After a busy but peaceful afternoon, surreal twilight prevailed in downtown June 1 as citizens stood watch in an unprecedented scene of nervous camaraderie following release of a social media threat to “riot and loot,” in downtown Hood River.
The message was taken seriously by police, who worked with Chamber of Commerce to get word to merchants to be aware of the threat, which read in part: “Do anything in your power to make some noise ... (no more) being peaceful we the people have the chance to make a change to go downtown Hood River at 9 p.m. we bout (sic) to shake (it) up.”
The night was “pretty quiet,” Hood River Police spokesman Don Cheli said. No disturbances were reported, he said.
The noisiest instance might have been the loud roar of four high-end motorcycles, their riders tearing off after visiting a downtown watering hole.
June 1 events began with a large rally at 5 p.m. on State Street and march down Oak Street, far larger than a similar event Sunday at the same location.
About 700 people lined both sides of State for two blocks, centered in front of Riverside Community Church at Fourth, which had originally planned a smaller event pastor Vicky Stifter termed a “vigil.”
Moments of silence were heard, the names were read aloud of dozens of people who had died in recent years as a result of police violence. Celilo Wyam tribal member Lana Jack drummed a prayer and the group sang “We Shall Overcome” following speeches and call-and-response chants including “Enough is enough! It is time for real change!”
Cheli said June 2 that police are not aware of any planned protests, adding, “We’re doing business as usual, not doing something special. As far as threats we do see, we take those very seriously, and are looking into every one of those to determine if they are legitimate or not.”
He addressed the response on the afternoon of June 1 to the social media-born threat to Hood River.
“Our message was we called the chamber, and said, ‘There is this threat, we are looking into the legitimacy of it, we want store owners to be aware and make decisions for what they want to do. We did not tell anyone to close, or to board up their windows. Some stores made that decision on their own. Our objective was to let store owners know there is this threat, and if is legitimate we don’t want anyone to get hurt.
“Until we can 100 percent confirm that it is not legitimate we’re not going to take the chance about not getting the message to the public about potential dangers,” Cheli said June 2.
“We are not encouraging people to come down and man their shops,” Cheli said Monday. “We are discouraging people from putting themselves in harm’s way to protect their businesses and we’re working with (the County Sheriff) and The Dalles and Oregon State Police,” Cheli said.
“That was the biggest thing was keeping everyone safe. We don’t want people rushing down to put themselves in harm’s way if something bad were to happen.”
On June 3, about 150 people blocked the exit 63 overpass bridge for nine minutes as a demonstration of support for the memory of George Floyd of Minneapolis. The 6:30 p.m. event started with a 150-person rally at Second and State streets and was the third protest action this week in Hood River by Gorge residents.
Oregon State Police responded, followed by Hood River Police Chief Neal Holste.
OSP initially asked the protesters to move, according to organizer Rosie Strange.
“At that point, we started the chant ‘I Can’t Breath’,” the last words of George Floyd, Strange said.
“We had coordinated our own traffic control,” she said. While the protesters remained in place, an adult spoke with a trooper and explained that they planned to remain in place for the full nine minutes, and the trooper agreed.
Strange read the transcript of Floyd’s last words before he was choked to death May 25 by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, which has sparked more than a week of demonstrations and protests around the country and globally.
Holste said he parked his vehicle in the south end of the bridge to protect the group while OSP blocked the intersection from the north.
“They were doing it peacefully and we gave them some time,” Holste said. “They wanted to make a point and they chose a pretty good place because we could protect them.” Holste said drivers were cooperative in detouring east to exit 64.
The protesters met with several shouted insults, and one driver revved her vehicle and accelerated and suddenly braked in what protesters viewed as a threatening manner.
Law enforcement had not ordered them to move, according to a group of demonstrators interviewed as they left the location.
“They protected us and let us stay,” said demonstrator Teryn Maccabee. “I expected them to tell us something but they were respectful. That’s what I would expect anyone to do,” said participant Chloe Bullack.
The group walked north to Second and Riverside and dispersed after a small celebration of the fact that it had gone peacefully, according to Strange.
Of the June 1 vigil-turned-large-demonstration, Stifter said, “We were not expecting such a large crowd. When we began planning on Friday, we envisioned a small group gathering to stand together in prayer — perhaps only a handful of us from Riverside,” Stifter said. “No matter the numbers, we felt called to speak out and to publicly witness to our heartbreak at the murder of George Floyd, and so many others. We were deeply moved by the community response and feel blessed to be living in a community that is committed to loving ALL of its neighbors.”
