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Rally participants reject racist label
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Rally participants reject racist label

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SWEET HOME – The organizer of Friday’s “freedom rally” in Sweet Home refused to give his name to a reporter, but he wanted to make one thing clear: He does not support the racist views of two men who were involved with previous rallies.

An article in the Sweet Home New Era reported on racist memes and photos posted on the Facebook page of Jimy White, a part-time Sweet Home resident who had helped promote rallies on July 17 and 24. (White told the newspaper his Facebook book account had been hacked, but it still contained several such posts this week, including one that appears to show him holding a “captured” Black Lives Matter flag while giving a Nazi salute.) The article also cited racist and anti-Semitic views reportedly expressed by Michael Erickson, who also attended those rallies.

Neither man attended this week’s rally, held in the parking lot of a shopping center on Highway 20, the town’s main drag.

“I denounce all that, of course,” the anonymous organizer told a reporter on Friday. “But I shouldn’t have to – I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Although he declined to be interviewed, the man said the purpose of the rally was to promote free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to engage in business without interference from the government and to support police, veterans and peace.

About three dozen people took part in the two-hour rally Friday evening. Many of them wore hats or T-shirts declaring their support for President Donald Trump or waved signs calling for his re-election. A number of participants openly carried pistols.

One man displayed a “thin blue line” flag on his car, a symbol of support for police officers that has also been adopted by some white supremacist groups in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.

For the most part, passing motorists appeared to show their support for the rally with cheers and honks of encouragement, although there were a few who shouted curses or hoisted middle fingers as they drove by.

Every rally participant interviewed for this story insisted they did not support the racist and anti-Semitic views espoused by White and Erickson.

Dawn Shaver, who made a point of saying she is not a Trump supporter, stood on the sidewalk and held a sign that read “Freedom, yes. Hate speech and racism, no. Not in Sweet Home. Not in my town.”

She said she decided to attend the freedom rally after reading the New Era article.

“I feel we need to speak up if we don’t want that kind of rhetoric in our town,” she said. “Being silent is allowing things to perpetuate and continue.”

Previous rally participant Dan Barnes, who was quoted in the New Era story, was back again on Friday. He said White and Erickson had given the rally a bad name with their views, and he wasn’t surprised they weren’t in attendance this time.

“I didn’t think they’d show up, because I was going to confront them. I’m 75 years old, and I still ain’t smart enough to back down,” said Barnes, who was wearing a Timber Unity hat and waving a MAGA 2020 sign.

“I believe in freedom of speech, but I think it was their obligation to let us know what their beliefs were before they came here, because it really hurt the rally.”

Meanwhile, a few blocks down the highway, a group of about 10 people stood on another stretch of sidewalk and held signs and banners in support of Black Lives Matter and denouncing racism.

Rachel Galster of Sweet Home said she was there to stand up against racism in the community. She spoke about seeing swastikas painted on rocks outside town and said her father, who is Latino, had been subjected to racist taunts.

“When something happens like what happened to my dad, people turn a blind eye,” she said. “This is getting really old.”

Sweet Home High School graduate Jackkie Ohmer said she helped organize the anti-racism rally after reading the New Era story, “just to show that’s not all Sweet Home stands for.”

She said she was glad to hear that freedom rally participants had distanced themselves from White and Erickson. “We know that’s not everybody’s thought process,” she said.

Some passing motorists jeered the group, but Disney Hayes, carrying a sign that said “Silence is violence,” said a handful of people had approached them after attending the freedom rally to engage in genuine discussion about issues of social justice.

“I respect that, hard core,” he said. “It’s the only way to unify.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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