Black Lives Matter rally in Eugene. Photo by Frankie Kerner

Black Lives Matter Protest

Thousands gather in Eugene to decry police brutality against black people

On Sunday, May 31, thousands of people gathered in Eugene to protest police brutality in the U.S.

People gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd, decry police brutality against black people and denounce systemic racism the afternoon of Sunday, May 31, at the Eugene Black Lives Matter rally. In contrast with Friday night’s unofficial protest, which was hijacked by looters, this rally was more peaceful and organized, although there were a few situations that nearly turned violent. 

An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people attended, according to the Eugene Police Department. The rally started at 1 pm with speeches at the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse by Eugene NAACP President Ibrahim Coulibaly and Eugene attorney Jessica L. Brown. Madeliene Smith, who organized the event on Facebook with her brother, Spencer Smith, introduced speakers.

“We can’t be handcuffed and put in the police car unless we are dead. George Floyd,” Brown said. “We can’t go birdwatching in Central Park. Christian Cooper. We can’t go jogging. Ahmaud Arbery.” She continued to list off dozens of names of black people who police killed or who white people have recently harassed for doing everyday things.

The speeches at the federal courthouse ended around 2 pm. The crowd marched across the Ferry Street Bridge toward Alton Baker Park. People carried signs reading “Justice for George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter” and “End White Silence,” as they walked over the Willamette river. Protester Clea Ibrahim led chants of “No justice, no peace. No racist police.”

“Nobody could have guessed how many people would have come out today, but it looks like the whole city of Eugene,” she told Eugene Weekly. “That says a lot and means a lot to the black community, and we thank everybody who came out here today.” 

Ibrahim, who is black, became known nationwide after Register-Guard journalist Jordyn Brown posted a video on Twitter of Ibrahim telling white people to stop looting at the protest Friday night. The video went viral and now has more than 8 million views. 

People gathered again on the lawn of Alton Baker Park to listen to speeches by Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis, state Sen. James Manning, Eugene City Councilor Greg Evans and former University of Oregon student body president Sabinna Pierre, among others. 

After the speeches at Alton Baker wrapped up, a crowd of about 500 people headed downtown. They marched around downtown blocking traffic and chanting call and response style: “Say his name.” “George Floyd,” “Say her name.” “Breonna Taylor,” before heading west on 7th Avenue. According to EPD, the crowd grew to more than 1,000 protesters. 

One rally-goer told EW that many protesters at Alton Baker decided to march throughout downtown Eugene peacefully. For the most part, the public seemed to welcome it: pedestrian onlookers and drivers cheered and honked in support. 

Police in cars and on motorcycles blocked off 7th Avenue, but drove off when protesters came within a block. A few marchers took up chants of  “fuck the police” and ran toward the police barricade, but there was no direct confrontation between protesters and police.

But the mood changed with an encounter with a driver in an all black SUV on 5th Avenue near Jefferson Street. The driver, dressed in tan clothing, came out of his car with an assault-style rifle decaled with desert camouflage. He told the marchers that his gun’s magazine was fully loaded and that they needed to get out of his way. 

The march’s organizers asked everyone to ignore the driver, but a few marchers continued to interact with the man, even trying to pull the gun out of his hands. 

During the skirmish, his wife, who was inside the car, tried to speed away, but ended up slamming to a stop several yards away as a few protesters screamed. 

After the incident, some marchers told EW that the man is associated with a former armory in Creswell known for its white supremacist ideology. 

Although EPD later reported a man named Nathan Huddleston (who was later arrested) shot the ground with his handgun in reaction to protesters tapping the trunk of his car, the rifle incident is what altered the otherwise-peaceful march throughout downtown Eugene. 

The 5th Avenue event was later referenced when the group returned to the federal courthouse. One of the speakers said that these things happen, so it’s important to rise above it rather than fighting back.

Siblings Madeliene, 21, and Spencer Smith, 20, said they decided to organize Eugene’s Black Lives Matter protest after hearing the news of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis on Tuesday. 

“Every time there’s a new police brutality case, it seems like every week or every month now, I lose a little piece of myself,” Madeliene Smith tells EW. “Those are my brothers, those are my sisters, those are my people. So to just see that and lose another part of my community, my family, I was just angry. All my friends and family are African American, and it could be anybody.”

Madeliene and Spencer Smith created a Facebook event — the first protest either of them had organized. Both have experience in activism, with Spencer studying political science and ethnic studies at the UO and Madeliene participating in previous protests. 

The two didn’t expect the number of participants to be as high as it was. After creating the event post Madeliene woke up the next day to 600 “interested” or “going” on Facebook. By the day of the protest, that number was up to more than 8,000. 

Initially, they had planned to have EPD Chief Chris Skinner come speak at the rally, but after receiving backlash from commenters on Facebook, the Smiths decided the best route would be to have no police involvement. 

“The police presence would be comforting to the moderate activists,”  Spencer says. “But I think the point is that this is going to be an uncomfortable experience, and it’s going to be educating and moving.” 

After the rally, protests and demonstrations unaffiliated with the event organized with the Smiths escalated around Eugene.

By Frankie Kerner, Henry Houston and Jade Yamazaki Stewart