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Rick Steelhammer: Small-town BLM protests reach the home front

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When I got an email from my brother informing me that a BLM protest had taken place last Sunday in the small Central Oregon town in which we went to high school, I thought at first that he was referring to the Bureau of Land Management, which has a district office there.

It turned out he was referring to a Black Lives Matter demonstration, organized in a day or two, that prompted nearly 200 people to show up at the Crook County Courthouse to protest the death of George Floyd while being kneed in the neck by police in Minneapolis, 1,700 miles to the east.

That’s a fairly respectable crowd for Prineville, a city with a population of slightly more than 10,000, 93% of whom are white and only 0.01% are black. When I went to the county’s sole high school there, the only African Americans living in town were an Air Force recruiter and his family.

While Oregon is reputed to be a hotbed of liberalism, more than just the Cascade Mountains separate east from west. The county containing most of Portland favored Hillary Clinton by a 76% margin in 2016, while 150 miles to the east in Crook County, where Prineville is the only incorporated town, an almost equal percentage voted for Donald Trump.

Prineville remains a ranching center, clinging to its Wild West heritage, which includes the annual Crooked River Roundup, a rodeo now in its 75th year in what its boosters call “the cowboy capital of Oregon.” In the early 1900s, the area was the scene of one of the nation’s last range wars. To drive sheep producers off open grazing land, cattlemen formed the Crook County Sheep Shooters Association, which slaughtered thousands of grass-cropping wool-bearers and threatened the lives of those who tended them.

So, when I read a news account of last week’s Black Lives Matter protest in the town nearest my home (I lived 10 miles away from Prineville), I wasn’t shocked to learn one participant complained about being lassoed and released during the event. A large contingent of locals turned out to yell at and cuss out the protestors, some telling the marchers to go back to Portland, although nearly all were from Prineville or nearby Central Oregon towns.

The only citations issued were for traffic violations, including one person who watched the unusual event unfold from a moving car, crashed into a parked vehicle and was ticketed for driving while distracted. No one was jailed or injured.

Prineville, one of America’s least likely settings for a Black Lives Matter protest, became one of more than 580 American towns and cities to hold BLM demonstrations last week. Like many of the events, according to a Time.com article that appeared Friday, it was organized by a handful of young people of color who live in the area, know how to effectively use social media, and want to make it known that they cannot let racism or police overreach keep happening without stepping forward.

That 150 or so white people from the home front showed up to make it known that the national situation regarding race is no longer someone else’s problem was heartening.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, july 11, 2020

Bias, Mary - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Bsharah, Mary - 11 a.m., St. George Orthodox Cathedral.

Burkhart, Charlotte - 11 a.m., Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, Glasgow.

Cain, Dennis - 1 p.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Grantsville.

Holcomb, William - 10 a.m., Sunset Cemetery, Bickmore.

King, Ruth - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home, Nitro.

McLeod, Julius - 3 p.m., streaming live, see obituary.

Null,  Virginia -11 a.m., Haven of Rest Memorial Gardens, Red House.

Parsons, Olivia - 5 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.

Pauley, William - 2 p.m., Kelly's Creek Community Church, Sissonville.

Surratt, Carol - 11 a.m.,  Tyler Mountain Funeral Home, Cross Lanes.

Webb, Betty - 3 p.m., Loudendale Freewill Baptist Church.