Racial inequality resolution draws support, opposition
By HOLLY DILLEMUTH Herald & News Staff Reporter
Nov. 17, 2020 – Klamath Falls, Oregon
Klamath Falls City Council once again voted to postpone action on a resolution to recognize racism and economic inequality as a crisis in Klamath Falls.
Councilors will reconsider the motion at their next council meeting, after deciding Monday night to reevaluate the language of the resolution proposal. Before their decision to postpone, council members heard more than an hour of testimony both in favor and opposed to the resolution.
Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry spoke in favor, and on behalf of Klamath Tribal Council.
“We as indigenous people are acutely aware of the long history of systemic racism in Klamath Falls and the surrounding area,” he read from a statement. “Our ancestors lived it. Every generation since has lived it. Consequently we have a great deal to contribute to this conversation. We are grateful to Joey Gentry-Smith and the other members of the Klamath Falls Equity Task Force for initiating this important work and this resolution. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the ugly history of racism in our homeland and contribute to its eradication.”
Gentry, a Klamath Falls resident, said he believes the resolution is a positive step toward healing and restoration to communities in the Klamath Basin.
“Just like any dysfunction or problem, one of the first steps is to admit that it’s really there,” Gentry said. “There’s a racism that surfaces from time to time, and it’s a significant issue … but this is a step in the right direction of moving forward. The Klamath Tribes certainly want to contribute to healing in this process. We want to foster cultural awareness, a better understanding of who we are, why we have treaty rights, what that means, dispel misinformation that we don’t pay taxes, that we don’t contribute much … we’ve contributed a lot to this community.”
Andrew Biggs, a local resident, shared his opposition to the resolution.
“We are against racism and I hope we don’t have to argue here that we all are in fact against racism,” Biggs said.
At issue with Biggs is calling racism and economic inequality “a societal crisis.” He sees that the resolution as a form of “virtue signaling,” or drawing attention to a perceived issue “because it’s a nice, good thing to say,” not because it is true. Biggs said the resolution could harm the city’s effort to draw business to the area.
“Branding ourselves uniquely of communities in the United States as facing a societal crisis of racism is the equivalent of standing here and punching ourselves in the head, so I think there are better ways to do it than to claim we face a crisis,” Biggs said.
Emma Marris, a member of the task force, addressed some of the opposition, especially as it pertains to economic development.
“There’s no way in which we would stand alone as the only community that has a racism problem,” she said.
Marris suggests that businesses and individuals looking to relocate Klamath Falls or Klamath County would see a community working out its problems and working toward solutions.
“It stands as a really strong statement that we’re a community that’s committed to doing something about this problem,” she said.
Veshawn Alston, a 12-year resident of Klamath Falls and a Black man, said he has seen racism firsthand.
“If we need to start by changing racism, it has to start with everyone, even the businesses,” Alston told the council. “I’ve worked two jobs and I’ve had to deal with racism, being called an N-word and nothing happened to the people and I still have to work with these people. And when nothing’s done, then no one understands why I don’t want to be there. It’s a hostile environment and no one sees that because they’re not Black. It’s not happening to you. In the past three months, I’ve been called (the N-word) four or five times, and nothing happens … how am I supposed to feel safe?”
Westfall offered apologies that Alston has had to deal with such issues.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” Westfall said. “It is a problem and we want to deal with it.”
Former city councilor and current business owner Bill Adams, who recently lost in the mayoral election to Westfall, followed Alston’s remarks.
“Is there racism in Klamath Falls?” Adams asked. “Certainly there is and there probably is just about everywhere in the United States. I think we have to work to keep it down and correct people when they do something that offends people. But I think with freedom of speech … it’s really hard to completely eradicate the situation … this (resolution) will put a black mark on Klamath Falls if we start pushing this here.”
Eric Osterberg, assistant to the city manager and advisor to the task force, provided council members context to understand the challenges faced by people of color within the community.
“The intent of the resolution is not to condemn the community as racist but to just call out that there is an issue of racism that persists within our community,” Osterberg said.
He explained that there are two kinds of systemic prejudice when talking about racism.
“The first form, which is de jure by law, is the written or overt forms of prejudice,” Osterberg said. “They are typically codified internally and on the books and they take the form of policy and law. The second is the more insidious and subtle kind, which is racism and prejudice in practice … It can come out in unconscious bias when it comes to decision-making.”
Osterberg noted that two billboards in Klamath Falls were defaced just this month with swastikas and the numbers “1488,” which symbolizes white supremacy and the Nazi ideology.
“The big question today in this resolution is what constitutes a crisis,” Osterberg said. “Equal opportunity isn’t achievable with the presence of racism in our community and I think it is a pretty compelling case that that continues to be the case in our community.”
Osterberg recommended the city could recognize the issue of racism is unresolved in the community, ensure policies aren’t discriminatory, build cultural awareness and foster an equitable and inclusive community.
Councilors all shared a desire to discuss the nuances of the resolution’s wording prior to the next council meeting, where it would be considered again.
“As far as the overall content, and their goals and objectives, I think they’re spot on and really need to be addressed,” said longtime Councilor Dan Tofell, via telephone.
Council President Todd Andres was absent from the meeting and was excused.
In other business, Council members heard from:
– Klamath Falls Police Chief Dave Henslee, who requested and received a moment of silence for Richard C. Swan, Sr., who was killed in the line of duty 32 years ago as of Monday. He is the only police officer in Klamath Falls to ever be killed in the line of duty.
– Mayor Westfall declared Nov. 28 as Small Business Saturday. Westfall urged residents to spend their money at local businesses on that weekend, and throughout the year.
*See Klamath Tribes racial inequity Press Release attached.