/Southern Oregon confronts its problem with racism after fatal November shooting of Black teen Aidan Ellison

Southern Oregon confronts its problem with racism after fatal November shooting of Black teen Aidan Ellison


Jordan Culver
 
| USA TODAY

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An Oregon community group is calling for change to address racism in the wake of the fatal shooting of a Black teenager by a white man in an incident that police said began as an argument over loud music. 

Aidan Ellison, 19, was found dead with a single gunshot wound to the chest early Nov. 23 after officers responded to reports of a shooting in the parking lot of a hotel, according to police in Ashland, a predominantly white community near the state’s California border.

Robert Paul Keegan, 47, was arrested on a murder charge, though he claimed he was in fear for his physical safety, according to the probable cause affidavit for Keegan’s arrest obtained by USA TODAY. His claim is refuted by the arresting officer in his report. 

At around 4 a.m. on the day of the shooting, Keegan was awakened by “loud music” in the parking lot of the Stratford Inn, where he was staying. He asked Ellison to turn the music down and Ellison refused, the report said. 

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Keegan then got dressed, grabbed a semiautomatic handgun and went to the hotel’s front desk to complain to a clerk, according to the affidavit.

While the clerk was speaking with Ellison in the parking lot, Keegan “came to the parking lot and confronted” the teenager, according to the report. 

Ellison and Keegan argued, and Keegan claimed Ellison punched him in the face several times, according to the report. Keegan shot Ellison once, striking him in the chest.

“An autopsy revealed no injuries to Ellison’s hands that would be indicative of him punching Keegan,” the arresting officer said in a report. “Keegan had no visible injuries to his face.” 

Ellison and Keegan were both guests at the hotel and didn’t know each other, police said in a statement

A local community organization condemned the shooting as an act of racism. Southern Oregon Black Leaders, Activists, and Community Coalition (SOBLACC) released a statement expressing outrage and saying “racism continues to endanger Black bodies and Black lives.”

“Ashland, and all of Southern Oregon has a problem with racism, and the only way to address this problem is to demand stronger policies that protect Black lives and more severe consequences for anti-Black racism,” the group said in a Facebook post. 

SOBLACC organized a Dec. 7 meeting “for Black people living in Southern Oregon to create a Black Agenda.”

The case has also drawn the attention of civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who raised the prospect of hate crime charges against Keegan on Twitter.

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“We are looking at this and we are open to finding evidence that would support this, as of yet we have not uncovered anything that brings us to the legal threshold to charge it as a hate crime,” Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara said in an email to USA TODAY. 

In a Facebook post, O’Meara said Ellison was killed “because the suspect chose to bring a gun with him and chose to use it, 100% on him, not the poor young man that was murdered.”

According to the Oregon Department of Justice, “A hate crime happens when somebody intentionally uses offensive physical contact, threatens physical injury or threatens to cause damage to the property of another person because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin.” 

Keegan is also charged with first-degree manslaughter, “reckless endangering” and “unlawful carrying or concealment of a firearm” and is being held without bond. The “reckless endangering” charge is because Keegan fired the gun in proximity of the hotel clerk, according to O’Meara.  

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A city of about 21,000 people, Ashland’s population is 92.5% white and 1.4% Black, according to the U.S. Census.

Julie Akins, the city’s newly-elected mayor, called on residents to “take stock of systemic racism which continues to cause the death of our brothers and sisters of color,” in a statement posted to Facebook

“Aidan by all accounts was merely being, living his life,” she said. “Now his life is gone. And with it comes yet another reminder of how deadly white privilege can be.”

She added, “There is no other way of speaking about this but bluntly: white supremacy and racism is embedded in language, culture, and the zeitgeist of the United States and every community therein. Until we face this reality, apologize for it and make amends – these acts of violence will continue to bind us to our historic and continued oppression.”