Klamath Falls struggles to embrace equity
Following racial justice protests last summer, the Klamath Falls City Council created an equity task force. The goal was to better understand inequities in the city and to come up with recommendations for how to address those inequities. A year later, just before task force members presented their final report to the city council, a man in council chambers physically threatened Eric Osterberg, the person leading the equity task force. Osterberg is leaving his job as assistant to the city manager of Klamath Falls to be the city manager of Ferguson, Missouri. He joins us to reflect on the task force recommendations and what happened at the meeting on Monday night.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. One year ago, the Klamath Falls City Council voted to create an Equity Task Force. It followed tense moments at racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. This week, the task force delivered its final report to the City Council, but before they could even begin, a man wielding a rock threatened violence against Eric Osterberg who served as the Assistant to the City Manager and who helped facilitate the task force’s work. Eric Osterberg joins us now to talk about that work and the events on Monday night. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Eric Osterberg: Thanks for having me again.
Miller: Can you remind us what prompted the creation of this Equity Task Force last year?
Osterberg: Certainly. Following the protests on May 31st, wherein there was a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters on one side of our street downtown. Then on the other side of the street there were counter protesters, about 100 people, mostly men armed with guns. City Council recognized that there was a serious issue of division in our community and directed staff to try and figure out a way to address that issue. What we came up with was a two stage equity process. First, kind of an information gathering stage where we convene voices, we bring voices to the table that have historically not been represented in our city government and hear their perspective on the matter and kind of lean into them and rely on their lived experiences to kind of guide us and come up with some solutions for us to actually address these issues. And that first stage just ended this past Monday.
Miller: What were you personally most hoping to accomplish as the city’s lead in guiding this task force?
Osterberg: I think the most important thing for me, again, kind of repeating the comments I just gave, is that just bringing in voices that have historically not been represented in City Hall, in the city of Klamath Falls.
Miller: Can you give us a sense of who you’re talking about? Not individual people, but who were the voices that you thought it was most important to reach out to and to hear from?
Osterberg: I think the Black population, the Asian population and the Native population as well as the Latino or Latinx population had historically not really had a presence in City Hall.
Miller: How did you go about reaching out to those different communities?
Osterberg: Following the protests last year, the Black Lives Matter protesters, I just reached out to the lead of the protest group (his name is Wreck), and I asked him who he thought would be a good representation because I came from Colorado last year and didn’t have kind of a deep connection to the community yet at that point.
Miller: What stood out most to you in what you ended up hearing based on all of this community reaching out for me?
Osterberg: I’ll talk about two things. The first one was during the recruitment process for the task force and then during the task force meeting over the past year. Something that I heard multiple times was a concern about coming forward with these perspectives, the perspective of someone who had been discriminated against within Klamath Falls. There was a large worry from people who turned down being on the task force and members of the task force that they would be targets for violence. I think the second most interesting thing was just hearing, just learning more about the history of Klamath Falls and how a lot of those historical, racial divisions had just kind of gone unaddressed up until we were having the conversations that we were having.
Miller: As you noted, this is just what finished on Monday is really just the end of the beginning. What are you asking city officials to do going forward? What do you see as the most important next steps?
Osterberg: I think that the Equity Task Force came up with some remarkable recommendations to the City Council. They came up with those recommendations through kind of stakeholder engagement within our community, as well as seeing what other task forces around equity and social justice, racial justice have accomplished throughout the country. So, what they brought before council is pretty comprehensive and I think some of the most important recommendations from the city, everything from funding, to fund some sort of water facilitator to working with other community groups and other government agencies in the Klamath Basin. I think that’s central vision especially because of the water crisis in Klamath Basin. The second one I would say is that having someone at the city serving as an equity liaison, someone who is Black, Indigenous, a Person of Color at the very least who can kind of serve as a bridge between the city, who is majority white and the community which has some diversity to it.
Miller: There were two specific things you mentioned there, among others, the equity liaison and then having the city take a more active role in fostering conversations about water issues about drought and scarcity. Those are issues that we’ve talked about a lot on this show in the last few weeks. How much buy in have you seen or heard from city leaders about both of these proposals?
Osterberg: Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve heard that what’s called the Bucket Brigade, their tent was on city property for the past few months trying to rally people together, to challenge the Tribe’s rights to water. The city moved to take that tent down. So it seems like there was some immediate impact from the presentation on Monday.
Miller: Are you talking about the Information Center near the Canal A gate? Because I thought that was private property? Or is that different from the Bucket Brigade from 2001?
Osterberg: From what I’m understanding, they’re kind of the remnants of that group.
Miller: Okay, let’s turn to what happened on Monday night, because as I mentioned briefly, before you could even give your presentation of the City Council, there was a very scary and dramatic event. Do you mind telling us the story?
