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Nov. 29, 2020

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Joey Gibson speaks in Coos Bay and opponents respond: Saturday’s events disparate, but intertwined

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COOS BAY — Kendall Doden stepped out of the white sedan Saturday to make her delivery. Wearing a face mask emblazoned with an American flag, she stepped to the back door of the car and pulled out three trashbags containing 23 handmade children’s blankets.

“There’s just challenges ahead that people don’t understand,” Doden said. “I didn’t understand it until I lived it.”

Volunteers quickly placed the blankets on a growing pile of donations outside Front Street Community Bike Works, from clothing to cook wear. The donations were destined for Talent, Oregon, a city ravaged by last month’s historic wildfires that ripped through many corners of the state.

The donation event had political undertones — organized as a direct response to the rally being held on the nearby Boardwalk and featuring Republican candidates and right-wing activist Joey Gibson of Vancouver — but Doden’s donation wasn’t political.

It came from experience: Her family lived through the Camp Fire, the devastating 2018 wildfire which destroyed much of Paradise, California, and nearby communities.

“Our granddaughter’s still not the same,” Doden said. The long time it took her to make the blankets would be worth it so long as one recipient child felt a little bit of hope, she said.

Doden was one participant in a complicated pair of events and expressions Saturday, a crossroads of the beliefs about community, politics and change in America which have come to define much of 2020.

In one corner of town, around 100 residents flocked to the Boardwalk to express their support for U.S. President Donald Trump, share their opposition to economic shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rally around the goal of “standing up and fighting” perceived threats against the American way of life.

A few blocks away, activists and community leaders organized the donation event. Their goal was to get donations to those in Oregon’s Rogue Valley who needed them — but it was initiated as a direct retort to the rally up the street.

“The motivation and intention for this may have been in response to what’s going on on the Boardwalk, but the goal of the event is fire relief, and to show that the community can come together,” said Tristan Avelis, one of the drive’s organizers.

A rally on the Boardwalk

At the Boardwalk, many shared Doden’s apolitical sentiment about the wildfire relief drive.

“I think it’s great that people are out there getting active,” said Rob Taylor, a local conservative radio host and the organizer of the Boardwalk rally, adding that, “It’s better than burning down federal buildings.”

The event’s keynote speaker was Joey Gibson, the founder of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer.

“We have to go out there and fight for what we believe in, no matter what the consequences are,” Gibson admonished the crowd. “People may have to die in this country, on our soil.”

In his remarks to the crowd, Gibson didn’t elaborate on what it meant to “fight.” He later told The World in an interview that the “fight” looks different for everyone, and can include speaking out against perceived government oppression or getting involved politically — but that it doesn’t mean physical fighting.

“Only they know,” he said, referring to those he’s encouraging to get involved. “That’s a thing between them and God.”

Still, some in attendance at the rally wore bullet-proof vests and helmets while carrying radios, cameras, handguns and semi-automatic rifles. At one point near the end of event, a group of half a dozen men wearing tactical gear and the insignia of the Three Percenters, a far-right militia movement, left their posts on the outskirts of the rally and piled into an RV before driving away.

Many, though, carried only flags and signs as they listened to the speakers cover myriad conservative and anti-government topics.

Jo Rae Perkins, the republican candidate for U.S. Senate challenging long-time Democrat Jeff Merkley for an Oregon seat, touched on many of the issues that have become her campaign’s hallmarks.

“Those masks, they’re not really to protect you, they’re to keep you faceless,” she said, referring to face masks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say prevent the spread of COVID-19. She went on to say that masks cause excess carbon dioxide inhalation and are ineffective against the spread of the virus, rumors which have been debunked by the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.

At another point, Perkins asked the crowd if there were any “digital soldiers” in the audience, a reference to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that the FBI has called a domestic terror threat. Perkins has previously gained national attention for her support of parts of the theory, according to The New York Times.

Only a few people raised their hands in response, though some in the crowd wore “Q” symbols on their clothing.

