How Eugene Was Lost
This is the final chapter 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A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.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.
And with that, it’s time to wrap things up.
All You Fascists:
The Reactionaries Take Control
It’s easy to say this now, with the benefit of hindsight, but the Thurston protest was doomed from the beginning.
As a large, animated crowd gathered at Jesse Maine Memorial Park on a day I remember being unbearably hot and humid, it was immediately clear that Black Unity and their affiliates were not nearly as welcome in Thurston as they were in Eugene. The neighbors stood at the ends of their driveways and scowled, while the Springfield Police made their presence far more apparent than their counterparts in Eugene typically did.
Before the march even began, arguments and debates began to unfold on the periphery of the park, including one lively argument between Black Unity leaders and a few counter-protesters – including Corey Wyatt, a white supremacist currently serving prison time in Idaho.
The same faces that had appeared in Eugene on the 25th were there in Thurston on the 29th, but this time they had what could be described as home-field advantage. They were empowered by the idea that Black Unity had invaded their turf and were defending the neighborhood from so-called “Antifa terrorists” and reacted as such.
Counter-protesters followed the march throughout the neighborhood, only peeling off once the crowd of some 200 people came up against a barricade set up by Springfield police. They instead took up positions behind the police lines and waited for things to unfold.
What followed was a brutal confrontation between police and counter-protesters. There was no tear gas, just raw physical violence, much of which was captured on video and circulated online. Black Unity leader Tyshawn Ford can be seen being dragged by his legs and beaten while on his back. Others were pepper-sprayed in the eyes at close range. Seven people were arrested and several people suffered serious injuries that required transport to a hospital.
The police assault shocked and dazed the protesters, who made a messy, disorganized retreat back toward Jesse Maine Park. The counter-protesters, smelling blood in the water, returned to harass the scattered protesters. With the night turning into a big chaotic scrum of arguments and threats, Black Unity called it a night and urged people to leave the neighborhood before things escalated further.
But the counter-protesters wouldn’t let people leave so easily, not before taking a few shots of their own. At the end of the night, a member of the Eugene Wall of Moms was assaulted by Geena (Shipman) Hager, leaving the protest medic with a serious concussion. Meanwhile, Hager’s future partner, Rob Davis, captured the license plates of cars leaving the neighborhood.
Hager would be arrested and charged the following day, but was released soon after. It would not be the last anyone heard from her.
Even journalists covering the protest were intimidated by the far-right counter-protesters, including one moment where a man holding a baseball bat quizzed me about my political affiliations.
That night, someone hilariously decided to vandalize my car with a Trump 2020 bumper sticker.
The events in Thurston would have far-reaching implications. In my mind, it represents the turning point of Eugene’s role in the Uprising. The folks that had gathered for what was going to be a peaceful march did not anticipate the hostility they would encounter in the deeply conversative neighborhood on the far-edge of the Eugene-Springfield metropolis, and were effectively beaten by a force that they far outnumbered.
Yes, the Springfield Police would come under fire for their response to the protest, eventually leading to the hiring of an outside investigator to determine whether the department acted appropriately. But Thurston led to two key developments that would effectively neuter public dissent in Eugene and Springfield.
Firstly, it caused Black Unity–who were already growing more unpopular among local radicals–to take an extended hiatus while the group licked their wounds and dealt with the legal fallout of having their leadership arrested.
Secondly–and more importantly–it boosted the confidence of the far-right militia in the area, who would quickly come to embrace their role as disruptors of the movement in Eugene.
From then on, not a single protest would occur in Eugene without some sort of far-right presence. Sometimes they would appear in force for direct confrontations. Mostly, they would stalk marches from their cars at a short distance away, always keeping an eye on events in case they found an opportunity to confront a rowdy protest march.
The next day, Black Unity leadership made the decision to not immediately return to Springfield. Instead, they took a short hiatus to deal with the legal fallout of what had happened and to focus on their leaders’ injuries — including Duane Robinson’s broken ribs and Martin Allum’s nose.
But local activists weren’t going to let SPD—or the city’s government—get away with what was, frankly, a brutal assault by the police. As a result, activists and former Black Unity leaders Isiah Wagoner and Moses Jackson formed the Minority Freedom Network.
Later that day, around 150 people marched to Mayor Christine Lundberg’s home. Undeniably taking a pointer from when Eugene’s mayor was confronted at home the month prior, Lundberg stepped-outside. She spoke for a brief time, and Wagoner, as the crowd was about to leave asked her for a departing “Black Lives Matter.”
