LA GRANDE — On Sunday, June 13, Evelyn Wallace, a La Grande resident, woke up feeling equally excited and nervous for her day. She donned her bright orange jumpsuit, said bye to her husband and children as if it were any normal day, and walked into town.
Her day would be far from normal.
It was a warm day, and the sun was out — great weather for a protest. Wallace walked along Adams Avenue until she found the busiest intersection in town, the crossing between Adams and Island Avenue. She had nothing in her hands or her pockets, except for her identification. At about 11 a.m., Wallace stepped into the crosswalk.
About a third of the way into the street, Wallace stopped. And then she waited. Even with drivers yelling at her and threats to run her over, she stood her ground.
“I was terrified, my heart was pounding, all of the voices of all of the people were like, ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’” she said.
About 30 minutes later, Wallace was arrested for disorderly conduct, and she spent the night at the Union County Jail.
That day, Wallace was protesting against mass incarceration in America, an issue that she holds close to her heart. This was Wallace’s first time getting arrested in La Grande.
According to her, it won’t be her last.
“I would choose to sleep in my own bed every day for the rest of my life if I could see justice done in that way, but I feel like I can’t, so I’m ready to give that up in the name of this thing that feels more important than that,” she said.
A human rights crisis
Wallace, a writer, has lived in La Grande for several years, but has previously lived in several different states, as well as internationally. According to her, she first was moved towards activism when she saw a friend die in 2016.
“I essentially saw with my own eyes and heart what was real and what was true, it was one of those pivotal moments of life,” she said. “It was like I was living underneath a new directive: speak truth, be truth, live truth.”
Since then, Wallace has lived in various areas, spending her time writing, meditating and educating herself on various subjects and issues.
One day, she realized that mass incarceration in America is the issue that would fuel her fight for the rest of her life.
“It is such a human rights crisis, that I felt deeply compelled, me in my deepest heart, I was like, ‘oh, this is what I was born to do,’” she said.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States has 5% of the world population, yet approximately 25% of its prisoners.
There are 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last 40 years, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
When Wallace began looking deeper into the issue, she realized that she couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
She tried reaching out to local organizations, but was met with resistance, so on June 13, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I wish no harm upon my country, no one, but the system that we all do our own parts to uphold, I will not,” she said. “And if that sends me to jail, so be it. I will be able to sleep knowing in my heart that I gave every possible thing I could, not just money to organizations, not just protesting, which, let’s face it, is basically a big parade.”
She explained the idea to protest to her family and friends, most of whom were hesitant but supportive, Wallace said.
“I’m proud that she’s standing up for her beliefs and trying to make the changes that are needed right now,” Arie Trouw, Wallace’s husband, said. “It can put a strain on our family, but I support her. It’s worth it so she can continue to stand up for what is right.”
Wallace bought an orange jumpsuit several years ago, which she wears regularly in public to stand in solidarity with America’s prisoners.
She’s worn it while pushing her baby in a stroller, boarding flights, and while traveling to different cities.
To Wallace, wearing the jumpsuit is a symbol of solidarity.
“I do it in the name of everyone else who didn’t choose to go in,” she said.
Taking a stand
Fast forward to the crosswalk on Adams and Island avenues on June 13. After a few minutes, a truck driver almost ran Wallace over, so she decided to stand facing away from traffic.
“I didn’t know what was going on behind me,” she said. “I really wanted to look, but that’s not what this is about, me looking wasn’t going to change anything.”
Cars continued to slowly move around her. Some drivers stopped to ask Wallace what she was doing, while many simply honked. Others called the police.
After a half hour of blocking traffic, La Grande police arrived at the scene.
“We got numerous 911 calls, so I pull up and I see her standing there in the street,” La Grande Police Department Officer Mike Eckhart said. “Cars are sort of moving around her and there was quite a bit of traffic.”
According to both Wallace and Eckhart, the police officer asked Wallace to move, to which she politely declined. He explained that he had to arrest her, and she did not resist arrest. He took her to the Union County Jail.
“She didn’t resist, I didn’t even want to take her to jail, but I had to,” he said.
While in jail, Wallace lived in the world that she hopes to get others out of, which only affirmed her belief that she did the right thing.
“It’s like a tomb, it might as well be underground,” Wallace said. “There is nothing about it that indicates it’s not. When we sentence someone to life in prison, we’re burying them alive.”
Wallace refused to post bail, and after spending a night in jail, the charges were dropped against her during her court hearing.
The judge ordered Wallace to pay a fine, which is another aspect of the criminal justice system that Wallace is opposed to.
“Money shouldn’t be exchanged for freedom, that’s not fair,” she said. “Either I’m a danger to society or I’m not, money has nothing to do with that.”
A life mission
Wallace is unsure of the date and location of the next demonstration, but she is certain that she will continue to stand in unity with the country’s incarcerated population until the criminal justice system is reformed on a national level, even if she never sees that day.
“It’s not about me, but I cannot not rise up just because other people won’t join in,” Wallace said.
After spending a night in jail, Wallace said she is more motivated to continue protesting and getting others to join her.
She emphasized that the movement is not about her, and that she encourages others to join her for future protests. She plans on doing something similar at least once a year.
And her family seems to understand.
“I’m always concerned about her safety, but I trust that she’ll take care of herself and make smart decisions,” Trouw said. “I’m proud she’s standing up for herself.”