Eugene Rising, Part VI
How a Dumpster Fire Brought Eugene Together Before Tearing It Apart
This is penultimate installment of a seven-part series on the history of activism and protest in Eugene, Oregon. To start from the beginning, click here.
We’re doing something different with this story, because that’s what we’re all about – trying new things.
As you read through this story, you’ll notice a series of formatting choices that, at first, may appear really obnoxious. But don’t worry: this is intentional, and will help you understand the way we’re approaching it.
Here in the middle, where there’s no formatting at all, is where you’ll find the neutral narrative that we’re engaging with throughout the story.
A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.
When you see this toxic green color, you’ll be reading the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-in-Chief MG Belka.
And when you see this pink color that happens to match his protest helmet and nails, you’ll have the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-at-Large James Croxton.
We did this because we believe that it is important to engage with history as we uncover it, and that engaging with history means constantly critiquing it, challenging it, and–when deserved–making fun of it, too.
But we don’t want to make the mistake of passing off those critiques and analyses as objective, since so many people still seem to believe that such a thing exists, and we don’t want to mix our own biases and perspectives with the hard research that we used to put this story together.
Anyway, here‘s where we start ditching the research and relying on our own experiences.
After months and months of protests following the murder of George Floyd, the city of Eugene has been taken over by the fascist Right.
On Jan. 9, 2021—three days after Proud Boys and MAGA fanatics stormed the United States Capitol—approximately 75 members of the fascist far-right held a rally in front of the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse. With a little bit of help from the Eugene Police Department, they were able to successfully hold their rally, deemed “Stand Against Socialism,” with little interference from local antifascists.
Sure, a few bold and brave antifascists showed up to oppose the rally, which included at least two dozen members of the Proud Boys. But they were terribly outnumbered and unable to do anything more than get into arguments and shouting matches with the more loose-cannon members of the far-right.
Exactly one fight broke out, which led to several people getting beaten with fists and flagpoles. The police swept in, broke it up and declared a riot. Then, 15 minutes later, the riot was undeclared.
It was far from the most violent day Eugene had seen in recent memory. But it was probably the saddest, because it seemed to confirm what James and I–and many others–had long suspected.
As James and I left the rally, spooked by the open and targeted harassment we were receiving—and not entirely sure that we hadn’t walked into a trap—we debriefed one another on what we had just seen. Then, building off an earlier conversation, we came to the conclusion that the streets of Eugene–the pavement we’d been pounding for months covering an uprising–no longer belonged to Black Lives Matter protesters and kids in black bloc.
The streets here belong to the fascists now.
I had, literally called-it days prior but now it was real — and far scarier than I had imagined.
We came to that conclusion because we had just watched it happen ourselves. And though we’re not alone, many don’t realize this truth quite yet. The people of Eugene will not readily admit that their city has been claimed by the increasingly violent and restless fascist wing of American politics. In the eyes of locals, Eugene is still a bastion of progressivism and a model city for liberals. Many believe that its storied history as a hub of civil disobedience and a bastion for radicals still rings true.
So we decided to look at the history and tear that myth apart.
But when it was time for the two of us to look at Eugene’s most recent history, we knew that we couldn’t remain objective. This is our history. We lived and experienced all of it—tear gas and pepperballs included— ourselves. We both believe that through telling the recent history through our own perspectives will not only be insightful, but that an objective truth can be found in-between.
So, here’s our history.
Eugene. Got. Mad. Again.
I know I did.
It began on May 29, 2020 — four days after George Floyd was killed. I had just gotten undressed, was standing in my bedroom, and about to go to bed when I saw the tweet from then-Managing Editor of the Daily Emerald, Donny Morrison.
He was in downtown Eugene at the scene of a large protest where a dumpster, among other objects, was on fire.
Naturally, curiosity got the best of me. I got dressed, got in my car, and headed towards the scene. The night, from peaceful protest to declared riot and Eugene’s first taste of CS, or tear gas, for the first time in a long while is well-documented in tweets from The Torch that evening.
At the time, I was the film and television reporter for the Daily Emerald and the copy editor for Lane Community College’s The Torch. Little did I know then that I would discover a passion for conflict journalism and help jumpstart DoubleSided Media with two former Editors-in-Chief.
I was there that night too, but not as a journalist – not in an official capacity, at least. I was on the tail end of what I’ve come to refer to as The Lost Year, and – well, let’s just say I wasn’t doing a whole lot of writing at the time.
But I’d seen the entire night play out from the very beginning, when a few dozen people gathered at the Free Speech Plaza to have a little march in solidarity with the people of Minneapolis.
That night felt different. It really did. There was a palpable anger among the people that gathered. I felt it hours before the dumpsters were set aflame and rocks started going through Starbucks’ windows.