On more substantive policy matters, Perkins decried as “bad” the Green New Deal, an aggressive plan to combat climate change endorsed by her opponent, and at one point suggested the country should consider “wip(ing) out all the laws and start(ing) all over again.”

“As long as they think I’m a tinfoil hat, they’re going to ignore me,” Perkins said, referring to her opponents and the media.

Other speakers included Republican Attorney General candidate Michael Cross and Coos Bay City Council Candidate Jim Kingsley.

Cross told the crowd that, if elected as the state’s top lawyer, he would act as a “check” on the governor, take on social media companies who “de-platform” far-right viewpoints and revoke state fines for businesses violating COVID-19 restrictions. He also advocated for making school principals elected officials and establishing a jobs program for those experiencing homelessness.

Bandon resident Rod Taylor (no relation to organizer Rob Taylor) was in the crowd at the event, at times wearing a mask resembling former President Bill Clinton while holding a “Trump 2020” flag.

“I’m concerned for the future of the nation,” he said. “I’m concerned about the level of misconception people have that Donald Trump is a racist.”

“I wish that the president had better oratory focus,” Rod Taylor said, referring to the president’s response to a question about denouncing white supremacy at last week’s presidential debate.

Across the street and a block north from the Boardwalk, a pair of Southwestern Oregon Community College students expressed their disagreements with Taylor’s view. Coos Bay resident Jane Marsh was holding a sign reading “Donald Trump is a racist,” pointing toward the highway.

The president’s debate answer wasn’t a clear enough denunciation of white supremacy, Marsh said of her sign.

“People like us are sometimes underrepresented,” Marsh said. “It’s important to us that we get heard.”

Marsh and Natalia Butki, holding a sign with a reference to the video game “Among Us,” said they were there to show those in the community who might not agree with the pro-Trump rally that they’re not alone. They were the only two direct counter-protesters for much of the event.

“We’re the minority (in the community),” Butki said. “We think our voices should be heard.”

Several Coos Bay police cars sat in the parking lot of the Visitor’s Information Center for the duration of the event, though officers remained in their vehicles the whole time.

All aboard the “Trump Train”

At the conclusion of the event, organizer Rob Taylor (again, no relation to Rod) invited attendees to join the “Trump Train” heading up U.S. Highway 101 toward Walmart and the Pony Village Mall. Participants piled into cars decorated with flags of all kinds and drove out in a caravan of at least 50 vehicles.

On Friday, however, the City of Coos Bay noted that such an event would require a permit.

“(T)he event organizer would have needed a permit for a parade of more than 10 vehicles; not just from the City, but from the Oregon Department of Transportation (if their parade route included portions of Hwy 101),” the city wrote in its Friday update. “After speaking with the organizer, it is our understanding they will not be having the parade, and will simply be dispersing and exiting town once the rally has concluded.”

Still, many didn’t disperse, instead driving along Front Street before turning north onto the highway.

Many waved at the group collecting wildfire donations as they passed. By that time, volunteers had packed a U-Haul van full with supplies like clothes, Gatorade, toiletries and cooking supplies, ready to depart for Southern Oregon the next day.

A “rally” for the Rogue Valley

“It went super, super well,” drive organizer Avelis said, adding that the group collected about $600 in financial donations. “Early on we worried it would be too much stuff.”

The donations will go to distribution centers of Rogue Valley Fire Relief Mutual Aid, which help up to 500 people a day on some days, according to organizer Ashley Audycki. Through her job with Rogue Climate, Audycki says she’s seen the destruction caused by the fires.

“For a lot of people, it’s been really devastating,” Audycki said. “For a lot of people, people don’t have time to plan and prep.”

The group hopes to continue supporting fire relief, though plans for a future drive haven’t been announced. Donations can still be made online to the mutual aid organization, Audycki said.

Though the goal was fire relief, and not all donors might have politically agreed with them, the subtle political message in the group’s gathering was present.

“Now they’re demonstrating, and we’re showing up,” said organizer Israel Jurich.

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