The Big Issue in Small Town America
Starting in May 2020, sparked by racial unrest following George Floyd’s death, the city of Portland has continued to make headlines for its ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.
Just 60 miles northeast from Portland sits Monmouth. This city, with a population just under 11,000, is 80% white. Reportedly less than 600 Black Americans call this city home as the 2010 U.S. Census states 3.2% of the population identifies as Black/African American. Monmouth, like Portland, has been a location for protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The continued protests have increased residents’ involvement in Monmouth City Council as clashing political movements have caused tension in the most recent local election in 2020 focusing on racial justice.
In early June 2020, a week after the protests began in Portland, a few residents in Monmouth came together to put on a Black Lives Matter protest of their own. Starting small with only four participants on the first day, the group grew to more than 150 by the third day and maintained those numbers for the remainder of the week.
With over 93% of Black Lives Matter protests remaining peaceful according to a study released in September, residents have been steadfast in making their voices heard for the issues they deem significant.
Organized by Carol McKiel, a 65-year-old Monmouth resident and Master of Science program adviser at Oregon State University, the group of protestors started a Facebook page called Monmouth For Justice (M4J). The group decided to utilize the platform to both organize the protests and provide educational and informative articles for the community. From that first week in June until the first week of November, M4J gathered every day from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m, only recently changing the protest to Sundays from 3:00 – 4:00 p.m. The members hold signs with statements like: “Black Lives Matter. Not only, but also”; “It’s never too late to give up your prejudices”; and “White denial maintains racism. Please learn.”
Members of M4J see themselves as educators for the city, providing the residents with exposure to issues that many choose to ignore. “We’re not going to stop the oppression,” said McKiel. “However, we can at least make noise about it and we can at least bring attention to it.”
McKiel is one of two members of Monmouth For Justice that ran for city council this fall, hoping to bring the group’s firm stance against systemic racism, police brutality and the dangers of weaponizing white privilege into office with them. McKiel represents the individuals in the community that aren’t personally affected by the oppression and violence that people of color face in the country. She acknowledges that maintaining silence is an aspect of her white privilege that she no longer wants to uphold.
“I can own that I didn’t always speak up when I needed to,” said McKiel. “There were plenty of times when I fell back on my race and didn’t take the initiative. But I can’t allow myself to sleep on these issues anymore. This is something that I have to do. This isn’t something that makes me a noble person because of my involvement, it’s something that I acknowledge is my responsibility because of my privilege.”
Rebecca Salinas-Oliveros, 49, CWE Faculty and Internship Coordinator at Chemeketa Community College and M4J member, shared that her own experience being a part of the Hispanic community in Monmouth, as well as her experience in higher education, prompted her decision to run for city council. “We live in this town, we have a voice and we need to use it,” said Salinas-Oliveros.
Salinas-Oliveros expressed that the community of Monmouth hasn’t changed much since her time as an undergraduate at Western Oregon University (WOU), explaining that it’s only now that these issues are being discussed on a larger scale. “The people who are against BLM are trying to say that we’re tearing people apart,” said Salinas-Oliveros. “But no, this has always existed, people just don’t like to talk about it. People just want this to go away and to go back to their lives before all of this because their lives were ‘OK’ and they don’t have to worry about these issues.”
With similar agendas that included creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive city, McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros largely ran a campaign that backed one another. From featuring each other on their campaign flyers to mentioning the other during their door-to-door canvassing, they were constant in their support and maintained hopes that both would join the city council.
On their journey to fill two of the three open city council seats, McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros started by attending and speaking at city council meetings. Raising their concerns about the Monmouth police department, the implicit biases that plague it and suggestions about a reorganization of funds, McKiel, Salinas-Oliveros and M4J were quickly met with opposition.
In August, a group of residents from Monmouth and the neighboring towns of Dallas and Independence formed Truth and Freedom United or TFU. The group claims to have formed to provide an outlet and community for the conservative voices within Polk County. In an interview on Dec. 4, with Michael Rose of the Willamette Wake Up, a radio show on the community radio station KMUZ, TFU member Brittney Hall said that many members of the group came together out of fear surrounding the protest and the statements made to the city council. She explained that members were scared that issues like COVID-19, reorganizing police funds and social protests were now, “in their own backyards”.
While the group claimed to be “pro-freedom” and not a “Blue Lives Matter” group, members from the group held signs that read, “We back the blue” and “We trust our police,” outside of an Aug. 4 city council meeting., in response to the statements made in the previous month by McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros about the police department.