The next night, less than 100 people defied a city-wide curfew and took to the streets in smaller groups, separating themselves from each other and avoiding a large mass. At some point, while gathered in a parking lot near E. 14th Ave., EPD decided to attempt to disperse a crowd and deployed tear gas from the turret of their Lenco BearCat G2.
While they did, indeed, disperse protesters from the parking lot, EPD managed to also find themselves in controversy, and, ultimately, a lawsuit from the Civil Liberties Defense Center. During the volley of tear gas, EPD hit Eugene Weekly reporter Henry Houston at point-blank-range as he held up his press credentials.
Houston, who wanted policy change, was later awarded $45,000 from the city. No policies were ever changed — or even considered for change.
What followed, at least for a few months, were almost daily protests and marches throughout Eugene and Springfield — many of them led by the area’s new, and lively, activist group, Black Unity. Others, mostly direct actions—and there were plenty of them—were led by smaller groups such as, but not limited to, BIPOC Liberation Collective and the United Anarchists and Communists of Eugene, Oregon.
Activism on UO’s campus also seemed to ramp-up with groups such as DisarmUO, ReclaimUO, and the UO Young Democratic Socialists, among others, leading the charge.
May 31—just two days after the riot—was probably the biggest day for Eugene activism in years. Led by Madeliene and Spencer Smith’s Black Led Action Coalition, an estimated eight to ten thousand people gathered at the Federal Courthouse prior to marching over the Ferry St. Bridge and into Alton Baker Park.
There’s a part of me that wants to look back at that first Sunday of The Uprising with a cynical eye in order to pick everything apart – to look at how drastically the American landscape has changed between then and now, to use the power of hindsight to point out how clueless all of us were about what we were coming up against.
But, I still get warm and fuzzy feelings about that day, even knowing what I know now. I can be cynical about anything and everything, but there’s really something magical about the sight of ten thousand people marching across a bridge in the name of social justice.
That day was special. That day made me believe that things were really going to change. That day had me thinking that the people of Eugene had finally opened their eyes, that its well-meaning but largely misguided citizenry had finally decided to get their heads out of their asses and just fucking do something already. A single protest march, no matter how big, cannot achieve lasting change, but it was hard to believe that ten thousand people would participate in a march without eventually following up with true, concrete action.
As the country rose up against the police, with riots erupting in Minneapolis and the opening salvos of tear gas being launched in Portland, Eugene seemed ready to reclaim its once-radical mantle.
On June 7, a splinter march that broke off from a larger BLM protest brought several hundred people to the EPD’s headquarters on Country Club Rd., where some proceeded to vandalize the plywood that had been installed to protect the building’s precious windows and tore down pro-police posters that had been tacked to the wood by sympathetic citizens.
Through the metal door that guarded the entrance to EPD’s underground parking lot, one could see EPD officers donning riot gear and checking their weapons, preparing to repel the storming of the precinct they surely believed was coming.
But, somehow, cooler heads prevailed, and the group retreated from EPD HQ without incident.
The recent resurgence in the city’s protest scene didn’t take long to hit the University of Oregon — where it once prospered and was, frankly, centered.
On June 13, I attended a teach-in organized by the BIPOC Liberation Collective in front of the building formerly known as Deady Hall. For over an hour, I sat among a crowd of well over 100 people and listened as people far smarter than I spoke of the university’s history of racism and the need for radical community empowerment to fight rising tides of fascism. Others offered advice on forming affinity groups and lauded the importance of autonomous organizing in the growing unrest against the police and the State.
Then, not long after the last speaker finished up, a voice called for some volunteers to participate in a direct action. A few dozen, dressed in various shades of black, heeded the call and gathered in front of The Pioneer – the controversial symbol of Manifest Destiny that had weathered many prior attempts to have it removed.
As the sun fell, people began wrapping ropes around the head and neck of the statue. Someone with an electric saw worked on the bolts that fastened the statue to its mount. Within a few moments, a few dozen people had taken up positions on a long rope.
The statue was toppled with almost no resistance. The sound of metal crashing on concrete was drowned out by cheers and applause. The person with the electric saw began performing surgery on the statue’s head and arms while the statue topplers plotted what to do next. Someone suggested that they drag that statue to the river and throw it in. Others helpfully pointed out that there was no way they could carry it that far without being arrested, and instead suggested that they drag it onto the steps of Johnson Hall, which was just across the street – a far more manageable distance.
Consensus was achieved, and the statue was dragged up the marble steps of the administration building and dropped in front of the double doors.
With adrenaline pumping through the veins of the gathered, the small group turned its attention to the Pioneer Mother, which stood on the other side of Johnson Hall. That statue was taken down just as efficiently as The Pioneer had been.
