The world is watching to see how American government officials and law enforcement will work for change against institutional bias and systemic racism.
Corvallis City Council members voted unanimously to approve up to $150,000 for a bias response initiative as part of its $179 million financial plan at a meeting that was held Monday, June 1. Corvallis officials plan to engage with county as well as the school district and Oregon State University about sharing the cost burden of the bias response initiative.
The initiative was supported by numerous public comments from a diverse roll of speakers and a petition with an estimated 3,000 signatures. Support for the initiative grew following the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, which sparked protests and riots across the nation this past week.
Former police officer Derek Chauvin was recorded kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes and was later arrested on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other police officers stood by and watched. Those officers have not yet been charged with any crimes.
Corvallis Police Chief Jonathan Sassaman said what happened to Floyd could not happen locally because his officers do not and would not use the technique of kneeling on a person’s neck to subdue them, adding that the officers are trained to intervene and report any misconduct. The chief also noted the department’s lengthy accreditation history – 25 years of certification for policies and training, including on diversity.
“Our policies reflect our values – the values of Corvallis,” Sassaman said. “Service, ethics, professionalism and diversity are our core values.”
Sassaman said Corvallis police operate under the jurisdiction of the federal court’s Ninth Circuit, which he described as the strictest in the U.S. when it comes to the use of force by law enforcement. He said Corvallis police receive annual training on bias and hate, and the department’s force-response training emphasizes de-escalation.
“There are a lot of people of color, there are a lot of people who are deeply affected by what happened; I can speak for me personally and my family that there’s a lot of fear and upset,” City Councilor Ed Junkins, who is African American, said to Sassaman. “Our community will go a long way in providing reassurance through the statements such as the statement you just gave.”
Junkins said as an elected official and city community member, he believes more can be done. He challenged everyone in the community to move in the direction of respect and human rights.
An hour of public commentary began with Jonathon Stoll, who spoke about a community petition on Change.org that was signed by 3,000 people and calls for support of the bias response initiative. The petition was launched months before Floyd’s death, but gained considerable traction recently, according to Stoll. He said it wasn’t explicitly about police brutality, but rather systemic racism.
“I find it quite concerning that a city government with upwards of 400 staff has not one position that’s focused on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Stoll said. “When we approach this work as if it is everyone’s job, it effectively becomes no one’s job.”
Stoll blasted the use of racial slurs and bigotry, saying the victims of hate and bias in Corvallis need a local response when incidents occur. In calling for action, he cited the city’s 2040 vision statement, a community declaration of cultural inclusion and respect among other ideals.
The petition asked for $150,000 – half for a full-time coordinator on bias response and equity, and half to fund diversity and social justice, community development and equity programming and training. Stoll said the effort was modeled after and inspired by the City of Eugene’s Human Rights Commission.
The council also heard supportive comments from the president of the local NAACP chapter. Angel Harris, a black woman who has lived in Corvallis for more than 20 years, said as a civil rights organizer, parent and community member, she finds herself listening to many stories of bias and hate happening in Corvallis: racial harassment, exclusion, micro-aggressions and fear – none of it tracked locally.
Nine people with a wide range of racial and cultural backgrounds spoke over the course of an hour in favor of funding the initiative. Most speakers gave examples of bias or hate that they either personally experienced, witnessed, or that happened to their family or friends. Oregon and Corvallis’ history of both covert and blatant racism were also raised.
Manju Bangalore, who has spent most her life in Corvallis, co-organized Sunday’s demonstration. She said that despite having lived in places such as Texas, Alabama, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, she has faced the most direct racism in Corvallis.
“In this city, I have been called racial slurs I cannot physically repeat,” Bangalore said. “I have been told to go back to my country, and I have had the cops called on me while my friend and I were peacefully stargazing… is this not my country too, is this not my city too?”
Although there was some mention of starting with a smaller amount of $50,000, just to get the ball rolling, the council approved the full $150,000. During deliberation, Mayor Biff Traber advocated for the initiative, saying collecting data and reports on bias and hate incidents will give a better picture of the problem and facilitate future action. The money comes from the general fund contingency pot.
On Sunday, around 2,000 people gathered at the Benton County Courthouse to protest. Speeches were made in support of racial justice. The demonstrators peacefully dispersed after a few hours. City Councilor Hyatt Lytle said she appreciated that the people of Corvallis were able to have a peaceful protest without the need for a police presence.
By Cody Mann