In 1991 Rodney King, a black man, was violently beaten by Los Angeles police officers. The beating was caught on film, and of the four officers involved, three were acquitted and the jury didn’t reach a verdict on the fourth. That verdict sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Almost 30 years later, George Floyd was killed — pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, who held him down as the African American man pleaded for his life, saying he couldn’t breathe. Three other officers stood by and participated. This racial killing was also caught on video and set off protests and riots across the country, including here in Lane County.
White Americans and their police have been beating and killing black people for centuries, and while the videos have sparked controversy, they have not truly sparked change.
How do we in a largely white community effect change for communities of color that make them safer — as businesses owners, protesters and everyday citizens — make them welcome and help, not hinder them? How do we change policing? How do we change?
Eugene Weekly reached out to local community members of color and apologized for putting the burden of change upon them while asking them what white Eugeneans can do.
When Black Lives Matter protest organizer Madeliene Smith, 21, and her brother, Spencer Smith, 20, saw the video of Floyd’s death, they knew it was time to take action. Madeliene Smith made a Facebook event for the Eugene protest the same day. It got about 8,000 responses.
“I don’t really feel the option to sit back,” she says.
“On Instagram I saw the video of George Floyd’s death,” says Spencer Smith, who studies political science and ethnic studies at University of Oregon and co-organized the rally. “I stopped what I was doing, got in the car to drive home, called my mom and I had a mental breakdown in the car. Just bawling hysterically, I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t talk, couldn’t do anything.”
Madeliene Smith saw the way her brother responded to seeing the video of Floyd’s death by asphyxiation. It weighed upon her. “For years, we have been seeing in the media senseless murdering of unarmed black men — and women — by armed police officers,” she says. Seeing her brother’s response, and of Floyd’s killing, she says, “To be honest, I was angry.”
“I never want my brother to feel that way.”
The Smiths organized the May 31 Black Lives Matter rally that brought thousands to the streets of Eugene. What they did not organize was destruction, fires and other quiet protests that dominated Eugene the rest of the weekend. But the unrest that has rocked Oregon and the rest of the country in response to the police brutality evident in the video of Floyd’s death stems from the systemic racism African Americans have been experiencing for years.
“Police brutality is a subsidiary of what systemic racism is,” Spencer Smith says. He points to the fact the Black Lives Matter rally was organized during a global pandemic — the NAACP was handing out protective masks to participants. And due to systemic racism, black people are most affected by the virus.
“We didn’t cause racism,” Spencer Smith says. “The issue was not done by us, it’s done to us.” After the rally, he says, after the hashtags die down, when it comes to returning to living their lives in the systemic oppression against blacks that permeates American culture, “We are not going to do that.”
Ayisha Elliott hosts the podcast “Black Girl from Eugene,” which she describes as a “raw, real account of black space, living in Eugene in the Pacific Northwest as black people.” She does cultural consulting and diversity training and she developed the curriculum for the Eugene-Springfield NAACP’s “Black Gold Culture Camp,” an empowerment camp for children in middle school who identify as African American.
Elliott says, “This is not a black problem, this is a white problem with white people propagating a system that leaves black folks out. There’s an obliviousness to the lack of black folks here,” and she says, an obliviousness to their needs.
As someone who says she experienced brutality at the hands of Eugene police in 2015, the recent events have hit Elliott hard. While a jury may have ruled in favor of the Eugene Police Department in Elliott’s 2017 excessive force civil lawsuit, Elliott says she still deals with effects of being tackled from behind by a Eugene police officer who, she says in court documents, repeatedly smashed her head into the deck. The incident occured after the family called for help because Elliott’s son was in a mental health crisis.
Like the Smiths, Elliott wants to know what happens “after the hashtag.”
There are structural changes that have to happen in this city, she says. “There’s nothing in this community that shows your brownness. Where is the food?” she asks. “Where is the festival? Where is the hair salon?”
Eugene does not reflect the people of color who live here, she says and needs more black businesses. “This city is not ready to actually be inclusive. You can’t be inclusive with an all white hiring board.”
While Elliott says she’s “super happy more white folks are saying, ‘I didn’t know’” about the experiences of black people, she also says, “I am like, are you serious? It’s 2020? I am really tired of explaining how white folks need to be more aware.”
Real change, she says, “comes from policy. People making an uproar helps the morale but doesn’t change the policy.” The mayor, the City Council, the education system need to make systemic changes. The town, she says, was built on the KKK’s back and needs a “constructive, pointed plan on how to open this city to people of color,” including incentives for black businesses and changes to the 4J school curriculum.
There needs to be long-term training on white fragility, appropriation and allyship, Elliott says. Not just a weekend seminar of a couple hours. Instead there needs to be a commitment to a couple hours a week for 10 weeks. “You can’t be helpful if you can’t understand.”
She says, “If you are not into going to a training and talking to other people, black people can see you don’t know from 5,000 miles away.” The city “can put stuff in place, but black folks won’t come because you are faking the funk.”
Eugene-Springfield NAACP Executive Director Eric Richardson, who happens to be Elliott’s brother, says of Floyd’s killing and racism in American today, “The soul of the nation still needs work. The NAACP is about soul work.” There are divisions in this country that need to be healed, “We are not done yet, he says.”
Police officers, Richardson continues, for the most part, start off as children in public schools, and one place to start is by raising kids the right way, to value multicultural education and “the beauty of all cultures.” There is a racism, Richardson says, and “a narrative of white supremacy that has gone unchecked.”
“Come out in support of black lives,” he says. “Ultimately black lives mean human lives — our most ancient human is a black mother,” he says referencing the oldest known human fossils, found in Africa. “Maybe that’s why some people don’t accept science — because they’d have to accept a black ancestor.”
People across Lane County came out in droves to support black lives on May 31. But what next? “White privilege, it’s a thing,” says Madeliene Smith, who identifies as biracial. “My mother is white and recognizes her white privilege and uses it every day.”
Spencer Smith adds, “I do think white people need to get more involved in the issue, but not pacifism or white saviorism.” And not, he says, standing by and doing nothing, like the officers who watched Derek Chauvin hold his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes and did nothing to stop it.
“This isn’t ‘woke’ news,” Spencer Smith says. “This is real news that affects people every day. I want people to listen and engage in dialogue with the African American community.” After the rally, the Smith founded the BLAC: Black Led Action Coalition on Facebook to call out injustices against black people, and call attention to nonprofits, resources and protests.
When the media hear of wrongdoing, he says, hop on it immediately and expose it. “We never discuss this uncomfortable topic of race,” he says. Be accessible — hear people. Be inclusive of others voices, and be diverse in staff and content.
“Look into the mirror,” Richardson says, “and do the hard soul-searching and question yourself.”
“We all die alone but what kind of spirit are you going to die with?”
With additional reporting by Frankie Kerner.