NAACP president tells council it can aim higher

Salem-Keizer NAACP president Benny Williams offered testimony that appeared to sway several member of the Keizer City Council to revise a planned statement of values. 

Benny Williams, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, urged members of the Keizer City Council to be bolder than the existing draft of a values statement at a meeting Monday, Nov. 9.

“It’s not that difficult,” said Williams referring to the more than two years it’s taken to move the city to the point of a draft resolution. “We are going to have those that disagree, but we have to stand up and stand out and lead. We’ve had progress, now is the time for us to make greater progress.”

It was the third time in two months that the council dedicated significant time to drafting a statement of values for adoption by the city. Residents turned out en masse to watch the proceedings and offer feedback. Williams led off the night offering the perspective of local Black leadership.

The pressing issue of the night was whether the statement should include a condemnation of white supremacy. Councilor Roland Herrera was the only one to support such a statement in previous meetings. Other councilors, either vocally or by their silence, balked at the suggestion.

“When a student is condemned for ignorance, nothing happens from that point forward. And that is not ideal,” said Councilor Laura Reid, a teacher at McNary High School. “While I’m in agreement that there is no room for hate, I think we need to be able to focus on the enlightenment and productive communications.”

Meeting any challenge is a matter of the tools at hand, but denouncing white supremacy wasn’t a high bar to clear, Williams said.

“Some things require debate, others enlightenment, other things require just having a decent understanding of right and wrong,” Williams said.

He also tried to clear up some perceived confusion over the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Black Lives Matter is a literal organization, but it’s also a rallying cry to say, ‘Listen, Black lives matter because we’ve seen Black lives taken at the drop of a hat by police, and that doesn’t happen to other races,’” he said.

While Black Lives Matter existed long before 2020, the effort gained a new urgency when George Floyd was killed under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. His crime was allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.

Mayor Cathy Clark asked how the council might address the belief system of white supremacists without overstepping rights to free speech. Councilor Elizabeth Smith had researched the issue and only found two other Oregon cities calling out white supremacy.

“You don’t have to be timid if you want to be progressive,” replied Williams. “We don’t always have to be followers because that is the opposite of leading.

“Those that don’t want to accept it and live by it, won’t. If we are going to grow together, live together and prosper we have to come together. What’s wrong with putting in place how we get there? If we make it known, and stand behind it, that is the start.”