On Oct. 1, both M4J and TFU held rallies at the same place and time. The groups stayed on opposite corners and streets for the majority of the rallies. However, when they did intersect some disputes occurred.
“The Truth and Freedom people were just rude and bullies,” said Salinas-Oliveros. “They were trying to stifle our voices. Every time they covered up one of our signs, we figured out a way to show it again. Every time they covered me with one of their American flags, I found a way around it.” Salinas-Oliveros and McKiel were both present at the rally and expressed their pride that, despite some tense conversations, it never resulted in physical violence.
“All of the Truth and Freedom United members ended up on one corner,” said Salinas-Oliveros. “Why? Because Black Lives Matter supporters were not going to take their shit. They were not going to stay quiet. They were going to educate.”
Despite several attempts to create a formal dialogue between the groups, McKiel said that TFU never followed through with intentions to discuss issues and concerns with M4J. Up until recently, Truth and Freedom United maintained a private Facebook group and were only mentioned in a few articles from the local newspaper. A lack of clear leadership has allowed Truth and Freedom United to hide behind one another as they protest and oppose Monmouth for Justice, the changes that they want to make, and the Black people that finally feel seen because of it.
When the results for the 2020 elections began to roll in, McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros were maintaining hope that their consistent campaigning efforts would result in a win. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros canvassed the city of Monmouth.
On Oct. 17, the women walked several blocks within the city, knocking on doors and conversing with residents. Both women, prepared with pamphlets and clipboards, took notes on what issues people felt needed more attention from the city’s governing body. Residents expressed a wide range of concerns, from providing resources to create a more age-inclusive community, to opening schools back despite concerns of COVID-19. Out of the more than 10 residents McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros spoke to that day, the subject of race was scarcely discussed.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” said Salinas-Oliveros. “I think we tend to focus on what is affecting us directly at that time and when you are not a person of color, the Black Lives Matter issue is probably not at the top of your list of things that are affecting you directly.”
Salinas-Oliveros attributes this to people’s tendency to focus on what was happening in their own lives at that time, stating that people who didn’t bring up the race issues within the city were usually white.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused focus to shift to unprecedented challenges this year. In the face of the public health crisis, economic and social disruption has caused difficulties to many Monmouth residents who have their differing primary concerns.
“The only real concern I have right now is school,” said a Monmouth resident in conversation with Rebecca Salinas-Oliveros. “If anybody’s honest with you throughout this neighborhood and probably throughout Monmouth, they would agree. I have health issues going on, a mother-in-law at the end of her life battling Parkinson’s, and hands down, on top of all of that, my kids being in school is my main concern.”
Health and safety has become an essential part of daily life, one that can’t be ignored by certain populations in Monmouth.
“My big issue is the elderly in rural Polk County,” said a Monmouth resident in conversation with Carol McKiel. “My ex-mother-in-law is sort of just aging in place so I just wanted to know what kind of plans the city council has to support her and that community.”
And while some residents discussed genuine and real concerns for the community, it’s the lack of recognition for the additional struggles and concerns of the Black and minority residents in the city that make the aforementioned concerns seem out of touch. However, those that did raise questions and concerns about race were more likely to promise their votes to both McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros, simply because they recognized them from the daily BLM protests.
“I wore my [Oregon State University] mask at the protest and I also wore it while I was campaigning,” said McKiel. “People would go, ‘I know who you are. You’re at the Black Lives Matter aren’t you?’ and I would say, ‘Yes, I’m one of the people who started it’. Then they would say, ‘You have my vote, just keep going, keep up the hard work.’”
As the local results for the 2020 election were calculated, both McKiel and Salinas-Oliveros were voted into two of the three open city council seats in Monmouth. McKiel won with a majority 17.7% of the votes and Salinas-Oliveros with a majority 18.7% of the votes. Having begun their journey together with Monmouth For Justice and its daily protests, both women admit that their win came as a shock. The two runner-ups for the election were John Oberst and Byron Shinkle.
In an interview almost a month after their win, when asked how they felt about winning city council seats, both women paused. “It’s kind of a mixed bag for me,” said Salinas-Oliveros, discussing further that she wants to make a large influence in the community and truly wants to make changes during her four years in office. And despite being aware of the limitation her role will present, she’s hopeful because she wasn’t even sure Monmouth would vote a person of color on to the council. “I was surprised at the finishes Carol and I had, it’s really given me a lot of hope in the town and the people.”
“I gained a lot of respect for our city and our voters,” said McKiel. “I was so excited that the vote came in as high and as clear as it did. It speaks a lot for what our city wants moving forward.”