In ‘battle for the soul of Salem,’ a Black business owner is targeted

Desy Papper

Now, he and Ryan, who is White, wonder if this is the city to carry on their new beginning. The two have been targeted by far-right extremists and white-supremacist groups, and the attacks have intensified over the past few months as several of these groups, including those supporting President Trump, […]

Now, he and Ryan, who is White, wonder if this is the city to carry on their new beginning. The two have been targeted by far-right extremists and white-supremacist groups, and the attacks have intensified over the past few months as several of these groups, including those supporting President Trump, have held marches and rallies at the Capitol and spilled into downtown.

Demonstrations also have been held to protest Gov. Kate Brown (D) and her coronavirus restrictions and other policies. In December, a group of right-wing protesters entered the Oregon Capitol after a Republican state representative let them in. Republicans in the state have tried to recall Brown multiple times, and she and Trump have clashed on social media over her handling of last summer’s protests.

Over the weekend, the Oregon Capitol was locked down with windows boarded
and National Guard troops called up in the event of a violent attempted insurrection
, like the one in Washington on Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob
attacked the U.S. Capitol.

This year, especially the past few months, have “felt like a battle for the soul of Salem,” Jones said.

But Jones now feels like he is a target in the battle.

After a Nov. 27 rally by the Proud Boys, a male-chauvinist group with ties to white nationalism, Jones said a member of the group followed him and threatened him with bear spray. A week later, a security camera captured someone — Jones believes it was the same man — using white spray paint to cover a message in the window of his restaurant that says “Hate has no place here.” Salem police are investigating.

A few weeks later, street lamps and poles on the block around Epilogue were papered by Patriot Front, a white-nationalist group that sprang up after the violence in Charlottesville and has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others.

Jones and the restaurant also have been subjected to online harassment. Profiles with the same photo of Trump’s face but different account handles have trolled Epilogue’s Instagram page, leaving disparaging comments on videos of Jones and on pictures of the food. Jones said one comment called his wife a race traitor for marrying him.

Then, on Jan. 1, several rallies, including one organized by Oregon Women for Trump, drew members of the Proud Boys and the far-right Patriot Prayer group. Jones was headed to work at Epilogue after attending a rally sponsored by an anti-fascist group. He and a few friends were gathered outside his restaurant when about 20 participants from the far-right rallies confronted them and became aggressive. Police arrived, along with more Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer members, until, Jones says, there were about 50 of them surrounding the restaurant and about 20 police, including two armored cars.

Jones said he tried to explain to police that he owned the business they were trapped in front of, but it wasn’t until a White friend stepped forward to corroborate the story that police believed Jones was not the aggressor. Police eventually threw pepper bombs into the crowd of marchers to disperse them.

Jones and Ryan closed the restaurant for the rest of that afternoon and took the next day off. They talked about leaving Salem for good.

“Not even necessarily from fearing directly for our lives, though there was definitely fear for that,” Ryan said, “but just feeling like this was not the place for us anymore.”

Today, they vary their route home to make sure they aren’t being followed.

“Home is strange now,” Ryan said. “We’re basically just hoping that none of our neighbors are any of these people — and we’re fairly confident they’re not — but you can never really know.”

When an online campaign to post disparaging comments and leave poor reviews about the restaurant on Instagram and Facebook was underway in early January, friends and community members stepped up to counter and post positive stories. Jones and Ryan say their friends and people in the community have been mostly supportive.

“I think that it was pretty clear that it was a more conservative town, but I think we had a lot of blinders on because we were hopeful for the future,” Jones said of the couple’s decision to move to Salem. “So we didn’t really register the warning signs.

“We saw the potential,” he said. “The restaurant scene was in its infancy in Salem in terms of like, true caring about craft and experience. So we saw an opportunity to really thrive here, and this town was actually way more small-business friendly.”

Oregon, however, has a long dark history of racism. The authors of the state’s constitution in 1857 barred Black people from living there, and two years later a law was passed dictating public lashings for those who violated the decree.

The state also has a disproportionate number of active hate groups, according to classifications by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Still, despite all they have been through, Jones and his wife decided to spend the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday serving up to 200 free lunches downtown.

“Feeding the community was a huge part of the civil rights movement,” Jones said.

The restaurant partnered with a local radio station, 105.5 the Moon, to broadcast two of King’s most famous speeches over the noon hour while they handed out free chicken sandwiches and salad. Jones also passed out their homemade anti-racism guide with each plate, too.

Jones insisted the station play King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He was concerned that the former presents a unity narrative, he said, and he doesn’t believe that healing or unity can exist when ideologies such as those of Patriot Front and Patriot Prayer still hold power in his town.

He and Ryan will watch the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on TV at home on Wednesday. Epilogue will be closed. Only a security camera will keep watch.

“No physical presence, and we’ll be hoping that things stay quiet,” he said. “But I do not expect that to happen.”

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