In a Small Eastern Oregon Town: A Demonstration of ‘Just Locals Fed Up’

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City of Enterprise, OR
Wallowa County (OR) Courthouse

From Enterprise, Oregon

I first heard about the planned demonstration here in Wallowa County from the woman who cuts my hair. The haircut, my first in three months, was  an event in itself. At least for me.

As I got in her chair she asked if there had been “riots” in Seattle. I said, “Well, there have been protests. And yes, some looting and property destruction.” She said she’d heard that some sort of demonstration was going to happen in Enterprise, the county seat, that evening. “Really,” I said, “who’s sponsoring it?” “Atifa?” she said, “I really don’t know. I don’t understand it.” I said I thought it unlikely that Antifa was sponsoring a demonstration in Enterprise, Oregon.

I showed up about 5:30 for the 6:00 p.m. demonstration. Already about 50 people lined the main street to the west of the Courthouse. Most of the demonstrators held signs of support for Black Lives Matter. I had made a sign that said, “Your Life Matters.” With it I took my place on the curb.

Eventually, there were probably about 200 of us. But we weren’t the only ones to turn out last evening. The Courthouse occupies a block in the heart of town. On all sides of the Courthouse square but across the street were clusters of people looking on silently. A reporter for the local paper said, “They think they are here to protect the police from you.” When a civilian with a rifle got up on the roof of a building kitty-corner from the Courthouse, police asked him to come down. He did.

From passing cars there were honks of support, and opposition. Support sounded like short, happy honks, the kind that celebrate winning a football game. Opposition honks were a steady blaring of the horn, sometimes accompanied by a raised finger. Support honks outnumbered the other about 5 to 1.

The County Sheriff mingled with demonstrators, asking people how they were doing. He was armed but wore no riot gear. Neither did the other police I spotted.

A little after 6:00 there were a couple of speakers. After an hour, when nothing more seemed to be happening, I headed home to fix dinner. To that point, there hadn’t been anything remotely resembling violence. I hope it stayed that way. If there was violence it felt a lot more likely to come from the silent on-lookers whose presence felt somehow menacing.

In the early 1950’s my grandfather had been the County Sheriff in that Courthouse, which has always made it special place to me. Over the years we’ve gone to summer concerts on the Courthouse lawn. This was my first demonstration.

When my grandfather was the County Sheriff I don’t think he wore a police uniform. Just civilian clothes. Nor did he have, to my knowledge, a police car. I may be wrong. I was pretty young. But I think it was all pretty low key. Especially since 9/11, the police here, as elsewhere, have lots more technology and a more militarized look.

Earlier in the afternoon, rumors had circulated that an Idaho group called “the three percenters” were coming. From looking on-line I learned that the “three percenters” took their name from a report that just 3% of colonists took up arms against the British. They seemed to be mostly a gun-rights group. We did see some trucks go by with rifles on display, but that’s really not unusual here.

Other rumors were that the demonstrators themselves were being “bussed in” from the outside. A man I stood next to said, “No, just locals who are fed up.”

What seemed clear, most of all, was the divisions that cut through America today also run down the main street of this remote corner of far northeastern Oregon. From my barber speculating that the demonstration was being sponsored by “Atifa,” to the sullen on-lookers keeping a watchful eye on the demonstrators, the lines were drawn.

1 COMMENT

  1. There are many things about this season of protest that are new and different. One of the most encouraging is the number of demonstrations in small cities and towns. It can be isolating to live in these places and not know if anyone one around you feels the way you do about issues of racism and social justice. I hope that citizens of small towns across the country realize that their opinions matter and that they are now heard by people in the larger world. Thanks for showing up.

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