Lundberg replied “Black lives matter, and all lives matter,” prompting more condemnation from the crowd as they left.
It’s hard to imagine that listening to Lundberg talk out of both sides of her mouth didn’t arouse some cynicism among the marchers, who were furious about both the civilian and police reaction to Thurston. There was still hope that the protests would achieve institutional change at the city and county level, but that hope had begun to dwindle faster than ever.
The rally at Lundberg’s house signaled that local officials were growing weary of the constant protests and demands for change. The mayors and city councils of both Eugene and Springfield constantly reaffirmed their support of Black lives and “peaceful protest” in public statements and speeches, but refused to openly condemn their respective police departments and the growing threat posed by fascist organizing in Lane County.
But they had to do something. The people in charge knew that they had to put a lid on the city’s unrest soon. The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were not so long ago, and with the eyes of the world focused squarely on the Pacific Northwest, no one in a position of power wanted Eugene/Springfield to reclaim its old title of “Anarchist Capital of the World.”
So the cities returned to the same counter-revolutionary tactics that had proven successful throughout its history: co-optation by the liberal power structure and reactionary organization by right-wing opposition.
On Aug. 3, before the wounds suffered in Thurston had a chance to heal, a contingent of activists with the controversial American Descendants of Slavery movement held a rally in Eugene, attracting top officials from across the city, including Mayor Vinis and Chief Skinner.
The group, whose leadership has ties to anti-immigration groups, spent the afternoon crediting the city for taking steps to address policing, praising Chief Skinner for his “commitment to police reform” and arguing that calling for the abolition of police is “problematic.”
It would be the only time the group appeared in Eugene.
Don’t get me wrong. There were some other, odd, yet notable events, too.
There was the QAnon rally in Springfield that DoubleSided Media Lead Contributor Janusz Malo and I went to where we ended up being the only two people that showed up.
Then there was the really odd day where DSM Managing Editor David Galbreath and I—later joined by Eugene Weekly’s Taylor Griggs—went to New Hope BIble College where the Oregon Patriots Militia had been asked to run security for an outdoor church service, citing vague online threats by Antifa.
After thinking over what transpired and reviewing the footage, I, and others, believe it to have been a failed trap to entice the antifascists into an ambush.
Though I wasn’t there for that supposed Antifa trap, I think that was around the time I began to suspect that the far-right militia presence in Eugene was a little more savvy, and therefore more dangerous, than I imagined.
The trap itself was pretty silly. I can’t imagine any antifascists that would make the trek out to Bailey Hill to supposedly vandalize a 51-foot-tall concrete cross located on acres of private property guarded by hostile and paranoid militia in the middle of the afternoon. Antifascists–the well-prepared ones, at least–are obsessed with blending-in and having an escape plan in case things get spicy. Black bloc, as a tactic, does not work in wide-open grassy fields. If this really was an antifascist trap, it showed that the militia did not yet understand their opponents or how they operated.
But the fact that the militia tried to lay a trap in the first place signaled that things were quickly changing in the battle for the streets of Eugene.
It would not be the last time local fascists employed this tactic.
On Aug. 5, the United Anarchists and Communists of Eugene, Oregon held their first—and so far only—protest beginning at the federal courthouse.
Earlier that same day, news broke that EPD was making the first batch of arrests stemming from the May 29 riot, sweeping up and charging 11 people with felony charges. It was also the same day that a grand jury declined to press charges in the Travis Waleri hit-and-run case.
In other words, it was an ideal moment for an upstart radical group to make a stand against a police force that was seemingly taking revenge on anti-police protesters.
Shortly after the smaller crowd began marching, around 50 counter-protesters appeared from in-between two abandoned buildings and began to follow closely.
The crowd marched to the county jail, did their thing, and were, once again, confronted by counter-protesters — one even did a Sieg Heil. After a while of back-and-forth, the counter-protesters fell behind and the protest ended with people leaving to go home.
Of all the protests I’d seen throughout the summer, this one came closest to being a massacre. The little march they called for on Aug. 5 was sparsely attended–for a while, it seemed there were more journalists than protesters there that night–but it attracted a considerable response from the newly empowered far-right street gangs. Geena Hager, Rob Davis and their patriotic street gang once again appeared to lead the far-right opposition and this time, they had the numbers on their side.
