After the first Black Lives Matter protest in Prineville last month, Mayor Steve Uffelman wanted to know why the protesters had traveled from across Central Oregon to his town.
Uffelman attended a second protest June 13 and came away with a better understanding after speaking with a black woman who grew up in Prineville. She shared her
experiences with racism and acceptance in the community of 10,000 people, where less than 1% of the population is black.
“It was very enlightening to sit and listen to what she had to share about what it was like to grow up in this town,” Uffelman said. “All of us want to be heard, and all of us ought to have the opportunity to be heard. I was grateful I was there.”
Not everyone in Prineville feels that way. The Prineville woman who organized the Black Lives Matter rallies, Josie Stanfield, is in hiding after receiving death threats.
Business owners are worried about unrest because a third protest is planned for Saturday. And police are bracing for the potential of violence from armed counterprotesters.
“This has been a terrifying time for me and my family,” Stanfield said in a prepared statement from her attorney.
The first protest, on May 31, generated national attention and praise from former President Barack Obama.
But tensions escalated at the June 13 protest, resulting in four arrests. Black Lives Matter protesters intended to peacefully rally outside the Crook County Courthouse in support of other nationwide demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Counterprotesters stood on the other side of Third Street, expressing their displeasure with the rally happening in their town.
Fallout from the protest led to threatening messages on social media and Stanfield being driven into hiding.
Both sides expect an even larger crowd for the third protest at 1 p.m. Saturday outside the courthouse.
Uffelman said he wants Saturday’s protest to be peaceful and hopes there is not a large crowd of counterprotesters agitating the demonstrators.
“There will be a significant police presence, and if people step out of line, that will be addressed directly,” Uffelman said. “Rest assured that is the approach, if there is violence.”
Part of the tensions ahead of Saturday’s protest are from a clash between Prineville Police Chief Dale Cummins and Stanfield.
After the June 13 protest, Cummins posted a video on the police department’s Facebook page saying Stanfield publicly misrepresented a private meeting they had the day before the protest. Stanfield responded by hiring an attorney from the Oregon Justice Resource Center in Portland, demanding a retraction of the video. The police department has declined to comment on the request.
“We provided them with evidence that she has been getting threatening messages and has been driven from her home,” said Juan Chavez, Stanfield’s attorney. “We are hoping they are going to do the right thing.”
Chavez said the police department video has made the threats even worse. Stanfield hasn’t felt safe in Prineville, her home since 2007, he said.
“She is terrified,” Chavez said. “It hasn’t been easy. I know she was grateful so many community members came out to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and she is heartbroken that too many community members, including the Prineville Police, have taken such a hostile reaction to her.”
According to Facebook posts from the Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly, the group met with Cummins and other city officials Wednesday to discuss concerns leading up to Saturday’s protest.
Cummins told the group the police department is focused on keeping everyone safe at the upcoming protest.
Prineville Police Sgt. James Peterson said the department is monitoring all the threatening online comments. The department is staying flexible as it prepares for the protest, he said.
“We are doing our best to keep our community safe and keep all the people involved safe,” Peterson said. “We just hope everybody stays peaceful and makes good decisions.”
Businesses near the protest plan to either close for the day or stay open and have a presence to protect their buildings from potential damage.
Jana Simmons, owner of Tastee Treat, a diner just down Third Street from where the protest will be held, said she plans to close her business on Saturday.
Simmons is disappointed to lose the income, but closing will protect her employees, she said.
“For safety, we are going to close for the protest,” she said. “But we are going to have people here around protecting our building.”
For the mayor, he will be out of town during the third protest. But Uffelman hopes the protest will continue the conversation of black people’s experience in Prineville and the national conversation around policing in America.
“This is not something that is going to be over and done with this Saturday,” Uffelman said. “This will be an ongoing conversation down the road.”