Being Black in America

Centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook, addressing local takes on the Black Lives Matter marches that took place in 2020.

PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEZIUR — Shemar Lennox leads a march through downtown Gresham in support of Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd

8 minutes and 46 seconds. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of seeing a black man struggling on the ground, knee crushing against the back of his neck. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of hearing people cry out to stop, none more urgently that a man calling for his mother who had died two years before. 

8 minutes and 46 seconds of police officers standing by and doing nothing. 

Travis Stovall watched all 8 minutes and 46 seconds of the video out of Minneapolis, showing the killing of George Floyd at the hands of those tasked to protect him. 

“I’ve seen many things in my lifetime, but the situation with George Floyd has impacted me differently,” Stovall said. “We as black men are feeling that could have been anyone of us. In that moment the officer was judge, jury and executioner.”

Stovall is 47 years old — born 9 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He grew up in Kansas City, 15 minutes away from a town with a law on the books until the 1980s that black people couldn’t purchase a home. He moved to East Multnomah County two decades ago, and then to Gresham in 2006. The discrimination followed. 

Stovall is co-founder and CEO of eRep, a tech company that assists businesses in talent acquisition and management services. He led the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce as president of the board of directors; is a board member on several organizations, including TriMet; and is the former director of the East Metro Economic Alliance. 

And yet the entrepreneur still gets treated differently because of the color of his skin. 

“The stories are rancid,” he said. “Every morning I wake up as a black man in America — knowing I have to earn the right to be considered a person who can contribute.” 

African American community members are starting to push for real changes. They want to stop systemic racism in the workplace, create more opportunities for black youths, and enact reforms in law enforcement that will prevent people from being killed for allegedly trying to spend a counterfeit $20 bill, selling cigarettes on the street corner, or sleeping in their bed. 

Gresham City leadership has vocally stood in solidarity with protestors and has committed to find ways to improve. A review of Gresham Police Department policies has begun, specifically focused on use-of-force, and the “first of many” conversations was had Wednesday, June 10, between council and black leaders. 

“It is going to be tough work, but we have a moral imperative,” said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. “I am fully aware of where we are and that actions are required. Not everyone is going to be supportive — and I don’t care.” 

Facing discrimination

Stovall was confronted after moving into a new neighborhood in Gresham. 

He was standing near the entrance to the neighborhood with two of his friends, all three were black. As they spoke, and laughed, a man walked up and asked, “What are you doing here?” 

“I was embarrassed, I didn’t know what he was talking about at first,” Stovall said. “After a moment of staring at us, the man said, ‘Oh, you are working here.'” 

The white resident assumed the three must have been service workers, not believing they would be able to own a home in his neighborhood.

“That is not the exception to the rule,” Stovall said. 

Stovall’s story is common among members of the black community, who say they are judged based on the color of their skin.

Pastor Keith Jenkins has lived in Gresham for 6 months, leading East Hill Church in downtown Gresham. It is an exciting time to helm the faith organization, as more diverse members are coming together with a shared faith. But his first experience in East Multnomah County was unpleasant, mirroring other incidents peppered throughout his life as a 54-year-old African American man. 

He and his wife were relocating to Gresham from Eugene, and had set up a tour of a home they were considering for rent. Everything was fine over the phone. The couple pulled up to the house, which had two cars in the driveway, and knocked on the door. They heard people moving around inside, but despite the scheduled tour no one would open the door. 

“We assume they saw who we were, what ethnic group we belonged to, and they didn’t want us renting,” Jenkins said. “What we are lacking is simple human decency.”

Jenkins was a member of the panel discussion convened by Gresham city leadership to learn about what the African American community is facing. The other speakers were Katrise Perera, superintendent of the Gresham-Barlow School District; Paul Coakley, superintendent of the Centennial School District; Rev. E.D. Mondainé, NAACP chapter president; Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church of Portland; Shemar Lennox, Gresham Standup Movement; and Germaine Flentroy, Play Grow Learn. 

“I have been fighting this battle of suffocation and racism,” Hennessee said. “The white power structure is not willing to give up that easily — you are embarking on something with plenty of people who don’t want to see this succeed.” 

Hennessee said business leaders need to make space for people who don’t look like them, and allow employees of color to feel safe to speak up about how they feel without fear of losing their job. 

“This isn’t about whether you are a racist or not,” he said. “Are you willing to work hard to ensure there is equity and justice all over the place?”

One question Perera hears most often is whether she got her job because she is a black woman. 

She was 6 years old when her father, a police officer, began speaking with her about what she would face growing up in this country. Coakley is having those own conversations with his 10-year-old son — something shared by every other member of the panel.

“Until Black Lives Matter, you can’t say All Lives Matter,” Perera said. “In the black household there is no such thing as an age of innocence.” 

Both superintendents said they are worried about all the children in their districts. Finances were dire before COVID-19 swept the globe, and now staff layoffs and program cuts are likely coming at a time when reinvesting in K-12 is more crucial than ever. 

As a pastor, Hennessee often gets calls from those in need of guidance at all hours of the day. But when he gets a call for help at 2 a.m., he is nervous to drive. He said if he is in a 35 mph zone, he will put on cruise control, and at stop signs he remains hyper aware. 

“We are constantly conscious of who we are, because we are in the United States of America,” he said. 

For Flentroy, it’s all about making changes to uplift the next generation and stopping the decades of violence. 

“We need to make sure no black person dies out here,” Flentroy said. “We know there are good cops and bad cops right here in the city of Gresham — what are we going to do about this?” 

Marching for change

The four peaceful Black Lives Matter marches that have taken place in downtown Gresham all were coordinated by a pair of youths at the helm of the Gresham Standup Movement. 

Shemar Lenox, 21, and Jaylen Welch, 18, both grew up in this city. They graduated from Gresham High School and watched the video of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. As protests and demonstrations began across the country, they decided to bring it into their own backyard. 

“It’s been eye opening to see the Gresham community stand with us in solidarity,” Lenox said. 

Their grassroots organization has changes they want made, including: 

— All officers keep their body cameras on during contact with the public — failing to do so leads to a criminal charge. 

— Regular mental health checks for officers. 

— Independent reviews on use of deadly force in the last decade. 

— Mandatory training in de-escalation techniques. 

— Training on racial profiling.

— Annual public statistics on arrests involving an injury or death. 

— Criminal charges for officers who witness something wrong and don’t attempt to stop or report it. 

“If I stood by and watched Jaylen kneel on someone’s neck to kill them, I would be charged, too,” Lenox said. “If cops don’t hold each other accountable it should result in criminal charges.” 

The pair say they plan on continuing the marches until reforms are made. 

“We have been sitting here for years but nothing has changed,” Lenox said. “I am optimistic about Gresham, but we could be doing this until the day we die.” 

Hope is waning for Stovall. 

In 2017 he made a Facebook post in support of marches and protests that were happening then surrounding the death of a black person. Last week someone stumbled on that post and liked it, thinking it was in reference to what is happening three years later. 

“I’m skeptical things will change — in three years someone may see a post I make today and like it,” Stovall said. “We are struggling, tired, exhausted.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s