Corvallis Forum Examines Legacies of Racism, Policing, Economic Justice

Communities across America are pulling together to discuss the legacy of race in the nation. Many are calling for sweeping institutional change to combat systemic racism. For its recent CitySpeak session, The Advocate gathered a diverse panel of local experts to talk about where we go from here.   

The first guest of the evening to speak was artist Anne Mavor, whose current exhibit on display by appointment at the Corvallis Art Center is titled “I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression.” Using different characters, the project explores European-American history with an eye on oppressive practices that were then passed down to following generations.  

The exhibit is comprised of 13 life-size photographic self-portraits that depict a family history of race, class, colonization, and genocide. The ancestors, real and imagined, are accompanied by audio diaries that reveal historical events and traumas shaping each ancestor and their legacies of oppression. Mavor said the work was inspired when a Native American leader told her to pursue art from her own culture.  

“I went home and asked myself the question: what would it look like if I claimed my own people,” Mavor said. “The purpose was to look at the source of racism and other oppression … I wanted to feel what it was like to be that ancestor, to understand why they did what they did, and then to also understand how those patterns and beliefs and messages were passed down to me.”  

Connecting to her past was a powerful, eye-opening experience, Mavor said, adding that the experience helped her to better see racism in the world, including in her own history and actions. She hopes those who view the exhibit will see their own behavior patterns and their sources more clearly.  

Angel Harris, Corvallis/Albany NAACP president, said sometimes the best way to approach the issue is from within – with self-evaluation and reflection. She said there are internalized personal impacts of systemic racism that can take time to understand. In light of recent violence against African Americans, Harris urged people to pause for grieving and to focus on long-term productivity.   

“Racism is systemic, it’s structural, it’s in the very fabric of this country,” Harris said. “As you are trying to change the system, make sure you’re not forgetting to change yourself.”  

Harris noted a progression in believability when it comes to acts of racism. She said unlike in the past, she no longer has to convince people that racism is still happening – they can see it. Harris later said the NAACP partnership with Corvallis Police Department is such that if a local issue should arise, the groundwork has been done to assure that there is a dialogue about it.  

Corvallis Police Chief Jon Sassaman said the city police department is annually trained on matters of bias, racism, and privilege. He said the self-examination aspect is crucial for accountability. Sassaman suggested the state should step in to standardize training and policies, but noted the operational differences between law enforcement agencies and court systems. He also said accreditation such as the type CPD holds is voluntary for law enforcement organizations.  

“I like to think that we are doing what we can do, but I think there is always room for improvement,” Sassaman said.  

Sassaman said events such as the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota sent a shock through CPD. In the wake of the black man’s death at the hands of a white police officer, he said there was a moment of ‘how can that be happening’ followed by the question of how the agency could avoid such an incident happening locally.   

“We have the same level of disgust and shock when we see moments like what occurred in Minneapolis,” Sassaman said. “It should never take place with police in today’s day and age.”  

Responding to an audience question about arresting people rather than seeking help for a subject, Sassaman said CPD officers are trained to contextualize and problem solve when on a call. He said officers don’t always respond first with an arrest, and noted that 45 percent of calls result in a citation and release. Also, not everyone who is arrested is charged by prosecutors.  

CPD has changed its recruiting practices to target those with far different skill sets and backgrounds than traditionally sought, and also uses a different approach to applicant testing to find the best fits, on top of psychological testing that only some departments require. While on duty, CPD officers are mandated to report any incidence of abuse or bias by fellow officers.  

Professor Randy Blazak, Ph.D, has decades of sociology research behind his understanding of white supremacist activity, specifically in the Pacific Northwest. He has worked to learn why people join racist organizations as well as the effects of racism on victims. Blazak noted the top selling books in the country at this time are about race-driven subjects, implying that change could be on the horizon.  

Blazak said there is an immediate defensiveness, a jump to “us vs. them” when people are confronted by historic racism that is woven into their daily lives. In this moment of reflection, he said there is an opportunity to examine how white entitlement leads people to defend inherently racist icons such as the Confederate flag.  