But things quieted down a bit after Aug. 5.
With EPD eagerly hunting down participants in the May riots and the local TV news channels seemingly tripping over themselves to help out, the various protest groups took themselves off the street for a little while. After building considerable momentum, Eugene suddenly found itself in a vacuum.
Small protests and events popped up throughout the fall, usually organized autonomously by unknown anarchist types. Most of these were short marches or vigils outside the jail or in various parks around town. Speakers at these impromptu events, sensing the sea change in the Uprising, practically begged people to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting for leaders to organize marches and actions.
But for the most part, no one seemed willing to do so. As the nights grew longer and the air grew colder, the widespread anger and demands for justice that had sent thousands of people into the streets seemed to vanish all at once.
On Aug. 7, Isiah Wagoner—who had left Black Unity by this point—led a “Justice for Isiah” march through the neighborhood where he was previously struck by Travis Waleri and his car. Insisting throughout the march that this wasn’t a campaign event, Wagoner repeatedly launched into political speeches. He would announce his candidacy for mayor three four days later.
The next day, a “March for Black Trans Lives” was held by both Eugene Pride and Black Unity. Several hundred people gathered and the overly-peaceful event that ended at Skinner Butte Park was only majorly interrupted once when a counter-protester, who had been following the march, nearly hit a car and almost flipped over his own truck.
On Aug. 24, a leaderless group of protesters took to the streets in solidarity with Kenosha, Wisconsin where Jacob Blake was shot seven times and paralyzed below the waist.
Gina (Hager) Shipman and Corey Eugene Wyatt both confronted the crowd and, in front of Jameson’s Bar, were surrounded. Shipman’s cell phone was snatched out of her hand and a chase down the street ensued. It ended after the phone snatcher turned around and punched Shipman in the head and a brief scuffle on the asphalt.
Geena sure stopped showing her face around Eugene for a while after that.
A few days later on Aug. 28, the city was blessed by the presence of the Portland protest’s Caesar the No Drama Llama during the “March in Solidarity with the D.C. Commitment Rally.”
On the other side, local MAGA and “patriot” types began making themselves more and more public. In the middle of August, far-right and fascist groups like The American Patriot Society and We the People of Lane County hosted a cookout and rally in downtown Springfield, where the who’s who of local fascists attempted to solidify their regular presence in the community.
Things became really interesting on the counter-protester side on Sept. 4 when a flyer for a pop-up anti-racist protest was privately circulated around. Very few showed up — but the counter-protesters, including currently incarcerated Proud Boy, Alan Swinney, arrived in numbers, and armed with mostly paintball guns.
These are important developments.
As left-wing activists in the city struggled to maintain their momentum, local reactionaries continued to build upon their minor successes by making attempts to legitimize themselves as a faction around Eugene.
And they started using the left’s playbook.
While their primary focus continued to be confronting and countering left-wing activity around Eugene, the local fascist groups began expanding their scope as well. When the Holiday Farm Fire broke out in early September, flooding Springfield with evacuees from the Mohawk and McKenzie Valleys, we discovered that the local so-called “patriot” groups were beginning to organize mutual aid networks for evacuees. They even set up their own street medic tent.
As absurd rumors about antifascists sparking Oregon’s wildfires began to proliferate on Facebook, their presence increased. The same faces who had spent months threatening protesters in Eugene were seen patrolling evac centers and confronting volunteers that they believed to be affiliated with “Antifa.”
Once again, no one confronted them. Their presence was cautiously accepted by stressed-out and overworked locals. The fascists made themselves right at home.
By mid-September, the Lane County Jail wised-up to the repeated visits by protests and began to erect a wall surrounding the plaza.
These appeared to be defensive measures against a new wave of unrest that people believed would follow in the wake of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s decision not to prosecute the cops who killed Breonna Taylor in Louisville.
On Sept. 23, the night of the announcement, Black Unity once again took to the streets in solidarity with Louisville and other cities. But unlike past BU marches, a subset of protesters openly declared that they were sick of marching around without doing anything and set off on their own march through town.
The smaller group dragged mattresses and trash cans into the street while being followed by what had become an omnipresent fascist street patrol. Once the group marched onto the University of Oregon campus, a tense standoff ensued between the fascists and the protesters, with EPD officers waiting nearby in riot gear in case things got out of hand. The group briefly considered making a stand on the street outside the EMU, but ultimately decided to split off into the night.
