Residents to council: Condemn white supremacy

A proposed statement of city values raised the ire of residents for not going far enough in condemning white supremacy during a Keizer City Council meeting Monday, Nov. 2.  

Attendees at the meeting called out councilors for refusing to denounce white supremacy and directed anger and frustration at City Councilor Dan Kohler for statements made at a council work session a week prior. 

“I’m concerned that after Councilor (Roland) Herrera suggested condemning white supremacy and received a barrage of questions (regarding what qualifies as hate groups),” said resident Courtney Clendening. “Different definitions of white supremacy are part of the explicit and implicit bias that people carry. How others define white supremacy is not the responsibility of you as the council to tip-toe around.”

During the work session, Herrera asked the council to consider including a more forceful statement condemning white supremacy in the draft of a proposed values statement. In response, Kohler suggested that other groups, including Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM) could be included under the same heading. Councilor Laura Reid said it was difficult to consider a condemnation without a more universal understanding of what the term white supremacy means. 

At the same work session, Kohler later added, “I denounce any white supremacy and any group that thrives in hate or promotes hate and intimidation.” However, he was not present at the city council meeting due to family commitments. 

Numerous speakers took issue with the equating of white supremacist organizations with BLM at the meeting Monday. 

“BLM is a social justice movement meant to help leaders speak out on matters of injustice as it relates to police enforcement, nothing about it is meant to be hateful. White supremacy has elements of a domestic terrorist group and is meant to keep people of color disadvantaged and in fear at the hands of oppressive forces,” said Omar Alvarado. 

Ramiro “RJ” Navarro told the story of a Latinx woman who texted him while her landlord was trying to evict her from a home in Keizer. The woman gave birth to a child four days before moving in and the landlord began lodging complaints against her almost immediately, Navarro said. 

“If you want to make people feel included, stop protecting racists. It’s as simple as that,” Navarro said. “Listen to the people of color, the ones who don’t need to hear examples (of racism) because they experience it every day.”

Mayor Cathy Clark said that a situation like the eviction happening in Keizer was “incomprehensible,” a word choice that would come back to haunt her before the night was over. 

“The council is meant to represent the community and it is tiptoeing around these issues for the sake of white fragility,” added Elizabeth Heredia. “Words matter a lot in our reality. Think about that and the responsibility you have to protect all of your constituents, not just a few.”

Resident Betty Hart suggested that members of the council do more homework. 

“BLM is not a hate group, it is a movement to bring light to issues people have faced for hundreds of years. I hope you will take the time to look up Jim Crow laws and the Tulsa Massacre,” Hart said. 

Resident LaTonya Gibbs suggested that a deeper understanding of the issues was a matter of empathy.

“A small city or government of any sort isn’t a business, it’s a community. If we can’t find a sense of empathy for the people who live nearby, then we are lost,” said Gibbs. 

Another longtime resident, Bob Salazar said, when he moved to town, Keizer had a reputation for not being welcoming, but he was lucky to find supportive neighbors. 

“The color of my skin still tells people who they think I am, but they don’t know me,” Salazar said. “The more we can say in our values that white supremacy is something we will not accept, the better off we are.”

Resident Mathew Poteet drew on his experiences being married into a black family for 25 years and took issue with Clark’s use of the word “incomprehensible” when it came to the eviction predicament faced by another Keizer resident. 

“Eyes get big and eyebrows are raised to something that is incomprehensible to us, but it is simply a reality to somebody else. They comprehend the incomprehensible very well. They can smell it. They can taste it. We can see it, smell it and taste it if we choose to look that direction,” Poteet said. “Not comprehending isn’t an excuse for not condemning white supremacy,” 

Poteet also addressed the chair typically occupied by Kohler whose particular comments ignited the backlash. 

“This is an action taken very often in government, when the people speak the politicians are absent and that is incomprehensible,” Poteet said. 

Clark said it was a poor word choice on her part, “I do understand that it happens to people. I comprehend that it happens in this city, but I don’t understand the thought process that goes through people’s heads.”