Osterberg: Absolutely. So right before I was going to go up to the City Council and give my presentation that night, probably ten minutes before the start of the meeting, an individual came into the room with a rock. I watched him walk into the room, kind of look around the room, make eye contact with me, come down the aisle and then sit next to me. What proceeded after that was escalating comments, taking shots at me. He mentioned that he thought that I was responsible for spreading HIV and AIDS in the community, which I believe was an attack on my sexuality. He also said that I think that I’m equivalent to Jesus because I’m here to call all white people racist. I tried to reason with the man and say that, hey, none of the things that the Equity Task Force is bringing forward tonight says anything along the lines of all white people in Klamath Falls are racist. So, I hope that you stick around and I’d be happy to talk with you. But then he eventually escalated to saying that he was there to stone me for being a sinner, which kind of shook me in the moment.
Miller: What happened after that?
Osterberg: The police chief escorted him out. It does not sound like he was arrested. I’m disappointed to hear that there was a police contact with this individual yesterday and he still was not arrested. He was just interviewed. I’m very confused about how the situation is being handled, when to me it seems like it was an attempt at a hate crime.
Miller: According to the most recent article that I’ve seen about this in the Herald and News, the man who was holding a rock and said he was going to stone you, he was escorted out of the building by the Klamath Falls Police Chief who happened to be at that meeting, Robert Dentinger. But he wasn’t arrested because quote, and this is from the chief in the Herald newspaper as of Monday night, “there was not enough information to arrest him and the Chief added as things change, we are going to have to talk to him.’ How did the City Council or other local leaders who were there respond to what happened?
Osterberg: Frankly, I think they responded with a lack of leadership. There was a room full of people who were in earshot of that conversation, so I’m surprised there wasn’t enough evidence to make that arrest.
Miller: What do you think this lack of response to what happened says about where the leadership of Klamath Falls is right now?
Osterberg: To the leadership of Klamath Falls’ credit, I think there was a major step made with being willing to have this conversation to begin with. But I think there’s a little bit of stalling happening when it comes to actually responding to the voices that are being heard. As a Black man in local government, I’ve always worried that just maybe my presence in an organization would be one of tokenism where I’m used or leveraged to bringing the voices, but then there’s no change that occurs and I’m I’m unfortunately afraid of that being the case of what’s happening in Klamath Falls currently.
Miller: I should note that Jefferson Public Radio has reported that the police Chief has said that the incident is under investigation and that it could potentially bring menacing or harassment charges. I’m curious what it was like for you to go through with your presentation mere minutes after being physically threatened because of who you are and what you were about to talk about.
Osterberg: In the moment, it was quite surreal. It didn’t seem like what I was hearing was actually what I was hearing. The threat of being stoned by someone for being a sinner is not something that I think most people would expect in 2021. So it kind of took me out of myself for a bit. But I just gathered myself together and tried to, as best as possible, present that report. I felt that under that pressure there was a lot of important details nuanced to the Equity Task Force that I just did not do justice to. I ended up leaving the chambers before the end of the presentation due to how shook up I was about it.
Miller: I mentioned that you had been the Assistant to the City Manager of Klamath Falls. That’s past tense because you’ve accepted a job and soon you’re going to be starting it to be the City Manager in Ferguson, Missouri. I have a feeling I’m not alone in only knowing the name of that city because that’s where Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, leading after that, famously, to a lot of unrest and a huge round of national conversations about policing and race and systemic racism. Why did you want this particular job?
Osterberg: I felt that the impacts that I could make at this stage of my career with the experience that I have would have a pretty good chance of helping that community move forward in partnership with the City Council there. I think there’s a lot of potential in the city of Ferguson and a lot of people who have come out and started to be very public and active in the community. I think that there’s, again, just a massive potential to move past that. Even more than that, I think there’s a potential for the city of Ferguson, addressing some of these issues, addressing police brutality, are things that we can be a model for for the rest of the nation.
Miller: What do you think you’re most going to remember from your time in Klamath Falls?
Osterberg: I think the people there are very good and I built a lot of relationships there that I hope to continue to build on for the rest of my life. A lot of close friends. Something that was heartwarming this week is that I’ve received several messages, a handful now, about between 10 and 12 at this point, of messages from people who I met just a couple of times in my short time in Klamath Falls. I think there’s a really good chance for the community to heal and address these problems. I just think at the end of the day there needs to be stronger political leadership.
Miller: Eric Osterberg, thanks very much for joining us. Best of luck to you in your next position.
Osterberg: Thank you.
Miller: That’s Eric Osterberg, former Assistant to the City Manager of Klamath Falls, the incoming City Manager of Ferguson, Missouri.
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