ASHLAND -- Two women spoke to Ashland City Council Tuesday evening, requesting council members and the mayor acknowledge and converse with the individuals who have been protesting police brutality and racism in downtown Ashland for more than a month.
Ashland resident, Erin Schaefer and one other expressed disappointment in a "lack of dialogue" between city leadership and the local group that now peacefully protests at least once daily at the corner of Main Street and Claremont Avenue.
The two were joined by a small group of other local protesters in council chambers.
"I'm not asking any of you to hold a sign. I'm asking you to have a conversation," Schaefer said. "If we can't even discuss racism in our community, how will we ever address it?"
She pointed to Mayor Matt Miller's presence at the Shield the Line Rally, an event held in late June to support local law enforcement.
"I saw that you Mayor Matt went to the police rally, and I support that. I'm glad that you went to the rally because this group (the downtown protesters) is not anti-police, this group is not against the police, it is against police brutality and racism that occurs," Schaefer said.
Referencing the biblical parable where Jesus tells his disciples to cast their net on the opposite side of their boat, Schaefer asked Ashland leaders to purposefully put themselves outside their own comfort zones.
In the story, the disciples listen, leaving behind their usual routine of fishing on the one side. Upon moving their net to the other side of the boat, they reel in plenty of fish.
"It's easy to go to the places where you know people -- like a big police rally; it is easy to go to a places where people are similar, where they think the same, where they have the same views, where they support what you do," Schaefer said. "But people on the corner are no less a part of Ashland, people on the corner are no less important, they do not have any less value."
Her counterpart, Lisa Shafer is currently spending the summer in Ashland, which is her hometown. She expressed intentions to move back.
"I'm so pleased with the way Ashland has changed in terms of its beauty with the flowers, and the brewery and the theatre and it's really looking great, but I too am very concerned about an ugliness that we are not acknowledging," she said.
She relayed a story of passerby who told a Black girl at the downtown protest that he hated her for her race. The girl sat quietly, and when he left, she and her mother prayed for the man, according to Shafer.
"It's not okay to say racism doesn't exist in Ashland. It's not okay to focus only on the beautiful parts of Ashland," she said. "We need to dig deeper into our souls, and make every Ashlander feel special."
Schaefer also recounted her experience attending the protests at least twice a week since early June.
"Each time I am there our group gets flipped off, screamed at, cussed at, told to get a job -- even though we have jobs -- and we've even had people yell 'white power' at us multiple times. Yet even with this hostility, the group remains calm, peaceful and steadfast in its mission," she said.
She has heard some accuse the local protesters of being members of Antifa or getting paid to stand with their signs. This isn't true, she said.
Neither is the sentiment she's seen on social media that racism doesn't exist in Ashland, she continued
"Even in someplace special, there are people who do not feel connected, supported and accepted," Schaefer said.
Following the meeting, Mayor Matt Miller did respond and shared how city level law enforcement works to prevent the "ugliness we've seen in these other places around the country."
"I want to make very clear I haven't heard any of our city leaders, including our police department, say there is not racism in Ashland. Racism exists all across this country and all across this world," Miller said. "Now, I will say, however, we do a lot to emphasize especially with our new officers that they treat everyone with dignity and respect, gentleness and humility and kindness, even those who may not be obeying the local law."
Since the local protests began, the mayor said he has spoken with a handful of people about race.
"I will be glad to listen to anyone who has a concern, and what I'm interested in is hearing is individuals' personal experiences with racism here in our community," he said. "So far the people I've been meeting with are Black, they've lived here most of their lives."
On the experiences shared from Schaefer and Shafer, the mayor also commented.
"It is very disheartening to hear these stories of some of the comments and some of the ridicule that some of the folks standing on the corner are hearing from passing motorists, and we do not support that," he said.
Councilman Robert Valentine chimed in, too.
"Just because I'm not down there doesn't mean I don't agree with them. They have more free time than me. I run a store in town, I have grandkids I watch three days a week, a dog I have to take care of," he said. "And I feel sorry for them if they had to put up with that abuse, but the way it is, I can't stop that abuse."
He said Tuesday was the first occasion that he'd been personally invited to visit the scene of the downtown protests. He didn't indicate whether or not he'd accept the invitation.
"It depends. Do I need to go down? She asked the whole council to go down," Valentine said.