LA GRANDE — Hundreds of people gathered Tuesday afternoon outside La Grande City Hall for a racial equality protest, the latest in a string of protests nationwide after the death of George Floyd last week at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.
The event, which drew people of multiple age groups and ethnicities, was a follow-up to a smaller rally over the weekend. Protesters lined the city hall block along Adams Avenue and Fourth Street, many carrying the signs and chanting the refrains that have rung across the country.
“We’re not doing this as blacks to be blacks vs. whites. We’re doing this as everybody vs. racists,” said Eastern Oregon University student George Balowski, one of a large throng of EOU students at the event.
Ebby Thayer, a La Grande resident and Arizona State University online student, carried a sign she said was meant to detract from stereotyping.
“There’s a stereotype that every single black is a criminal, and they’re not. There’s a stereotype that all whites are racists, and they’re not. There’s a stereotype that every single cop is bad, and there are good cops,” she said. “It’s the ignorance — when people start looking at the skin tone and focusing on the skin tone. There’s bad people in every race, but when you target one race, you can’t do that.”
Thayer said she grew up in a small town where she experienced racism but also saw people defend her.
“I was one of two black people. I have seen the racists of racism, but I have also seen a lot of people stand up and speak up for me when I wasn’t able to speak up for me,” she said. “And that’s how I know not every person is racist. I’ve had people stand up for me, put people down because they are coming after me because of the color of my skin.”
She added she cried when she saw the size of the rally, encouraged by the amount of support shown at the protest.
“The amount of diverse people that are here has me so inspired,” she said. “Something is changing. We are watching a revolution happen. People are realizing what is happening in America today, and they are saying enough is enough.”
Balowski gave a similar message of looking past race.
“We’re all the same if you put the racism aside. That’s all it is. I love everyone. It’s so powerful to have all these people behind us, so why would you want to divert that to have less options? We want to get as many people as we can. I love seeing all kinds of faces. If it’s a Mexican rally, I’m out here. If it’s a white rally and my white friends are out here, I’m out here. My white foster parents took me in. They text me every day that, “I appreciate you being strong through this.”
Originally from Detroit, Michigan, where he said he grew up in foster homes before moving to Crane, Balowski said he has felt love in La Grande.
“This city will show you love. You go to the right spots to find it, this city will show you love,” he said. “It’s a red city, you know that, but the college brings the diversity. And the college kids that bring in the diversity will show the red city that we shouldn’t be separated. I’ve seen city folks, business owners, open up and talk to the college kids.”
While social distancing guidelines to stay 6 feet apart to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus went out the window at the gathering, the majority donned face masks.
The protesters’ chants included, “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter,” much like many across the nation, and also yelled messages of equality — “we all bleed red” and “we are one” among them. About midway through the rally, they marched to the corner of Island and Adams before returning to city hall, where drivers largely supporting the rally and honked their vehicle horns.
“We’re just ready to see change, especially within our own community,” EOU student Josie Shea said. “We want to see everyone feel loved, everyone feels accepted, regardless of their race, color, gender, etcetera. We’re here to make a change.”
Shea said the support from passers-by and from the protest itself was a huge positive.
“So much community. So much respect. There have been a few that don’t support, and it’s obvious, but the ones that do, it’s great. We’ve seen coaches, teachers, staff, tons of different people from EOU out here.”
James Kelly, another La Grande resident at the protest, commented on equality being present between people on either side of any dividing issue in the country, even if they don’t notice it.
“I think people that are on different sides of the fence have more in common than they like to (admit). I think that’s it,” he said. “We all want freedom. We all want to have the ability to speak our mind. That’s the starting point. Because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we should close our ears. That’s what happens now. I think we’re in a very divisive time in America, but I think uprisings like this are emblematic of a different problem. If we can’t come together and find common ground, we’re screwed, that’s what I think. We’re not going to always agree, but I do believe that if we can’t find common ground and find some semblance of civility, then our democracy’s in trouble.”
One man with with a rifle slung on his back confronted and instigated the protesters. The clash at moments became testy between him and a few protesters, despite efforts of police and other individuals to diffuse the situation, and boiled over, leading to his arrest on a charge of disorderly conduct. Police did not arrest any protestors, and nobody was injured.
One other tense moment came late in the evening.
A group of armed residents arrived at the Cook Memorial Library, diagonal to city hall, and expressed concerns related to rumors that radicals or members of the group Antifa was possibly infiltrating the group. That group eschewed social distancing and masks. They said they did not want to see the protest turned to riot, as as happen in some big cities, including Portland. Eventually, members from both sides crossed to the other to engage in conversation and diffuse much of the angst.
There was graffiti at the Island Avenue underpass, and La Grande police Lt. Jason Hays said it appears linked to the protest “because it is all related to the stuff at the protest.”
“Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” were among the slogans in spray paint. Police do not have a suspect, but an investigation is ongoing.
“That was the only place that we found graffiti,” Hays said. “I got a call on this really early this morning, thinking it’s going to be all over the place. It is definitely connected to the protest. As far as graffiti goes, it seems to be isolated.”
Many protesters said for change to happen, conversations need to take place beyond Tuesday.
We have to keep peacefully protesting,” Thayer said. “We have to keep it peaceful. Violence is not the answer. It is never the answer.”
“Don’t stop talking about it,” EOU student Kelsey Ranger said. “It starts at home, so we need to teach at home that this is not OK. Stand up for everybody. Don’t let it go. Stand up for what you believe in.”
Added Kelly: “Let’s hope this moment is a catalyst for change. This has been a long time coming.”
Editor's note: This story and a video have been updated to correct a name misspelling.