Strange, who had organized a rally Sunday attended by 250 people, led the march on Monday.
“We have to stand up and fight. Let’s inconvenience some people. Let’s let them see it’s too much, they have to see it, they have to know this!” Then, calling out “No more deaths,” she led approximately 250 people down Sixth to State, up Second to the Overlook Memorial Fountain Park, where about 100 people rallied for another half-hour.
Calls and responses included “No Justice — No Peace!”
The parade passed groups of merchants and friends starting to gather in front of stores and at least one merchant putting up plastic coverings on the windows.
The march paused for 10-15 minutes at Oak and Second, filling one of the town’s busiest intersections. The scene intensified when a large utility vehicle nudged a small group of women blocking the right turn from Second onto Oak. Protesters surrounded the truck, jeering at the driver, who then started to back up but was blocked by protesters to his rear. Strange and others interceded and the driver was able to turn north, which he did, with revved engine and squealing tires.
Asked about suggestions that the police might have overreacted, Cheli said, “There were a few different social media posts that I don’t know if the public saw.”
Some men armed with firearms, baseball bats and axe handles were seen walking the streets and patrolling in vehicles. At corners and in front of shops, local citizens stood watch.
Cheli said officers made contact with some of them, to discuss their intent.
“It’s part of constitutional right, we understand that. We were keeping an eye on it, making sure people were being respectful and civil, We know it makes people uncomfortable but it’s within their rights.
“We did talk with them, it was a very good talk, both sides very, very understanding. Mostly they were asking, ‘Where do you need our help?’ and we explained we had things under control and didn’t need anyone’s help. We told them we had a lot of support from other Gorge agencies and we didn’t need any more assistance.”
One resident reported this incident: “Three of the men walking through downtown to ‘protect’ it walked past my friends’ house ... They had a pride flag flying. These men screamed homophobic slurs at the house. My two friends were scared. These gun-carrying homophobes will be hailed as heroes for ‘protecting’ the town, while they were terrorizing innocent LGBTQ folks.”
Downtown merchants did take steps to protect their property. Walmart was closed by late afternoon and a bulwark of stacked crates and boxes covered the doors and windows. At Big Winds, picnic tables were protectively lain against the windows. Pacific on Oak Street covered its windows in black tarp.
“Not sure how effective it is, but I needed to do something,” said Matt Swihart of Double Mountain Brewery, who parked his trucks and a forklift on the sidewalk in front of his building on Fourth Street.
Around the corner, at the United States Post Office, Postmaster Cory Williams boarded up the doors and windows at 6:30 p.m. Monday, removing them just before daylight. The post office lobby, normally open for post office box users, was inaccessible.
Mostly people stood in protective groups, shop owners and friends, many keeping the lights on and standing or sitting at ready.
“Can’t very well sit at home while this is happening,” said Matt Johnston of Boda’s Kitchen, who with his wife, Sirota, were joined by four friends in foldable chairs in front of the shop.
Andrew McElderry of Andrew’s Pizza stood with friends in front of his store, saying the threat had raised tensions and he saw little option but to be present.
Cheli said, “Law enforcement in the Gorge are aware of the threat, and hopefully it will remain peaceful but we’re trying to maintain safety.”
Regarding peaceful protests such as those Sunday and Monday, “We’re taking a non-confrontational approach,” he said. Officers stayed away from the events, even though streets were blocked in several instances for anywhere between one and 10 minutes.
“Technically, you can’t to do that, asking everyone to stay off the streets and let people pass through. Just be respectful to other people,” Cheli said. “There is freedom of speech, people have the right to have their voices be heard, but we’re asking people to be safe about it and asking they respect everybody’s property and that they respect each other.”
He added that the State Street afternoon gathering “was very respectful, very peaceful and we appreciate that. When they did get in the road, it was a very short time. We don’t condone that, but it was done in a peaceful manner and it turned out to be a very well put together protest.”
In a press release published Tuesday evening, the Hood River Police Department stated that they are “outraged” by the incident that took place in Minneapolis, where an African American man was killed by a police officer on May 25. Said Police Chief Neal Holste, “We do not and will never condone that type of behavior or recklessness from our police officers who have sworn an oath to protect people ... Our nation is a nation of pain, frustration and sadness and we must learn from this.”