The following day, EPD announced they had arrested a couple of protesters for minor misdemeanors.
Another confrontation followed a week later, when a pair of unmarked lifted pickup trucks menaced a Black Unity march in downtown Eugene. The standoff was brief, but it was yet more proof that the far-right elements had essentially taken over policing protests in the city.
All the while, the city was channeling energy into further co-opting the righteous anger of the protests into the newly formed Council Ad-Hoc Committee on Police Policy, who began holding meetings in late Sept.
The committee, which included representatives from Black Unity as well as a nearly a dozen other non-profit and advocacy groups representing marginalized people from around the city–plus the police department–was tasked with recommending reforms to EPD’s standards, though those recommendations are explicitly non-binding.
Spooky Season brought the second major thing to happen on the University of Oregon campus. On Oct. 4, members of ReclaimUO chained themselves to Johnson Hall — the administrative building that houses President Michael Schill’s office.
Their demands were that the UO:
1. Disarm the University of Oregon Police Department.
2. Divest from fossil fuels
3. Democratize the Board of Trustees.
Though the occupation was relatively brief, the pressure did lead to modest changes within the university police department, namely a small reduction in the number of armed police and the hiring of new unarmed “community service officers” in plain clothes. President Schill also claimed that there would be more reforms to the department’s policies, but those have yet to materialize.
This is not what the protesters demanded, obviously, but it was yet another sign that local leaders were willing to concede tiny reforms if it meant tamping down vigorous unrest.
A couple of days later, on Oct. 6, Black Unity took to the streets for their “The Myth of Reverse Racism” march beginning at University Park.
Starting late, the march was preceded by a quick speech by one of BU’s lead security men who identified himself as their official police liasion. He outlined his role and said that if anything were to happen, protesters were to go to him instead of directly to the police.
As the crowd marched through the UO campus, I remember remarking to other press about having never seen so many cops—both EPD and UOPD—in front, and behind us.
After getting home and beginning to digest what had happened that night, the cop presence and the earlier “police liaison” announcement clicked-together.
The next day, BU went on the defense as people began to ask about the prior day’s events and police connection. BU responded saying that they weren’t aware of their security’s communications.
Three days later, on Oct. 9, BU led the “Justice for Jonathan Price” march through the UO campus. This time, though, BU acknowledged the large number of UOPD cruisers following the crowd and said that they were “unwanted.”
By November, even these occasional weekly protests fell off. Those contentious days ahead of the election, during which the whole country seemed ready to seize each other by the throats, were mostly quiet in Eugene. The city’s liberals, who had mostly ceased participating in street protests, also organized a tone-deaf and extremely embarrassing “Rally for Democracy” in front of the federal courthouse after it became clear that Donald Trump had lost the election. It brought out much of the city and county leadership, including law enforcement, as if to draw distinct lines as to which rallies were endorsed.
Even after the election–which seems so long ago now–there were only minor “Stop the Steal” demonstrations that were sparsely attended.
But the fascists continued to creep into positions of influence around the city.
On Nov. 8, hundreds of MAGA protesters rallied at Oregon’s capitol in Salem, Oregon for a “Stop The Steal” rally. In a since-deleted post on Instagram, members of the University of Oregon College Republicans were photographed with Proud Boy flags in the background.
In the post they said, “CR’s showing support at the Salem rally yesterday!”
A couple of weeks later, the college’s student government sought to discipline the political club for not only attending, and supporting a rally that not only supported widely unproven conspiracies of election fraud, but did so with selfie prominently featuring Proud Boy imagery as their backdrop.
Many called for their deplatforming as a student group and revoking their funding via student’s incidental-fees.
On Nov. 24, the university’s student government, the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, or ASUO, senate unanimously passed a resolution to condemn white supremacy.
Despite where the group decided to take, and position, their selfie, UOCR’s president Will Christensen said that their “efforts at this rally have nothing to do with an endorsement of the Proud Boys.”
Unbeknownst to most prior to UOCR’s presence at the rally and it’s ensuing controversy, the political club had published a—also since deleted—interview with a leader of a Texan chapter of the Proud Boys.
On Dec. 19, UOCR’s political director, Isiah De Alba, went on Fox & Friends and defended his club’s actions with host Jedediah Bila — the former conservative voice at The View prior to Megan McCain.
