March 6, 2021

Council grapples with Eugene’s racist history

Public comments at two recent meetings prompted City Council members to grapple with Eugene's racist history.

Public comments at two recent meetings prompted City Council members to grapple with Eugene's racist history.

Mike Clark: I have no sympathy at all for white supremacists. I think they’re dangerous idiots. There’s a difference between a white supremacist and a Republican. I’m the latter and not the former. There’s a difference between people who are sympathetic to white nationalism, cause those guys are idiots and there’s a difference between that and being a conservative.

John Q. Murray: That was Eugene City Council member Mike Clark. Public comments at two recent meetings prompted City Council members to grapple with Eugene’s racist history. On February 8, activists continued to press for the resignation of Mike Clark. Sarah Lamog.

Sarah Lamog: Two weeks ago, I gave a statement urging City Council to reconsider Mike Clark’s position as representative of ward five. At this time, my call for his resignation was based only on my research into Clark’s pattern of complicit behavior and sympathetic language to white supremacy.

Since then I, along with others, have launched a petition calling for Clark’s resignation and opening an investigation into his possible ties to white supremacy. To date, the petition, which is in all of your inboxes, has collected nearly 500 signatures, gained recognition from several local social justice focused nonprofits, and received additional follow-up leads into even more alarming examples in which Clark publicly exhibited sympathy to white supremacy.

One Eugene constituent wrote, and I quote: “Clark’s statements and views are appalling, especially coming from a public figure because racist beliefs are anathema to everything we believe Eugene can and should represent. Shame on his colleagues for not speaking out against him. Silence is violence. Clark cannot and should not be allowed to continue representing our city for one more day.”

Another constituent wrote, and I quote: “Clark has repeatedly brought shame on the City of Eugene and placed its inhabitants in danger by supporting white supremacists and obstructing anti-racist progress. It is unconscionable to continue allowing such a petty self-interested man to wield influence into this volatile time. He has personally made Eugene less safe to live and conduct business in.”

Mayor Vinis, City Council members, in those two weeks, I have been doing my homework to ensure that Mike Clark is held accountable for his actions that have gone unchecked for far too long. And I don’t intend to stop there. In this short amount of time I have personally fielded almost a dozen in-depth one-on-one phone calls with other community activists who share the same grave concern that Mike Clark’s position on City Council is a detriment to the safety of our community. So I ask you all: What are you doing to hold him and yourselves accountable?

John Q. Murray: Ben Christensen commented on Jan. 25.

Ben Christensen: There is no neutral position when it comes to white supremacy. Either you’re an advocate for equal rights or you’re complicit in a system that values one group of people’s lives over another, by not taking a stronger stance on white supremacy and allow the Eugene Police to create two standards for protests.

You have created an environment that actually fosters white supremacy. This lack of accountability has allowed racist organizations in your community to recruit new members and to spread racist, propaganda and hate. And as a result, the level of violence against your BIPOC community has steadily increased.

This is a fundamental failure of a combination of individuals, the Eugene Police, the City Council, the Mayor’s office, the City Manager’s office to fundamentally realize (what is) one of the biggest threats that your community faces. Historically, what maintains systems of white supremacy is a combination of violence, intimidation, and fear.

But it also requires one more thing. The complacency of the people in power who benefit from the system as it currently is. In his writing, (Dr. Martin Luther) King explains that people that he’s the most disappointed with are not the racists. It’s the white liberals who claim to support it, but they still stand by and do nothing.

John Q. Murray: Ben followed up on Feb. 8.

Ben Christensen: I did what Councilor Clark said, last meeting. I watched the speech after he was called out for dog-whistling after the Capitol attack. And I also went back and looked at many of the previous things he just said during this time on the council. What I saw was a guy who pushes the narrative of white nationalism and uses coded language to appear less radical to the moderate members of the city council.

In college, I studied mass movements and white nationalism. I wrote about political and religious extremism. We have millions of people that are heavily armed and believe an election was stolen and it doesn’t take much coded language to get those people to take action that will get people killed.

Eugene has a history of white supremacy in government, and it’s way past time to say enough is enough. I support the immediate resignation of Mike Clark.

John Q. Murray: After the public comment period on Jan. 25, Council members Evans, Zelenka, and Clark spoke.

Greg Evans: Yeah, thanks mayor. Tonight a number of people made comments specifically towards the racial issues that we have going on in this country and also in this community. One of the things I’d like to say about that is this. Since I’ve been here for 35 years, before I came here people said that Oregon was a great place. There wasn’t any discrimination, racism didn’t exist, but I got here, I found out differently. I would walk down the street, people roll down their windows of their cars and call me the N-word or throw garbage at me. All of my children who have grown up here, in first grade, they knew, they were called [derogatory racist term omitted]. Right?

