Serving as the Editor-in-Chief of a student newspaper in Oregon provided a powerful platform to amplify the voices and highlight the struggles of historically marginalized communities. Oregon has a deeply racist history. Founded as a “whites-only” state, it remains one of the least diverse states in the nation. The fact that South Salem High School has a fairly diverse student body compels the school newspaper to cover stories that are important to our readers, such as the violence, passion, and disparate response evident during Oregon’s racial justice protests last summer.
Telling Untold Stories
One of the stories I am proudest of is an extensive exposé about a series of assaults on Black community members by white alt-right members. The assaults occurred while I was the only reporter covering two simultaneous protests at the Oregon State Capitol–an alt-right event focused on COVID restrictions and QAnon conspiracy theories and a Black Lives Matter sit-in.
The first series of assaults started with the targeting of a Black, Deaf administrator from Western Oregon University by a well known white supremacist who was recently released from prison after serving as an accomplice in a racially-motivated interstate murder spree that left four people dead.
The second series of assaults was started by a prominent member of Oregon’s alt-right, who was recorded at the US Capitol during the insurrection on January 6, as well as, in the crowd which broke into the Oregon State Capitol on December 22. Months prior to both of those crimes, the Oregon State Police watched, and did not intervene as he targeted a local Black business owner who ended up in the hospital. Approximately half a dozen people were injured during the second series of assaults. As with the first series of assaults that day, most of the victims were Black.
In addition to documenting both series of assaults, I combed through video footage for hours from various sources. I created a timeline of events and determined that both assaults were perpetrated by white supremacists and members of the alt-right and that Black community leaders were disproportionally targeted.
Using community sources, videos and photos I worked to verify the identities of those involved in the assaults, as the members of the alt-right were widely unknown at that time. I looked at social media profiles and activity and conducted criminal background checks.
My extensive article detailing what had occurred on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol that day, as well as a brief history of Oregon State Police’s crowd management was the only comprehensive piece written on the assaults by any newspaper, until several months later.
I talked extensively to several of the people involved, including victims, and the Public Information Officer for Oregon State Police, who had jurisdiction of the assaults. By talking to members of the community, investigating what happened and who was involved, and covering the story publicly, the Oregon State Police was pressed to investigate and eventually forward the case to the District Attorney’s Office.
When the white supremacist was arrested for a separate traffic violation later in 2020 and then almost released, the journalistic record I created about the assaults was sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI became involved. As a result, a larger newspaper picked up the story and he is still incarcerated today.
It was because these assaults were documented as they were happening, and then followed up with research and analysis, and a cogent summary was published, that this case is known to the community beyond the assailants, the victims, and the witnesses that day. Based on what I saw in the refusal of the police repeatedly to intervene as the assaults unfolded, I honestly believe that they would not have investigated if the light had not been shone on what unfolded that day at the Oregon State Capitol. I am hopeful that my reporting on the assaults helped to ensure accountability for both the assailants and the police and create a safer community for all.
A Disparate Police Response
During the first weekend of the George Floyd protests, I reported as the Salem Police Department selectively enforced a curfew on racial justice protesters with arrests, tear gas, an LRAD, and stun grenades. At the same time, armed vigilantes were allowed to stand outside of a local hair salon without consequence, telling people, including me, that they were prepared to use lethal force.
Over the course of two nights, I monitored the armed vigilantes. I was there as the police told us that we needed to be quieter because it was long after curfew and the police did not want it to look like they were giving the armed vigilantes (who were mostly white) preferential treatment.
I was also with the armed vigilantes after curfew another night when the police came racing by in two SWAT vehicles in full riot gear. I jumped in my car and followed the SWAT vehicles, catching up in time to witness them chasing after a group of mostly BIPOC youth who had attended a peaceful racial justice protest that had recently ended.
I was the only member of the media on hand to witness and document the police conduct after the protest ended, when they made the young people kneel on the sidewalk with their hands over their heads as they cited them for curfew violations. At least one was arrested.
Meanwhile, at the hair salon the armed vigilantes continued to roam without restraint or interference by the police late into the night.
When some of the armed vigilantes showed up at Salem’s March for Floyd a few days later, they slipped by thousands of protesters and positioned themselves with approximately a dozen weapons at the top of the Capitol Steps. It was one of the largest protests in the history of Salem.
The armed vigilantes walked right past law enforcement and began to try to disrupt the protest. I recognized some of them from my interviews and was standing with Salem Police Department leadership, having just interviewed the police chief. I alerted the police and they notified Oregon State Police, who initially refused to come out of the building and intervene, as a confrontation began to escalate between the vigilantes and an Indigenous woman.
The Salem Police Department moved in, even though it was not their jurisdiction, and created a barrier between the armed vigilantes and the protesters, and the Oregon State Police finally came out of the capitol–compelled by the presence of the Salem Police.
When community leaders met with law enforcement leadership to understand how a group of heavily armed vigilantes were allowed to position themselves directly above thousands of protesters where they easily could have opened fire, I am told that my reporting documenting how the police treated the BIPOC youth was relied on to contrast. The charges against the youth were dropped a few days later.
Moving between the two groups those first nights of the racial justice protests allowed me to witness and document the disparate treatment, which helped to inform my coverage throughout the summer and beyond.
Covering Racist Incidents
Salem, particularly Salem schools, have been subject to several racist incidents recently, including someone going to a local elementary school this past summer and painting on the walls “whites only.” Community members rallied together, removing the message quickly and covering the walls with positive sayings of love and inclusivity. This incident went unreported by the local papers, so I decided to cover it myself.
I quickly got to work, reaching out to community members, interviewing someone who helped organize the clean-up effort, talking to the school district’s Communications Director, and getting information from the Public Information Officer for Salem Police Department. I walked over to the school and took photos of the positive chalk messages to add a visual element to the article.
The story was one that showed both the racism that remains in Oregon, but also the ability and desire of the community to come together and literally erase it. It is incredibly important to highlight stories like this to bring awareness and recognition to our communities.
Highlighting Black Voices
One of the projects that I have been working on recently is a series of articles about racial justice leaders in Salem. I proposed the idea for this series to my feature editor and she eagerly took on the task. So far, the first two installments have been published and she is working on the third one now.
I helped introduce her to and provided information about the racial justice leaders, each of which I had interviewed and made connections with at the protests.
I am proud of this series and think it is a necessary project, while also recognizing that there is so much more to be done at all levels of the media to center the voices of people of color, particularly in discussions of racial justice. It is extremely important to highlight the work that these community members are doing.