Editor's Notebook: Inside a tense moment during an otherwise peaceful protest march

Kirby Neumann-Rea

Oblige me while I weigh in on a letter to the editor published during my week of vacation at the end of February.

Newspapers sometimes take advantage of the “having the last word” advantage when editors or reporters write something like this in response to a letter (which is why we rarely run “editor’s notes” at the end of letters).

In this case I am responding to the letter in the Feb. 25 edition by Kevin Herman of White Salmon. Herman and I have traded emails on the letter, and upon my request he altered his wording slightly, so my intent here is not the last word but to expand on a portion of the story that Herman took issue with. It was a story I wrote, about last month’s “Day Without Immigrants” march from the Heights to downtown.

In Herman ’s letter, which was thoughtful and balanced, the particular paragraph started, “The article goes on to describe a driver in a Washington pick-up truck as being ‘aggressive’ towards marchers, all because that driver was trying to drive somewhere and refused to stop or change direction when asked to by marchers …”

Herman went on, “It was clearly stated in the article that the marchers were illegally marching in the middle of the street and blocking traffic. (That’s a familiar theme). So, who was truly causing a problem or being ‘aggressive’? Not only are they supporters of illegal immigration, but on that day, they were illegal marchers as well (eventually they were instructed to remain on the sidewalk and did so).”

It is important to note that Herman was right in mentioning the fact that the march had not received appropriate permitting from Hood River Police. What was also clear was how orderly and respectful the marchers remained, albeit while blocking a lane of vehicle traffic.

As I reported, “March organizers had not taken out a parade permit, which Police Chief Neal Holste said technically was needed since the march did impede traffic. He spoke with organizer Jose Bibian at Overlook and Bibian repeated Holste’s instruction to remain on the sidewalks, to which marchers complied. Holste said no citations were issued, and he looked upon it as an educational opportunity for his officers and citizens.”

I felt that a little elaboration was in order, to my description of something that happened earlier, an episode which Herman had taken issue with. It was on the Heights, between Pine and May streets that I witnessed one thing I felt was important to reference in the story:

I attempted to limit my own description of the event, and adhere to my practice of letting people’s words do most of the work, and that was especially important in a story about a grassroots, community action event. I started my reporting at the start of the march, photographed the group as they got underway and talked with Bibian, then drove north to Pine Street and 12th and took more photos and did walking interviews with several marchers, and then drove downtown to be present at the end of the march.

“Organizers reported two instances of aggressive behavior toward marchers, including a pickup truck driver from Washington who edged into the middle of the

The fact that at least one letter writer would question this point brings me to wanting to address it a bit more; others might have felt the same way, and I would tell them the same thing I told Herman: “I was there, it was what I witnessed.”

I would also repeat my statement that, if anything, I did an insufficient job of describing that moment with the belligerent driver; use of that word is not really a value judgement because, in a passive-aggressive way, he was belligerent.

I was mindful of space, so I kept my description to a minimum, but I might have added a couple of more sentences, along the lines of this: “The driver refused to roll down his window and speak to the marchers, who made repeated requests to speak, and to please slow down or pull over and let the parade move on. The driver had the option at May Street to go east, to get away from the parade with minimal detour, but he instead kept going west on May, with the parade, maintaining his speed.”

When a reporter attends an event, and observes close-up the things that go on, it is up to him or her to write it in such a way that they are not part of the story or even appearing to be. The goal is normally to remain an omniscient observer, without placing themselves IN the situation, even just to the point that the reader is aware of their presence. It can be difficult to do, but in this case I wonder if the story might have benefited from a bit more description that pointed out that I was present at the moment.

I have no idea who the driver was, or what was going through his mind, though I can speculate: He didn’t like what the marchers were saying. But it was clear he was acting out, and had to be aware that he was posing a risk, albeit slight, to the safety of marchers. I say this because of his speed, relative to those on foot, and the fact that the streets were wet from rain, it was on a hill, and at a point where the route was turning. I learned later that the driver persisted in this all the way down 13th to State Street. Chief Holste was just a few cars back, however, but was unaware of the driver’s actions.

Would the driver have done this if police were present, if the parade was permitted? Probably not, but police aren’t everywhere along any parade route. Ultimately it is up to us as citizens to police ourselves, to protest peacefully, as the Day Without Immigrants certainly did.

And anyway, one cannot assume the driver of the truck knew the parade was not permitted. He was just acting like a jerk.

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