So how do you explain to a five- or six-year-old what a [derogatory racist term omitted] is, and understand that that is the first experience that they have with understanding or being taught that there’s something less than in this community. It happened all the way through, from grade school through high school. And I know because, my sons would go play football and they would experience those same kind of comments from other schools in this area.

When my daughter came home and asked me that question, I had a real hard time. Like I did with my boys, explaining what that was about, and that those people were ignorant, and they did not know you, understand you or anything. Yeah. Yeah. I can’t begin to tell you just half of the stuff that I’ve gone through or my family has gone through in this community.

Yeah, it didn’t just start here. And I grew up in Ohio. Similar. Same thing would happen. You go, you drive through the wrong community. The cops would stop you. If you went across the wrong street, that would be a fight. This is the stuff that continues to go on. And I, I had a conversation with a couple of my friends a few months ago about what was going on this past summer. And they said, Okay, let’s see how long this lasts, because we know that a lot of white people can’t hold their attention on anything for very long. So yeah, take that for what it’s worth.

Lucy Vinis: Thank you, Councilor Evans for very sobering comments. Councilor Zelenka and then Councilor Clark.

Alan Zelenka: Yeah. Thank you for saying that, Greg. I we do have racism in Eugene and it’s pretty significant. I both just blatant racism that Greg is talking about institutional racism and the stories and incidents that I have heard of being a counselor over the last 14 years, curls curl your hair on the back of your neck and make me sick in the stomach.

It’s just awful stuff that people have and hatred, they have. But I did want to comment about a couple of people that were talking about Councilor Clark and I have served on council with Councilor Clark for 14 years. And I have never heard him be in support of white supremacy. And I do not consider him a racist.

You may not like what he says, or the way he says it, but that’s different. I’ve appreciated Mike’s different perspective than mine over the years, but I don’t consider him a racist or a supporter of white supremacy.

Lucy Vinis: Thank you. Councilor Clark.

Mike Clark: Thank you, Councilor Zelenka, I appreciate that more than, um, more than I can say. Thank you, sir. Greg. Councilor Evans. I can’t begin to imagine the things you’ve gone through in our community and I appreciate your, the strength of your words very much.

John Q. Murray: After the public comment period on Feb. 8, Councilor Syrett, Councilor Clark, and Mayor Vinis responded.

Claire Syrett: On the couple of folks who’ve repeatedly come before this council and asked us to take some kind of action against one of the members of our council. It is not the role of this council to decide whether or not another counselor is fit to serve on this council, nor is it our role to sit in judgment of each other.

There is no mechanism for this council to remove a member. Each of us was duly elected by the constituents in our ward, and they are the only ones who can determine whether or not we continue to serve on this body.

John Q. Murray: Council member Mike Clark.

Mike Clark: It’s challenging to sit quietly and listen to people speak untruths about me. I value the process here and I value their right to speak and their opinions are theirs and their beliefs are theirs. And that’s awesome. I think that’s a good thing that we all have our own. But they’ve leveled accusations that aren’t true.

And I want to state that real clearly. I’ve done it before as best I know how, but I have absolutely no sympathy for— excuse me. This is hard for me because I don’t like being attacked that way.

I have no sympathy at all for white supremacists. I think they’re dangerous idiots. There’s a difference between a white supremacist and a Republican. I’m the latter and not the former. There’s a difference between people who are sympathetic to white nationalism, ’cause those guys are idiots and there’s a difference between that and being a conservative. And for me, the fundamental difference is, those who would speak in extremes want to tear the system down and replace it with something else. Conservatives and Republicans I see as part of a good faith of those across the political spectrum who want to build the system up and who want us to be able to work together better and to work towards more peace and more justice. And that’s what my intention is. That’s why I spend the time at this table so that we have better understanding between people of different opinions and so that we can work more towards a more just community as we go.

And I have a lot to learn about how to do that, and I’m perfectly happy to do it, but it’s hard to hear those things. So I just want to say that.

Lucy Vinis: Thank you. Uh, Councilor Clark, I’m glad you had an opportunity to get to speak and would remind people that we are elected. And, uh, we’re elected by our constituents. Councilor Clark will come up for reelection again, and you have an opportunity in a fair election just to see if there’s, uh, if you’re interested in having someone else in that ward, but for now he’s the elected City Councilor and he, um, can learn from experience.

So, uh, we appreciate his, his dedication to the work and you can, you can rise up, uh, uh, an opponent for him in his next, in his next election.

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