by Jessica R. Wheeler
Several dozen Sherman County residents gathered under cloudy skies Monday evening for a candlelight vigil at the county courthouse in Moro, to bring awareness to racial injustice and police brutality, organizers said.
Co-organizer and local schoolteacher Talese Slay of Wasco emphasized that the vigil was not targeted at local law enforcement.
“We want our deputies to be safe, and we appreciate all that they do. From protecting our school, our children, our staff, to coming to lunch to sit with the children.”
“I’ve seen first-hand racism in this community, not just in this community but in other communities as well,” Slay said. “It’s everywhere, it’s alive. It’s time to make a difference, to stand up for what’s right.”
Living in Sherman County, with its predominantly white demographic, means people are sometimes blind to the injustices that others face, said co-organizer Tabetha Hein of Moro.
“We all know that we don’t necessarily see those inequalities here on a daily basis,” she said.
“I have dedicated my life to early childhood education, and I believe that every person, and especially every child, deserves to live and love and learn in a safe and caring world,” Hein added. “Together we can build a better future for us all, peacefully and purposefully.”
Co-organizer and librarian Abbey Phelps of Moro said ultimately there comes a time people must choose between what is right and what is easy.
“If one candle is lit in a room, it changes the temperature of the room a little bit,” Phelps said. “If 10 candles are lit in that room, it changes the temperature of the room a little bit more. If 10 candles become 100, and 100 become 1,000, it changes the temperature in the room dramatically. And it starts with one candle.”
“If you’re the only person holding a candle, you can still change the temperature in the room, even if it’s just a little change,” she added.
What followed was the reading of a list of names, and a nine-minute moment of reflection.
Members of the crowd then took to the microphone to share their experiences with racism, in the community and elsewhere.
Espana Coles, a native of Colombia who has called Sherman County home since 1998, shared a number of heartfelt experiences from her perspective. She recounted the story of her daughter’s arrest in Portland, where she was confronted by police after a neighbor reported she was breaking into what turned out to be her own apartment.
“I feel pretty sad with what’s going on, not just with black people but with everybody. But I am feeling, pretty much, hurt by police. In 2009 in Portland, Ore., my daughter was almost killed by a policewoman.”
She spent the night in jail and was left with multiple injuries across her eyes, lips and face. In the end, the charges were dismissed after she signed a statement declaring she would not sue Portland police, Coles said.
Coles is also mourning the death of her son six months ago at age 33. She’s upset the truck driver responsible for his death did not face repercussions.
“They told me the driver didn’t do anything wrong, and they let him go,” she said, speaking through tears. “When I say something about feeling pain about losing my son, I get some nasty comments from people. Telling me to just get over it. That is why I come here today.”
A number of others took the mic to share their thoughts and experiences, including several children.
“All of us here, we care so much about our community, and that’s why we’re here,” said Jessica Fellner of Grass Valley. “We are human beings and we deserve to be treated with rights, and treated the same.”
Small towns across eastern Oregon have seen a number of rallies, protests, vigils and marches in recent weeks. On May 31, the Crook County Courthouse in Prineville was the scene of a tense demonstration of protesters and counterprotesters alike, the Central Oregonian reported. On June 4, a crowd of several hundred marched through downtown Ontario, ending their rally at city hall.
According to The Oregonian, protests have also popped up over the past week in Pendleton, La Grande and Hermiston, among other rural Oregon towns.
Hood River residents have participated in a number of peaceful demonstrations, although June 1 rumors circulated on social media that indicated buses of protesters intent on rioting and looting were en route, prompting city leaders to recommend businesses remove their inventory and close up for the day. Downtown Hood River remained quiet that evening as photos showed local business owners standing guard.
In The Dalles on June 6, a few hundred gathered downtown and made a dramatic statement by collectively laying down on their stomachs, hands behind their backs, in the intersection surrounding the City of The Dalles Police Department.
Signs in Moro on Monday night read “Peace Love Equality Justice” and “Silence Helps Violence.” And although vigils, protests and demonstrations across rural Oregon have remained largely peaceful, there has been the occasional exchange of harsh words on social media.
Co-organizer Kristen Labenske said she was ready to make her voice heard.
“I’m here to show Sherman County and the rest of the country that it is time to speak up,” Labenske said. “This hatred has gone on for far too long, and we cannot be silent anymore. It’s our job to leave our children a better world than we had, and we’re not doing our jobs.”
“Silence is compliance, and I will not be silent anymore.”