During the interview, Parsa Aghel’s opinion-piece, ”It’s time for the University of Oregon College Fascists to go,” was incorrectly broadcast as an editorial by the Daily Emerald. During the short segment, De Alba reiterated that the UOCR would not condemn the Proud Boys.”
De Alba similarly defended the club during that ASUO meeting and said that “we do our best to provide neutrality within our own political reason for the simple fact that not everyone who goes to our club meet or are associated with our club thinks the same.”
In the end, the student government, citing limited powers, was unable to levy consequences on the student group.
The shooting of Muhsin Sharif by EPD officers on Nov. 30 briefly brought anti-police feelings back to the streets of Eugene, but little was done in response to the shooting beyond a candlelit vigil and a single Black Unity-led march through the Whiteaker – which was again vigorously harassed by fascist counter-protesters.
It would be the last notable protest in Eugene for several months.
Meanwhile, the far-right and fascist agitators from Lane County began to pop up around the state. Geena Davis and her crew were spotted at several protests at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, which grew increasingly violent as Trump supporters doubled-down on their belief that they had been robbed of electoral victory.
Tim Davis, one of the leaders of a fascist group calling themselves The American Patriot Society–and who I caught on video in Thurston threatening to come to my house–was spotted at the D.C. Capitol insurrection, as well as several protests in Portland and Salem.
All this culminated in the fascist rally on Jan. 9, where we finally admitted to ourselves that Eugene had been lost.
With over 150 years of this city’s history now filed away in various parts of my brain, I like to believe that I have a good idea of which direction Eugene is headed.
And yet, I find it impossible to predict what happens next.
I’m in the same boat. I think it’s easy—when looking at Eugene’s history from a distance—to see where this current cycle is headed.
Throughout its past, Eugene seems to have adhered to a cycle of progress and reaction about every decade or so. For every decade that brings some positive change or some acknowledgement of past mistakes, there seems to follow a decade of backlash and desperate attempts to push back against the inevitable march of progress.
But Eugene’s recent history isn’t so clean. There hasn’t been a proper citizen-level reactionary movement in local affairs since the early ‘90s–most of the backlash against Eugene’s various movements have come from local, state, and federal law enforcement. Whatever dissent the police could not crush was slowly co-opted by politicians and repackaged as election-friendly reforms.
Through this research, it’s clear to both of us by now that Eugene’s history is, literally, just a really long game of tug-of-war. Sometimes it’s between citizens in the form of protesters and counter-protesters and other times it’s between citizens and their government.
I happen to think that dark days lie ahead for the city. The organized fascist movement in Eugene-Springfield has seized the initiative and successfully ingrained themselves as a consistent presence in the area. Antiracist, anticapitalist, and antifascist work in Eugene is still being undertaken in earnest–especially in defense of the unhoused–but much of their focus has remained on building mutual aid networks and surveilling the growing far-right presence in Lane County, rather than confronting it head-on.
And that growing far-right presence will almost certainly begin to influence politics in Eugene. We’re already seeing it happen, with at least once City Councilor openly embracing far-right agitators during public meetings. Even those who are not explicitly sympathetic to right-wing causes are showing signs that they’ve grown weary of activists that demand the bare minimum from elected officials.
I tend to agree, and, I’ve spoken with MG about how I see things playing out in the future.
In gist, I believe that while we will see a liberal, more progressive shift in politics at the national level, things aren’t going to look so bright in Eugene. Locally, as MG just noted above, the city’s own council members are not only sympathizing with far-right agitators, but are steering—with the support of an ever-organizing local militia—the city towards a new wave of conservatism.
Before I came here, I’d heard much about Eugene’s history of activism and left-wing politics, but never knew the details behind that reputation. After a few years of living here, I’d come to believe that it was all overblown, and that the neoliberals that now run this town had successfully painted themselves a brighter picture than was actually true.
Prior to moving here, I had, literally, heard people compare the University of Oregon to University of California, Berkeley So, naturally, I thought this was city was seriously going to be lib-central, but after living here and then seeing this latest wave of activism and protests first-hand, I know this to not be the case.
I saw glimpses of Eugene’s past and visions of its future over the course of a few hot summer days. And having seen that, it’s hard to believe that it won’t be back before long.
Thanks for reading–we wouldn’t have attempted such an expansive project if we didn’t believe that there was some merit to learning about the history of a place, both good and bad.
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…oh, shit, is it over?
I guess it’s over now.