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Corvallis protesters express optimism
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Corvallis protesters express optimism

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There was a sense of optimism among many mid-Willamette Valley residents on Sunday, a feeling that, after a week of demonstrations against racial injustice in Corvallis and across the nation, a change will come and is starting to unfold.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of history,” said Michael Cass of Corvallis, as he marched with protesters through downtown to chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter.”

More than 4,000 people filled Central Park for the demonstration, then marched to the Benton County Courthouse.

The protest came in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who begged for air as a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

At the start of the demonstration, Oregon State University student Aaron Olmos told the crowd that the shift in the public consciousness during the last week had been huge. “We can’t let it stop here, so let’s keep it going,” said Olmos, an OSU wrestler who is the Black Student Union’s communications director and a peer facilitator with the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center on campus.

Olmos said that there will be tension and outrage until all black lives matter, and added that there were systematic problems in law enforcement. “We can pick out the bad apples all day, but when will we recognize that the orchard has been planted on a mass gave?” he said.

Dyshawn Hobson, a 2018 graduate of Corvallis High School, told the crowd that black people are infuriated that they have to say that black lives matter, and by people responding with “all lives matter.”

“If my house is on fire, and you tell me all houses matter, well, I understand that all houses matter,” but the black community is burning due to racism, Hobson added.

Corvallis has been the site of daily demonstrations against racial injustice, but some of those have been rather small. The rally at the Central Park, like a demonstration at the courthouse a week prior, was massive for Benton and Linn counties. And like a week prior, most of the protesters were white and nearly all those in attendance were wearing masks.

Kelly Jones of Sacramento, California, said she came to Corvallis to protest as she walked along Eighth Street with demonstrators.

“People are finally starting to hear us,” added Jones, who is black.

Cass said as he marched that he was nervous about his recent move to Corvallis from Atlanta because there are so few black people here. He was feeling much better about his decision on Sunday.

“It’s just so beautiful to see so many people of so many different races chant something that shouldn’t be a debate,” Cass added. And the Corvallis demonstration and others like it are putting pressure on lawmakers to do something different,” he said.

Dr. Keith Harris of Corvallis said that he’s been crying every night because Floyd’s death and the demonstrations have dredged up memories of the racism he’s experienced. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stopped driving my Porsche and asked, ‘Is this your car?’” Harris said, in an interview during the march. He held a sign that said, “I can’t breathe,” which were Floyd’s last words.

Harris said that when he passes a police vehicle, he always looks in the rearview mirror, worried they’re going to pull a U-turn. “No man should have that sort of reaction to someone who’s supposed to be protecting you,” he said.

“When you teach your kids how to drive, you just have to teach them how to drive. I have to teach them the rules of DWB – driving while black,” Harris added.

Harris also spoke at the Benton County Courthouse on Sunday.

“Not since the ’60s when we marched, and yes, I’m old enough to remember the ’60s, not since the ’60s have I seen such a robust movement for change,” Harris said. “I sense that something is afoot.”

Earlier in the day, Sara Smith of Albany, who works at Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, said that it was moving and overwhelming to see the number of attendees in Central Park, but she wasn’t sure whether change had occurred. “People care, but what are people going to do a few weeks from now? Will they interrupt (if they witness racism)?” Smith wondered.

White people get to walk away from the demonstration and go home. “This is something we always have to live with,” Smith said, as she held her daughter Savannah Smith, 4.

Savannah was a bit overwhelmed by the demonstration at Central Park, as well, but for different reasons. There was a big crowd, and people were yelling with fierce determination. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” chanted marchers as they made their way out of the park.

“We’ll go back to the car,” Smith told her daughter. “I just wanted to make sure you got to see this.”

Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or kyle.odegard@lee.net.

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