NEWPORT — On Wednesday, June 3, hundreds of people gathered at Newport City Hall and marched down Highway 101 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
A noon protest at city hall brought a diverse, multi-generational crowd of several hundred people, spurred by the killing of George Floyd last week by a Minneapolis police officer, which was captured on video by a bystander. Floyd, a black man, died after Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes — two after Floyd became unresponsive, according to a criminal complaint charging Chauvin with third-degree murder. On Wednesday, that charge was enhanced to second-degree murder, and three officers who looked on as Floyd was killed were charged as accessories. All four had already been fired from the police force.
Protests nationwide since the killing, though overwhelmingly peaceful, if marked by rage, have also been marred by violence, with many reports of vandalism and looting, as well as unprovoked escalation and excessive force by law enforcement. In many cities, including the nation’s capital, curfews have been imposed, and National Guardsmen have been deployed.
Demonstrators in Newport Wednesday filled city hall’s lawn and the sidewalk of adjacent blocks, and more than once took to the highway, requiring Newport police officers to provide traffic control as the protest moved north to march around the Lincoln County Courthouse. Other than an occasional escort, officers kept their distance, though they did mingle some with the crowd in friendly conversation.
Although the shouted slogans were serious and often angry, there was an air of friendly solidarity among attendees. Most held signs, some bearing Floyd’s photograph. Reactions from passersby were overwhelmingly supportive — some held out Black Lives Matter signs through sunroofs, and many loudly honked their horns — but there were a few tense moments and profanities exchanged with detractors.
University of Oregon student Jenny Reyes, a Newport native and graduate of Newport High, organized the protest. “I’m here because I think the system needs to be challenged,” Reyes said. “I think we need to focus on this right now above everything else, and we really need to challenge other people’s views. I just want change. I want justice, not just for George Floyd, but for everybody who has died because of police brutality. I’m angry, and I hope that you’re angry too, and I hope that motivates you to do something.”
Reyes said she was struck by the size of the gathering. “I didn’t expect this many people to show up, so thank you to those who did,” she said.
Among those who did was State Rep. David Gomberg. “It’s encouraging to see so many people out here today expressing their passions in a such a constructive way. It may seem like Minneapolis or even Portland is a long, long way from downtown Newport, (but) we continue to face challenges here as well, with people of color, with sexual minorities, with religious minorities. And if we are looking for constructive, productive change, that needs to be systemic, but it also needs to start with each one of us individually.”
Newport City Councilor Cynthia Jacobi was also in attendance, along with Councilor Diana Hinton, of the Lincoln City City Council. “I am glad to be here today with a crowd of people who are here because they care about our country. I think it’s a time when we need to be extraordinarily kind to each other” Jacobi said. Hinton said, “I’m here today in Newport to support the message that Black Lives Matter. With everything going on, we have to take time out to preserve everyone’s right to speak out and care for one another. Give each other an air hug.”
Another attendee, Bersa Hernandez-Ruiz, of Newport, said he was surprised at the size and makeup of the crowd. “For a small community like this, this makes me really proud. From growing up not seeing a lot of people of color, now to seeing all this,” Hernandez-Ruiz said. “My parents are immigrants, and I’m proud to be supporting my brothers from the black community as a person of color.”
Protesters marched a circuit a half-mile north and back to city hall, and a smaller contingent kept moving south down 101, crossing the bridge to South Beach before parading back to city hall to rejoin the demonstration.
Reyes said she hopes to hold more protests, although with college finals approaching, she also hopes to get some help with organizing those events.