UMATILLA COUNTY — Protests against racism and police violence spread to Hermiston and Pendleton on Monday, June 1, as people gathered peacefully in both cities.
Some protest signs referenced George Floyd, the black man who died in Minneapolis in police custody on Memorial Day. Cellphone footage from bystanders shows officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 45 seconds while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe before passing out about six minutes in. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter after protests were staged in Minneapolis.
In Pendleton, the crowd chants rotated between “Police reform now,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Say his name: George Floyd.”
But for the roughly 150 people who gathered at Roy Raley Park to protest the death of Floyd and other instances of black people dying at the hands of police, there was a consistent thrum throughout the crowd: “No justice, no peace.”
Organizer Kenna Rhodes still tears up when she begins talking about Floyd’s death and the protests and riots that have broken out across the country, but the emotion she felt eventually turned into resolve.
“I started crying, and then I decided crying wasn’t enough,” she said.
She received strong online backlash when she asked on social media if anybody was organizing a protest, and she decided to organize one herself. She said a man sent her a direct message threatening to run over protesters if he saw them.
Rhodes thought turnout would be light and was shocked when throngs of people crowded in front of Roy Raley Park and on the opposite sidewalk, if saddened for the reason why they were all there.
For black protesters, the event was personal, a chance to act on the pain and fear that comes from each fatal encounter between law enforcement and black people.
Kadedra Hackler brought a homemade Black Lives Matter poster with other notes on the margins, like, “It could’ve been my dad, uncles, cousins, friends, mom, sister, niece, coworker (or) ME.”
Hackler noted that there weren’t many African Americans in Pendleton — the U.S. Census estimates 2.2% as of 2018 — so she was heartened that so many people showed up.
Couple Adam and Tiffany Haynes were leading protest chants at the park, having just returned from a protest in Seattle, where they had acted as volunteer medics to protesters who were suffering from tear gas exposure and other injuries.
Tiffany Haynes, who is white, said she and her husband plan to have kids one day, and they don’t want them going through the same experiences black people are going through today.
Hermiston’s protest kicked off at noon on the corner of Highway 395 and Elm Avenue. By 12:30 p.m. there were roughly 60 protesters standing on the sidewalks along all four corners of the intersection. Almost all wore masks, and they held signs with messages, such as “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “All lives don’t matter until black lives matter.”
Jose Rodriguez was the first to arrive at Hermiston’s protest, wearing a handmade “I can’t breathe” T-shirt. As he paced up and down the sidewalk, fist in the air, several passersby raised a fist in return.
“I think this town needs to know it’s not right,” Rodriguez said in reference to Floyd’s death. “It’s important to make people feel uncomfortable.”
Inle Gonzaels, who organized the protest, said she wanted to make sure that people saw Hermiston residents join in with the nationwide protests.
“Even though the black community in Hermiston and Eastern Oregon is small, that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “People should see we’re an ally.”
Naxely Jaime of Hermiston held a sign saying, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” She said people in Hermiston seem to view race as a taboo subject, but she wanted to make people understand that “we’re not going to be quiet about it.”
Avery Szulewski also said the community “doesn’t like to talk about” racism.
“I myself, I have white privilege, and I need to use my power to bring light to that,” she said.
The protesters drew mixed reactions from passersby on what the Oregon Department of Transportation has reported is Eastern Oregon’s busiest intersection. Many motorists honked and waved or raised their fists in apparent solidarity. One woman came out of McDonald’s with a bag of food for the protesters.
Others were less supportive. Their reactions included making obscene gestures, veering close to the protesters as their trucks released a cloud of black smoke, and yelling. One woman repeatedly shouted at the protesters while waiting in line in at the McDonald’s drive-thru, at one point yelling, “You guys aren’t old enough to know (expletive).” At least one man shouted the N-word at a group of teenagers standing on one of the corners.
The protest remained peaceful as it stretched past its previously planned hourlong time slot, however, and at one point two officers from the Hermiston Police Department arrived and handed out water bottles to protesters.
There were several police vehicles parked inside and around Pendleton’s Roy Raley Park when the event started in the late afternoon, but officers otherwise kept their distance, except to occasionally usher some protesters back onto the sidewalk or to track demonstrators as the stationary demonstration suddenly lurched toward South Main Street in an impromptu march.
There didn’t seem to be any confrontations between police and protesters, and conflicts with drivers sporting middle fingers or “Thin Blue Line” flags were fleeting.
Isis Ilias brought her 8-year-old daughter, Abi Gutierrez, to the protest, and said her daughter kept asking her questions.
“It’s a good way for her to learn ... She is going to learn something,” she said. “I don’t know what she’ll learn, but it will be something that she will not learn at home.”
The June 1 protest was perhaps the largest demonstration in Pendleton since the women’s march attracted 400 people in 2017 and 2018. Those years brought a bevy of mostly liberal protests and demonstrations covering topics like gun violence, climate change and racism, although all were significantly smaller than the women’s marches.
On the other side of the political spectrum, a rally in Hermiston to reopen businesses and public life during the COVID-19 pandemic drew more than 100 people.