Protesters marched to Ontario City Hall, starting at West Park Plaza and making their way down Southwest Fourth Avenue. (The Enterprise/Rachel Parsons)

ONTARIO - The Black Lives Matter protest in Ontario Thursday night was an unprecedented event in Malheur County.

By 6 p.m., hundreds of people of all different ages and ethnic backgrounds formed a crowd in the West Park Plaza. The countless signs in hand were emblematic of the fact that they all gave up their evening for the same reason.

On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in police custody. Four officers subsequently have been charged in connection with his murder.

Over the past week, the pervasive sense of pain and frustration exhibited in protests across the country was felt halfway across the country in eastern Oregon — first Hermiston and Pendleton, then Ontario.

The initial protest in Ontario was followed by a second on Friday night, counting fewer participants but featuring a determined and passionate speech to the demonstrators by Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero.

As the Thursday night protest began, the crowd gathered along and behind the edge of the sidewalk, facing the street with their signs held high: “enough is enough;” “march and protest for George Floyd, it happens here too;” “brown lives for black lives;” “no one is free when others are oppressed.”

“If we silence ourselves, that’s more violence. We need to support anyone no matter who they are,” said Ontario resident Mimi Rodriguez, who was pleased with the turnout.

“Especially Ontario, with all the people that came out, I’m sure more people wanted to come here but, because of their jobs, they could not be here,” she said.

One after another, people in cars honked while raising their fists, giving thumbs up, waving and holding signs of their own, which continued as the march got underway.

Chants of “black lives matter” could be heard throughout the long, moving line of protesters heading down Southwest Fourth Avenue. One man riding his bike alongside those marching rang a bell, while a woman with a “hope for all” sign on her window enthusiastically honked her horn before later rerouting back the same way to do it again.

Several children in passing cars interacted with the crowd. One held a sign that said “hands up, don’t shoot” and another waved at the protesters with a sign posted on the window stating “George Floyd change the world.”

The crowd passed many bystanders — some showed support through gestures or words, and many others filmed as they walked by. Whether they all agreed with the cause, it was impossible not to notice the march, one of the largest in recent Ontario history.

Chants of “No justice, no peace” turned to “I can’t breathe” as the protesters poured into the lot in front of Ontario City Hall and formed a crowd outside the building. “Say his name, George Floyd.” “Black lives matter.”

Organizer Charlie Gonzalez told the crowd, “Don’t be silent. Don’t be scared. Now’s your time to share your story so we can make a change.”

“This is something that everybody, they’ve got to tell their grandkids,” said another speaker. “It’s not just about George Floyd, this is about your kids.”

“What’s sad is my mom is African-American, I’ve seen her go through some racist stuff around here, and I’ve personally gone through some racist stuff,” said Gonzalez. He said his cousin was once walking out of a grocery store when he was run over by a Ku Klux Klan member in a car.

“This is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in this community,” he said, adding that he was holding back tears.

Gonzalez said black and brown people “are treated a lot differently than Caucasians in this community.”

One speaker, who said he is trying to become a teacher, told of a time that he felt he was targeted by police. He was leaving work and sitting in his car, with an officer in a parked car watching them. The speaker said that after he started driving, the officer pulled him over and said it was because he crossed a line on the street. The officer asked if he was okay to drive and then asked for identification.

“I’m not going to say his name, but I’ll never forget his name,” he said of the officer. “As long as I’m a teacher, I’ll teach your kids peace, love and equality.”

“It’s a beautiful thing to see a community come together as one, as a unit,” another speaker said. “All lives don’t matter until black lives matter.”

One protester said that the crowd was the most diverse she had ever seen.

“This is an eye opener of what this community is. We are united,” she said, encouraging the crowd to chant the same. Several protesters also briefly spoke out in support of the LGBTQ community.

At one point, the crowd began chanting, “Please come outside,” directed at city councilors inside city hall. Some people on the second floor watched from inside, one appearing to grimace slightly.

Gonzalez said he will reach out to the Ontario City Council to ask how police officers are hired and whether they are subject to thorough background checks.

He told a story about being pulled over while driving home after speaking at a protest in Idaho. He immediately told the officer that his friend’s firearm was in the back, he said, and soon found himself thrown on the ground in handcuffs before he was let go two hours later.

“Please be careful leaving this protest and, when you leave this protest, continue to be peaceful,” he said.

When the crowd realized that there were several city councilors in front of them listening, the protesters kneeled and said, “Thank you.”

Gonzalez told protesters to hold their flyers in the air. If they did not have one, he said to hold their fists in the air. Then, he walked through the crowd — who chanted, “No justice, no peace” — as he led them back to where they started.

The crowd passed city code enforcement officers on their way. One looked away from the crowd. One gave a thumbs up as they chanted, “Black lives matter.” Another nodded when they chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” When protesters walked by a parked car, a toddler in the back seat joyfully yelled “Black lives matter.” By the time they made it back to their starting point, he was walking among them, chanting the same line.

Rodriguez told the Enterprise that it was touching to see the crowd ask for councilors to leave city hall and that the protest was unlike anything he had seen in the community before.

“There’s a division that everybody feels in our country and our community,” he said. “Everybody’s asking for unity, and that’s what I got from this today.” Selina Carrasco, a protester who was born and raised in Ontario, said she expected the event to have a small turnout because she thought many would be afraid of people driving around and trying to intimidate them.

“We came together as a cohesive unit, we were able to push that away,” Carrasco said.

A follow-up protest and march took place the next day in Ontario, starting at the Saint Alphonsus Health Plaza. After the protesters marched to Ontario City Hall, Police Chief Steven Romero spoke.

For the past six months, Romero said, he has been analyzing his agency, which he took over about a year ago.

“We can always improve, and I’d be lying if I said that we couldn’t,” he said. “I’m standing here before you to assure you that I’m not here to fail as a chief.”

Brendon Alexander, Malheur County deputy district attorney assured the crowd that any person who comes forward “about actions of the police department, actions of private citizens, any kind of report” should not be concerned about their immigration status.

“We do not cooperate with the federal immigration authorities,” Alexander said. “You can feel absolutely assured that we have no interest whatsoever in your immigration status. Our interest is in keeping this community safe.”

After the protesters marched back to their starting point, Gonzalez addressed them one final time.

“What you guys have been doing out here, it’s getting heard,” he said.

“Please, please, please don’t stop,” Gonzalez said. “Do not be scared to speak up. If you guys stay silent, we’re going to be in the same situation that we are in today.”

News tip? Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian at [email protected] or at 503-929-3053.

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