Rachel Prusak and WLPD acting chief Peter Mahuna briefly spoke about how they'd like to address systemic racism. "Even good officers work within a fundamentally flawed system. We have hard work to do as a country, a state and a community to undo the impacts of centuries of racism," Prusak said to the crowd assembled in the park.
The group then paused for a nine-minute moment of silence in honor of George Floyd, a man killed by police in Minneapolis, when an officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Demonstrators then walked from the park to Willamette Primary School.
The demonstration, which was orchestrated specifically for children and teens, featured around two dozen small, paper hearts bearing the names of black people murdered by police.
Mahuna recommended demonstrators look up those names to learn the stories of the lives lost.
Both Axelrod and Mahuna acknowledged that though police murderers of black people have sparked mass outrage and demonstrations before, this time feels different.
"You're gonna remember Floyd's name along with Dr. Martin Luther King's," Axelrod said. "It's going to have that kind of impact when we look back 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now."
"The murder of George Floyd has sparked a change in this country, hopefully a lasting change," Mahuna said.
According to Mahuna, WLPD has recently begun examining its own policies as a means to earn back community trust. He said in an interview after the demonstration that the department would be posting all of its policies online. He also mentioned continuing diversity training.
Signs at Thursday's demonstration specifically calling out West Linn police weren't overlooked by the acting chief.
"That hits home. I'm not trying to make George Floyd's protest about us. This is a part of the narrative. This is part of the problem," he said.
Lessons in (local) racism
While addressing the crowd at Thursday's demonstration, Prusak said the fact that people are now having conversations about racism with their families gives her hope.
Walters said it was important for families to have these conversations early because personal biases can form as early as preschool.
Matilda Milner, one of the West Linn High School juniors who helped organize this weeks' student protests on 10th Street, said she was never taught about the stories of racism in the local police department.
She said when the Fesser case started gaining attention this year, she took it upon herself to learn what was going on.
What she found changed the way she thought about the place she grew up, she said.
"Until this year, I assumed it was a coincidence that my school has an 80% white population," Milner said. "I did not at all understand the factors in play that created the white, wealthy environment that I live in."
Gabby Kraus-Rivera, who will be a senior at West Linn High School in the fall, said she learned most of what she knows about issues of racism in WLPD when she started demonstrating with classmates at the 10th Street protest.
Kraus-River said that Fesser came to Sunday's protest with the students and spoke about the importance of forgiving people, but only to a certain extent.
"You're forgiving them for what they've done but now we have to start something new," she said of Fesser's message.
Kraus-Rivera said she and some of the protestors wanted to start a regular dialogue with community leaders, like the mayor, about racism and other forms of discrimination.
Portland protests hit close to home
Mahuna, who worked with the Portland Police Bureau for 26 years, said this week's protests in Portland, which have attracted several thousand people several nights in a row, and on multiple occasions culminated in destruction of property, looting and use of tear gas and flashbangs from police, broke his heart.
"I worked there for 26 years, I worked a lot of protests … I never experienced anything like the level of violence they're experiencing now," he said.
Milner, who has attended the Portland protests along with the ones she helped organize, felt a bit differently about the demonstrations in PDX.
"From everything I've seen protests have been completely peaceful until police show up," Milner said. "Every night since Friday cops have incited the violence. I have witnessed police tear gas peaceful crowds and it's really unnerving to see protests against police brutality met with police brutality."
Kraus-Rivera was attending the protests at 10th Street along with her classmates Anna Strobbe and Maya Wright because their parents didn't want them attending protests in Portland.
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