But by then, reporters with local radio and TV stations had begun snapping photos and video of the vandalism, despite stern warnings from the group against documentation. With news of the action out in the world, the group was content to call it a success and quickly dissipated into the growing night, leaving behind two battered statues and one pissed-off university president.
On June 23, BIPOC Liberation Collective held a planned march beginning in Eugene’s more-affluent South HIlls. That evening, just under 100 people marched to Mayor Lucy Vinis’ home, banging pots and pans. After causing a ruckus outside of her fenced-in home, the mayor came out and addressed the crowd.
Simultaneously, protest security had spotted EPD officers in riot gear assembling a few blocks over. After a brief conversation in front of the main group, Vinis, along with a few members of BLC, security, and a couple of journalists, including myself, walked a ways downhill. At the base, Vinis made a phone call, apparently calling-off EPD’s mobilization, and the crowd left shortly thereafter. However, unbeknownst to us down the hill, protesters had burned their signs to ashes on her driveway.
Here, Lucy Vinis called on the wisdom of past mayors of Eugene and attempted to open a dialogue with the protesters that had come to her doorstep. In this sense, Vinis was more Les Anderson than Jim Torrey; she hoped that the citizens of her town would stand down if only they felt like they were being heard.
Meanwhile, the police were on standby, ready to intervene at the slightest sign of unrest.
A few days later, on June 26, Black Unity held a protest beginning at Splash! at Lively Park in Springfield. Marching through neighborhoods, BU leadership and the crowd of a few hundred grew irritated with the counter-protesters and multiple lines of Springfield police officers in riot gear and decided to move the protest downtown to the Springfield Library.
Now, I, frankly, have no idea what instigated this, but out of nowhere everyone started running through the parking garage towards Main St.
SPD cut them off through an alleyway and almost immediately deployed their sound cannon. The crowd didn’t stay long, though, and soon began running again in an attempt to cut-off SPD. They managed to get to Main St. and I almost immediately saw the first assault by SPD that night. SPD then confiscated the keys to BU’s truck that was leading the protest but gave them back soon after.
The night was still young and counter-protesters became tearing up-and-down the street, revving their motorcycle engines. Eventually, a brawl between the two groups ensued and SPD intervened. After some time, and another advancement on BLM protesters, specifically, by SPD, people left.
On June 28, BU held a children’s-oriented march through Eugene neighborhoods and thinking that I wouldn’t have much to report on, decided to take one of the few days-off during that summer.
Around 7:30 p.m., I heard that a car had driven through the crowd as they crossed through a roundabout and struck BU’s then-leader Isiah Wagoner, as he shielded his daughter. Protesters followed the car to an apartment complex and remained there until EPD eventually arrested the driver, Travis Waleri.
Months later, a grand jury chose to not indict Waleri, however, he was cited for “careless driving, failure to stop and remain stopped for a pedestrian and driving the wrong way in a traffic circle.”
As June turned to July, the unrest continued to grow, and officials began scrambling to put Band-Aids on the systemic issues people were protesting.
Simultaneously, on June 30, Governor Kate Brown banned the use of tear gas except for when “unlawful assemblies” are declared a riot.
This did nothing to prevent the use of chemical munitions.
Inmates at the Lane County Jail launched a hunger strike over unsafe conditions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic on July 1, which would last until mid-September. Tear gas was deployed and one person was arrested during a demonstration that night after protesters set off fireworks and attempted to burn an American flag on the property.
On July 15, a small group once again vandalized EPD headquarters, only to be swiftly arrested and thrown in the Lane County Jail. Those arrested that night later reported mistreatment by arresting officers and brutal conditions at the jail.
While Eugene had yet to see the sort of nightly street battles that had begun to grow commonplace in Portland, it seemed almost inevitable that a similar situation would soon erupt in Eugene. After the riots in May, EPD and protest groups had managed to work out a sort of uneasy peace, but with demonstrations occuring on a near daily basis, it was only a matter of time before the police would start pushing back. The arrests of July 15 suggested that their patience was wearing thin.
There were also early signs that the city’s protest movement was beginning to fracture along ideological lines. Groups like Black Unity were holding protests and marches on the daily, but the more radical members of the city’s activist scene were growing weary of these “marches to nowhere.”
There were complaints about BU’s seeming willingness to work with police and, of course, the murmurings of counter-revolutionary activity growing inside and outside the city. Minor confrontations with right-wing MAGA-types during BLM marches signaled a growing reaction against the movement for Black lives in Eugene.
By the end of July, the unrest in the Northwest had reached a fever pitch. Law enforcement agents with the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals essentially invaded Portland, causing widespread outcry and leading groups to call for a nationwide day of action on July 25 in solidarity with the embattled city.
And Eugene answered the call.
