At a meeting lending an ear to Southern Oregonians’ experiences with hate, Oregon’s Attorney General heard from a pair of unwelcome voices.
An audience of more than 70 people at Medford’s library — who’d applauded heartfelt stories of discrimination from members of the Rogue Valley’s Latino, LGBTQ and Jewish communities — were aghast as frequent Ashland mayoral candidate Biome Erickson told Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and her Task Force on Hate Crimes that he is a victim because he is a National Socialist, and didn’t understand why passing out literature denying the Holocaust would be considered hate speech.
Rosenblum gave little reaction beyond pursed lips and furrowed brows as Erickson and another Holocaust denier said they “don’t feel safe here.” Rosenblum had organized the event at the Medford library as one of three “listening sessions” to get Oregonians’ stories experiencing hate as the attorney general looks to work with the state legislature to strengthen laws against hate crimes.
Earlier that evening, members of Southern Oregon’s Jewish community described graffiti that included “Anne Frank Oven” sprayed on a transformer near the Havurah Synagogue in Ashland.
One woman who identified herself as Jewish and LGBTQ, said she’s considering getting a concealed carry permit to feel safe.
“I don’t want to carry a gun, but I don’t feel I have many other options,” she said.
Other locals shared accounts of hate and discrimination because of the color of their skin, their country of origin or their sexual orientation — sometimes in parts of Southern Oregon that most would consider progressive.
Jesse Sharp, for instance, shared with the attorney general that he’s only recently become comfortable identifying himself as queer, despite coming out a decade ago while attending Ashland High School, which he described as a “supposedly progressive school.” Sharp said bullies threw stones at him, stuck pencils in his body and whispered homophobic slurs in his ear.
“I felt like I didn’t have any support,” Sharp said.
Deltra Ferguson, who said she’s been “proud lesbian” since the 1970s, said she’s endured bottles thrown at her because of who she is, but started to cry as she described worry about the lack of resources for LGBTQ teens since Lotus Rising Project closed in November.
“Homophobia runs rampant in our schools,” Ferguson told Rosenblum, adding that homophobic slurs in some classrooms are “not interrupted, not interrupted.”
Ferguson said a more pressing issue for her is that the law treats her marriage as being only four years old. She first married her wife in 1996, but the state rescinded her same-sex marriage in 2004. She remarried her wife in 2015. Ferguson said that her wife could lose out on Social Security benefits were she to get hurt.
Virginia Camberos, Rogue Valley regional director of UniteOregon, shared an experience from several years ago when a white sheet left on her lawn read: “Wetbacks must be bled like rodents” and “White supreme forever.”
“I was shocked and brought to tears,” Camberos said. “I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach and it hurt really bad.”
“I was ready to pack my bags and head back to L.A.,” she added.
Rosenblum said she sought to get a bead on reports of rising numbers of hate-related incidents around the state, after reading a November 2016 BuzzFeed report that listed Oregon with the highest rate of hate crime activity per capita, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center ranking Oregon 11th of all states for hate crimes in the 10 days following the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenblum has cited FBI statistics that said hate crimes jumped more than 40 percent from 2016 to 2017. The Oregonian/OregonLive reports from last November show that 146 incidents occurred in 2017, up from 104 in Oregon in 2016.
Official numbers don’t appear to show upticks in Jackson County, according to Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert. In 2018, two hate crimes have been prosecuted with the hate-related charge of intimidation. Only one intimidation case was reviewed by police in 2017.
Medford and Ashland police each referred one hate crime to the FBI in 2018. Medford reported anti-Mormon graffiti on an church in the 2100 block of Brookhurst Street, while Ashland police investigated an attack on 44-year-old Christopher Johnson, who identifies as gay. Although Johnson alleged his attackers used homophobic slurs, the two transients charged in the attack have warrants on misdemeanor assault charges.
“It’s sometimes hard to say that it was intimidation,” Heckert said.