The media these days can make us feel like we are at that moment before the dawn when everything starts to fall apart. It’s important to remember that citizens can show the government what they stand for. Since 2016, people in cities and small towns alike have become more vocal, taking to the streets to show their support for issues like women’s rights, racial equality and gun control.

Over the course of one week in Eugene, thousands of community members united together to show their support for many different reasons. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lane Community College hosted Bakari Sellers, the youngest African-American politician in American history. Sellers was asked to deliver a keynote speech and later held a Q&A with his audience.  Later in the week, Eugene joined other cities around the country for the third annual Womxn’s March. The week of activism came to an end on MLK Day with a NAACP-led march.

A member of the Raging Grannies choir holds a sign during the Eugene Womxn’s March (Selina Scott // The Torch)

Most of the organized protests went on without a hitch but–like many recent protest movements–there was controversy. Several national Womxn’s March organizers have been accused of anti-Semitism, as well as excluding transgender people and sex workers from their organization. As a result, fewer people participated in the march than previous years.

Despite the controversy, the week of activism ended on an optimistic note with the MLK Community March and Celebration, which saw thousands of people descend on the Shedd Institute in downtown Eugene to celebrate the life and work of Dr. King.

‘The uncomfortable conversation’

Bakari Sellers started the week of activism by providing a keynote speech on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Lane Community College hosted Sellers at the Center for Meeting and Learning on Jan. 15. Sellers is an attorney, CNN commentator and former South Carolina House Representative. He came to Lane with a goal to have uncomfortable conversations with the students and faculty present.

“My only goal is to make people want to go out and change the world. I need help.”

Bakari Sellers
Bakari Sellers, political commentator for CNN, sits for questions after his keynote speech at the Center for Meeting and Learning during the annual MLK Day Celebration. Sellers explained how Martin Luther King’s legacy should inspire students to learn from recent history and become more involved in their communities. (Trent Toyama // The Torch)

Sellers opened his speech talking about the public’s misconceptions of Martin luther King Jr.’s legacy by comparing his approval ratings to Donald Trump. According to a recent Gallup poll, President Trump has a 37 percent approval rating, but Sellers noted that King had an approval rating of 32 percent the year of his assassination.

Sellers also shared his story on how King’s legacy changed his life and paved the way for many others like him to be in the position he is in today.

“We’ve been through the darkness and we emerged victorious.” he said.

By the end of the speech he hoped people would leave with a better sense of self and understanding that there is “nothing new under the sun.” As a people, Sellers believes, we have seen it all before and we will see these things again. He feels If we can learn the history correctly we can be more successful in our further endeavours.

Sellers, who turns 35 this year, will be running for Congress in 2020 and hopes he can empower people to start changing the world. The youngest man to ever be elected into the United States House of Representatives left the crowd with with a optimistic message.  

“You don’t have to be King to change the world.”

Bakari Sellers

Marching for our rights

Video by Zach Lyons // The Torch

The Womxn’s March, organized by the National Organization for Women, assembled a rally at the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse in downtown Eugene on Jan. 19. People of different backgrounds came to stand by 500 Women Scientists as they marched through the downtown streets. Before the march began, groups of women stood on the steps of government property and spoke their minds about the systemic injustices against genders in our country.

The Womxn’s March first assembled three years ago when President Trump took office. The marches helped lead into the #MeToo movement. The day after the presidential inauguration in 2017 was the largest single protest in U.S. history, pulling together millions of participants in cities all over the world.

Marchers unite in solidarity during the 2019 Womxn’s March. Though marchers were divided on certain issues, the empowerment of women was celebrated by over 2,500 people. (Zach Lyons // The Torch)

However, this year saw the number of participants dwindling. Some blame the poor turnout on the organization’s board members’ close relations with Louis Farrakhan, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan is known for his anti-Semitism and has made a number of misogynist comments in the past. Many accusers claimed that the board members told reporters to write about how Jews are the primary exploiters of black and brown people. This information did not sit well with a large number of supporters; the Democratic party even terminated their partnership with the organization entirely.