July 25 started out, seemingly, like any of the other peaceful protests by Black Unity that started at the Federal Courthouse. Beginning at 8 p.m., Eugene’s “Wall of Moms,” a smaller version of Portland’s, showed up along with an approximate 400 people.
A little over 20 minutes into the rally, 50-or-so MAGA-loving counter-protesters marched across the street and confronted the large crowd.
Holding homemade shields emblazoned with “Stop The Division,” “We All Matter,” “We Stand Strong,” and “We Stand Stronger,” in red, white, and blue lettering, the counter-protesters antagonized and raised tensions. A little later, a gun was fired, and, when the counter-protesters began to leave the rally alone, a man driving a pickup truck stopped and drew his weapon to which someone in the protest drew theirs in response.
After I heard the gunshot and tasted mace in the air, I became certain someone was going to die. As people scuffled throughout the crowd, I watched a man with poor trigger discipline hold a combat shotgun by his side and scream obscenities at antifascists.
The entire confrontation lasted maybe half an hour, but it felt like an eternity.
Now incensed, the protesters not only pushed out the MAGA-folk, but marched onwards to the Lane County Jail. There, some sort of smoke grenades were detonated in the front of the building before moving on towards downtown.
After setting trash cans on fire along the way, and smashing-up Wells Fargo and Whole Foods, the crowd marched onward and targeted Elk Horn Brewery. Shortly thereafter, EPD appeared with several vehicles of riot gear-clad officers not far behind. Eight people were arrested, including a minor who was released shortly after.
With no place left to go, the protesters marched into a residential neighborhood and were, almost immediately after leaving the main road, were tear gassed — however, mostly members of the press were hit.
From that point, the crowd dissipated into smaller groups and then into nothing.
The next day, Black Unity and Eugene’s protest crowd went back out to the Federal Courthouse, but this time in explicit “response to being tear gassed last night,” one protester said.
A number of counter-protesters soon showed up and instigated a few incidents but the crowd pressed onwards to the jail. Once there, the situation went awry when protesters began confronting a man, self-identifying as “press” with a sticker on his WWII-style helmet and a revolver holstered to his waist.
Notably, DSM’s Janusz Malo had pointed him out to me earlier at the Federal Courthouse as “super sus.”
He turned out to be right when, after having been called-out by countless protesters and getting his phone swatted away, the man pulled-out his firearm and leveled it at peoples heads. He was subsequently chased out of the area and arrested by EPD.
Undeterred by what had happened, the crowd pressed forward towards the train tracks behind the jail. Before they arrived, a line of riot cops formed a line with reinforcements in SUVs behind them.
After a standoff, EPD grew impatient and began to shine a blindingly bright light towards the crowd, at one point using a strobe feature which, in fact, induced a seizure for one protester. By the time EPD acknowledged the medical emergency and offered help, protest medics had taken them away.
After some time, BU leadership was able to walk up and speak with a commanding officer. With people in the crowd disgruntled, someone came up and said “this is looking bad for us, we need to go,” so, they did. Arriving back at the federal courthouse just before 2 a.m., everybody went home.
The events of that weekend left the city reeling. It was far from the most destructive night Eugene had seen, but it set in motion a series of events that would eventually alter the power dynamics on Eugene’s streets.
Most immediately, it shifted the tenor of the response to the unrest. The Mayor, Council and the Chief of Police held a press conference and condemned the property damage while all but ignoring the severe escalation and excessive force used by EPD. Clear lines were being drawn by city officials about which groups they viewed as legitimate. There was a brief mention of the fascists that had crashed the protest and fired guns into the air, but almost all of the blame was put on “a small group that was not with the larger group.”
Though earlier events in Springfield had hinted at it, J25 was the first major instance of Lane County’s nascent militia movement acting as a parapolice force toward left-wing protesters.
But the sudden appearance of far-right counter-protesters felt jarring at the time, and spoke to the growing divide between Eugene’s urban center and the rural communities that made up the rest of Lane County. The handmade shields, which bore similar messages in similar color schemes, revealed that there was a reactionary force now operating in Lane County – one that was more organized and prepared for unrest than anyone seemed to realize at the time.
But that would come later. For a few days at the end of July, Eugene was back, baby!
Despite the stern condemnation from city officials regarding the events of J25, Eugene’s newest generation seemed ready to become as ungovernable as their comrades up north. Even though there were disagreements about tactics and optics among the various street protest factions, they, collectively speaking, had built some momentum by the end of July. The increasingly heavy handed response to protests by EPD had galvanized the movement and swelled its numbers. Public opinion began to turn against EPD, which generally enjoys a favorable reputation in the city, and city officials were clearly beginning to feel the heat beneath their feet.
Then, with the wind at their backs, Black Unity called for a march through Thurston to protest what most people believed to be a simulated lynching that targeted a Black familiy in the neighborhood.
And everything began to fall apart.
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