|Black Lives Matter: St. Helens Oregon Unity March.
We found out about St. Helens’ Black Lives Matter (BLM) Unity March only a few hours before the march began. Chris, a fellow marina live-aboard, told us about it. He grew up in St. Helens and was flummoxed. “The only time I recall there being any kind of a demonstration was when I was attending middle-school and we protested the green weiners the cafeteria served.” Chris appears to be in his 60s.
Chris said the march was pulled together in 48 hours after a BLM initially was planned at a school and the Facebook page about the event got messages to expect a rain of bullets.
|#BLM support: St. Helens Oregon sidewalks on the Unity March day.
The rescheduled event, held Thursday, June 4, 2020, tapped the local police for support at the outset in a desire to keep the protest peaceful. The police agreed to participate in the event themselves to keep the event safe and not would not object to a gathering that was beyond the sanctioned size for Covid-19. Locals also told me the police scoured the march route the day before, removing rocks that might look tempting to throw if the crowd or protesters to the crowd got unruly.
I’d been looking for ways to share my outrage over the police brutality that cut short George Floyd’s life, and the persistent pattern of systemic racism that’s held back so much of the black American community since its inception. Add to that my disgust with a President willing to use smoke, flash grenades, and chemical spray to clear protestors in order for him to stage a photo op.
I wanted to find some way to take action, and not stand silently by, to show my support for black rights and the need for substantive change.
At the same time, I can’t deny feeling fearful, with news reports noting marches elsewhere experienced tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, attacks from white supremacists, fires, looting . . .
A riot is the language of the unheard.—Martin Luther King Jr.
While I’ve found the folks in St. Helens to be friendly, its timber roots and heavily agriculturally-based economy trended conservative, with strong gun ownership advocacy. In the 2016 Presidential election, Trump garnered a 12-point lead over Hillary Clinton in Columbia county. With a 90.3% white and only .6% African American population, would there be a faction intent in preventing a successful and peaceful march? Would white supremacists feel “unheard” enough to riot?
|The tattoo shop on 2nd Street in St. Helens spread their
BLM support in the form of chalk art and bubbles.
A local woman hanging outside a tattoo parlor where BLM sidewalk art flourished, told me she was told she was called “an uneducated wanker” by another local because she supported the Unity March. She blowing bubbles for peace. “It’s hard for anyone to be angry when there are bubbles,” she said. I agreed. When someone else from the tattoo shop offered me a wand, I joined in the bubble-blowing.
|More supportive chalk sideway saying from the St. Helens tattoo parlor.
Before long, trucks with American flags and marchers made their way down the street to the steps of the Columbia County courthouse. One of my favorite signs personified what I felt watching the good-hearted St. Helens crowd gather:
Small town. Not small minded.
|The march organizers were already positioned on the courthouse steps, ready with speakers.
One of the speakers was an articulate 17-year-old St. Helens African American-Native American. She shared how upsetting it was to be told as early the 5th grade by fellow schoolmates she wasn’t welcome at a table because of the color of her skin. Much as that’s wrong, and hurt, I hope that is the worst she even has to contend with because of the color of her skin.
|Police keep an eye on the protest from the rooftops as a local African American teen
inspires the crowd with her speech.
Then another woman of color unknown to the organizers asked if she could speak. She was given the dais. As she announced “I am African American,” cheers rang out. When she added, “I am a conservative, and proud of our president,” the crowd of 400 or so BLM supporters stood respectfully silent. There were no boos, no jeers.
|The Unity march crowd continued to swell, I’d estimate there were 400 participants—impressive
for a town with a population of less than 13,000.
As Wayne and I wandered down to the waterfront where we the rally organizer said there was a supporting art installation, we saw a group of six white men pass in the opposite direction. All carried what appeared to be assault weapons. Two walked up to the police station, tapping on the door. The police did not open the door. The men wandered off.
Nervously, Wayne and I walked to the waterfront where it appeared to be a site for more speeches, rather than an art installation. We made our way back to our boat.
|Some St. Helens businesses concerned about damage from riots, boarded.
This image was photographed by Jeremy C Ruark / The Chronicle
The next day, I scoured the internet looking to see if there were any reports of violence. There was nothing; only the announcements earlier that the event was going to happen, and an updated photo in the Chronicle with a note the story would be covered in their July 10th issue.
I wandered downtown to see if there were any signs of damage. There were none. I talked with Patricia, the shopowner of Treasures, Trinkets and Threads.
“I left when I saw the local SWAT in their orange flak vests show up with pizza,” Patricia said. “I figured it was safe.”
I wanded into Molly’s Market, boards removed, and open for business. “No damage,” Molly confirmed with a smile, “Everything went well.”
Why do we believe that gatherings lead to violence? Because we don’t hear about them when there is none.
My take-away? Hope.
If a small, conservative town can gather 400 people to stand up and declare Black Lives Matter, perhaps we are finally on the cusp of a change for good.
I write this post two days after St. Helens Unity march. Earlier today we hiked out to Beaver Creek Falls, where I saw luxurious ferns growing from roots in a rock face. This is how change happens, I thought to myself. Change starts slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, but when it takes hold, the transformation is a testament to the power of life.
|For the remainder of the month of June, I will donate 10% of my editing business proceeds
to the N.A.A.C.P. If you’d like to donate directly to a good cause,
here is a link to their website: https://www.naacp.org/
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Time, talent, or treasure: How will you help with this change?
|Viewing a breathtaking crimson sunset from our boat at St. Helens Marina.
This June, when not on the hook, this is where we’ll be.
We’ve booked a slip N45 52.012 W122 47.822 for this June at St. Helens Marina, though on warm sunny days we’ll still anchor out off Sauvie Island, where we plan on spending the majority of the summer.