Leaders of the Womxn’s March released many statements claiming that no one on the board is anti-Semitic and the marches will still be held in regards to women’s rights.

Eugene’s Womxn’s March had a dramatic hiccup. A local woman named Mariah Leung took the stage and switched from talking about systemic injustices to the Palestinian slave trade. As she held her graphic of a crying Palestinian child, the event organizers frantically searched for a way to get her offstage. The crowd was only quiet for a minute. “This is a women’s march!” people shouted. After speaking for under two minutes, her microphone was cut off and she was swept off stage. The rest of the rally took a minute to gain steam but got right back on pace.

A Womxn’s March supporter stands waiting for the crowd to pass while holding her handmade sign advocating for a more eco-friendly lifestyle. (Selina Scott // The Torch)

The event was to show the government that their community has a voice and stand united on these issues.

“Political change is bottom-up not top-down; today is what it’s all about,” Senator Ron Wyden said in an impromptu interview at the rally. Wyden expressed that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell proposed “expediting Senate procedure” so that citizens can have a vote on his anti-abortion proposal. Wyden strongly stands against going backwards on women’s reproductive choices and wanted to join the rally to show his support.

“Political change is bottom-up not top-down; today is what it’s all about,”

Sen. Ron Wyden

Shortly after personal testimonies about personal experiences with systemic injustice, a booming voice came from the sound system: “Lets March!”

The march was led by bands Samba Ja, An Unpresidented Brass Band and One More Time Marching Band. Escorted by police officers, Marchers made their way to 8th and Charnelton where everyone gathered for a celebration with dancing and loud music from all the bands in the street.

A march and a commemoration

The Monday following the Women’s March was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The NAACP gave the community another reason to set aside differences. Hundreds of people gathered at the north gate of Autzen Stadium to peacefully march on Jan. 21.

Two marchers carry signs bearing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Willamette River during the MLK Community March. The march, organized by the Eugene/Springfield chapter of the NAACP and led by drummers from Ghana, was attended by an estimated 1,000 people, including Eugene mayor Lucy Vinis and Rep. Peter DeFazio. (Marek Belka // The Torch)

The NAACP works to ensure political, educational, social and economic equity and to eliminate race-based discrimination. Before the March began, Eugene-Springfield NAACP President Eric Richardson took the stage and introduced members from his own and other activist groups. With every speaker came inspirational MLK quotes and a common theme of peace among all races. People of different ethnicities took the stage to share poetry and songs with the crowd.

“In the greater community, I think we need to be proactive and not reactive.”

Dr. Lawrence Rasheed, African-American Student Program Coordinator at Lane Community College

The rally must have been loud, because the Oregon Ducks football team came out of their practice facility to a sea of “black lives matter” and “equality for all’ signs.” The players walked to the stage, wearing black hats with “MLK” inscribed in bright yellow letters and gave a special thanks to show their support for the march. Suddenly, over the drums, choir and crowd noise, a man grabbed the mic and shouted, “Let’s start marching!” The supporters walked nearly two miles to the Shedd Institute at E Broadway and High St. The long parade was escorted by police and shut down a section of Mill St. and E Broadway.

Members of the Eugene/Springfield NAACP Youth Council march across the Willamette River during the MLK Community March. (Marek Belka // The Torch)

The march came to a stop while some individuals gathered in drum circles and started dancing. The train of bodies then took over the street and sidewalks in a celebration.

These events are always taking place in our community and as numbers of participants start to sink, LCC’s African American Student Program Coordinator Dr. Lawrence Rasheed says it’s time to get involved. “In the greater community, I think we need to be proactive and not reactive.” Individuals looking to be involved in Eugene’s community of activists can start by going to the Get Involved In Eugene website.