For white people who struggle to claim or even recognize their own legacies of oppression, Blazak said the opportunity for self-reflection is as important as pushing back against systemic elements of racism. He said even those who are highly engaged in anti-racism still carry racism that must be addressed, and that confronting one’s own internal biases is hard but necessary.   

“It’s really important for white people to stop talking… and listen to the real experiences of people of color,” Blazak said. “If they just listened to the pain people are experiencing in 2020, I think their hearts would be moved and they would feel compelled to act.”  

Fay Stetz-Waters, Oregon Department of Justice, Director of Civil Rights, has a unique perspective on the intersection of race and the system as a queer black woman who has spent a career working within it. Stetz-Waters said she saw firsthand how police were influenced in some cases by racist policies and forced to perpetuate institutional racism.  

Stetz-Waters recalled one particular policy, at a department outside Benton County, for stopping older cars – a tactic that ensnares poor people, people of color and people who there would otherwise be no justification to stop. She found some officers did not feel comfortable carrying out the policy, some avoided enforcing it, and there was a subsequent fight to change it.  

In her daily work, Stetz-Waters finds people asking for help with oversight of law enforcement agencies. She said there needs to be a reckoning to address the outcry for change coming from the streets. She also said law enforcement needs to draw from a wider array backgrounds and skills when recruiting, adding that caretaking and helping approaches should be emphasized over coercion and conflict.  

One issue is the lack of data surrounding incidents of bias and hate crimes. Stetz-Waters said the justice department has launched a statewide hotline to track that information and provide support to victims. The data was not previously recorded and tracked in Oregon.   

John Haroldson, Benton County District Attorney, the state’s first Latino prosecutor, began by stating unequivocally that Black Lives Matter. He said history has shown us facts that are political rather than real, and that has contributed to a disparity in all of the systems inherited generationally that are permeated with racism, one that is perpetuated despite the best of intentions.  

In his own journey, Haroldson’s perspective was shaped by a youth in a low-income inner-city area of Mexico, and later by the injustices he saw perpetrated against his friends and family in America. He chose to become a prosecutor to fight for justice in a system that he knew needed to improve in how minorities are treated. He said the criminal justice system has come a long way and continues to improve.   

Haroldson said Corvallis is fortunate to have a humble police chief, applauding the department’s high level of accreditation and its work to track data regarding police stops and arrests of minorities. He said the data shows that the majority of stops on people of color were initiated by public reports rather than officer choosing  

Haroldson said while CPD has distinguished itself, that does not take away from the deeply concerning conduct being witnessed across the country. He said the public is appropriately reacting in expressing their desire to see an end to abuse of power by law enforcement. He thinks as improvements are made there will be an opportunity to address what he sees as the true underlying issue.  

“The foundation of the country was created on a block that was infused with the racism of those ancestors who created it,” Haroldson said. “And now were are navigating how to be able to take that foundation and get to a place where we have true equity, true inclusion… the end result of that is that we would have an incredibly beautiful society.”  

Haroldson directed those who want to get involved and stay informed to reach out to each governing agency for the institutions that serve their community, identify the top of the power structure, and bring your concerns to those leaders. In considering the most progressive forms of community justice, he said processes such as drug courts are part of an evolution that is hopefully ongoing. He also mentioned Oregon’s higher rate of decertification for law enforcement misconduct.  

On defunding police, Haroldson said as the picture of what the community wants from police becomes clearer, it appears the changes will take investment, so defunding law enforcement is counterintuitive. Harris said there are duties that police are tasked with such as responding to mental health incidents that should be handled by other professionals. Blazak said there should be a conversation about moving some funding from police budgets to more qualified supporting services.  

When it comes to talks of defunding the police, Sassaman said separation is not the answer. He said law enforcement needs to connect with the communities it serves, and that requires resources. He added that the work of building relationships with the community could be impacted by taking certain services out of law enforcement’s hands.  

Changing the structure of the financial system was raised as a way to combat institutional racism. Stetz-Waters said how people spend should be considered, and research should be done to assure money doesn’t flow to companies that perpetuate racism. Harris said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed implicit bias in the financial system, citing payroll protection loans that she says were not directed to minority businesses.   

The full CitySpeak session can also be viewed and shared from The Corvallis Advocate Facebook page.  

By Cody Mann