(We also recorded our interview with Soper as a podcast, which you can access below.)
Redmond Police officers attended in plain clothes and made no arrests. Aside of the obvious danger of exacerbating the spread of COVID-19, the crowd was peaceful. Dozens shared stories of economic devastation since Brown put the state on lockdown over a month ago.
- Screenshot via Zoom
- B.J. Soper talks to the Source Weekly via Zoom from his farm in Redmond. He's organized "Town hall 2" in front of Redmond City Hall this Friday.
A few wore masks. Most stood close together and exchanged warm greetings and hugs.
Their primary demand? Re-open the economy. Similar protests erupted throughout the U.S. last weekend and will likely continue in the weeks and months ahead.
B.J. Soper, a Redmond resident since 2005 and a former professional rodeo rider, organized the demonstration. The week before the protest, he began posting the event on Facebook, going door-to-door to businesses in downtown Redmond to invite them to come down to Redmond City Hall to send a message to their elected officials, he told the Source.
“I feel that we are being misled by inaccurate information and numbers,” Soper told us. “I feel like it’s become a political issue, and in the meantime our neighbors are suffering.
“Yes the lockdown is too extreme, and the bigger issue is that the ‘rules’ coming down are from a singular voice, not from a representation of the people as a whole… our republican form of government has failed to exist at the most critical of moments,” Soper said.
- Townhall 2 Promotion via Facebook
Most shared personal stories of financial ruin: one couple described paying rent for an empty hair salon. A bar owner talked about depression and social isolation. A massage therapist said she had no business and no unemployment insurance yet.
Mark Moore, owner of Rimrock Taphouse near downtown Redmond, is one of the many business owners and independent contractors who attended the April 17 demonstration. His business is down 60% compared with April 2019, he said. Instead of applying for the Paycheck Protection Program from the federal government, he’s trying to keep expenses down by working all the time. As he comes to the phone for an interview, glasses clank in the background. He addresses his customers by name before handing the reins to his wife, Laura.
“I hope elected officials will recognize that one size doesn’t fit all,” Mark said. “According to the Governor, if there’s outbreaks and shutdowns on one side of the Cascades, every part is shut down. St. Charles had zero patients the other day. We’ve mitigated as much as we can. We can still do social distancing and do business.”
For one day, April 21, St. Charles Bend had zero COVID-positive patients at the hospital, according to Lisa Goodman, public information officer for St. Charles Health System. While Deschutes County has a total of 66 COVID-positive cases (the fifth highest in the state), Jefferson County has two and Crook County has one. Moving east, Grant County has one, Harney County as zero and Malheur County has five, according to April 22 data from the Oregon Health Authority.
But what about the risks of another outbreak of COVID-19 if the Governor eases restrictions too fast? Even rural areas could experience a major outbreak that overwhelms their hospitals.
“Do I think it’s dangerous, yes, 49,000 people have died [in the U.S.],” Moore said. “To me life is a risk… At some point it is worth the risk to me to go back to work and make a living, as much as it is to stay home and worry about it.”
Moore plans to attend the second rally in Redmond Friday.
- Promotional material via Facebook
Soper is the head of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard (507 followers), which has been described as part of a national movement grounded in distrust of the federal government, as described by The Washington Post.
Soper lived in an RV near the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the standoff between law enforcement and an armed group of far-right extremists who were illegally occupying the headquarters in 2016. Soper told the Source his intention was to act as a moderator and talk the occupiers into standing down.
Redmond Mayor George Endicott wrote in an email to the Source, “Unfortunately, the protesters who organized the event on April 17 have a history of disregarding government authority, and some have a history of hoping for conflict with authorities.
“The police were present at the rally, however they were in plain clothes and went unnoticed (we also wanted to protect them from people who would not have regard for police officer safety from COVID). Other regional and federal law enforcement were also involved/aware of the tactics,” Endicott said.
Hear our interview, featuring Source Weekly Publisher Aaron Switzer and Reporter Laurel Brauns chatting with BJ Soper, organizer of the Redmond demonstrations:
The national picture
Soper denied any connection to other anti-quarantine protests that have erupted around the country. President Trump supported some of these, tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege.”
This has led some to believe the demonstrations nationwide are supported and funded by Washington, D.C.-based conservative organizations.
But Soper says the local town hall was organized through local Facebook connections and face-to-face conversations with people in Redmond. Soper said he couldn’t speak for the whole group, but that many of the people there are struggling financially as a result of complying with the lockdowns and are angry because “they were promised help that had failed to materialize,” he said.
Soper said he reached out to elected officials in Redmond and Deschutes County commissioners, asking them to come to "Town hall 2" on Friday. County Commissioner Phil Henderson told Soper he would attend, Soper said.
“I know all our neighbors are suffering… That was my pure intention, was to find a process to getting our families back to work, getting our people back to work,” he said. The last thing he wants is to escalate violent conflict, he said. Soper is married, has two kids and raises farm animals for a living.
Over 10,000 people have filed unemployment claims in Deschutes County over the last four weeks, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
But what about the virus?
“This particular virus has become politicized, fear mongered, and presented with arbitrary data that doesn’t provide a full view of the dangers it actually presents,” Soper said. “How can a true assessment be presented when the very vast majority infected never get tested, rarely go to the doctor and usually recover without any outside intervention?”
Like Moore, the owner of Rimrock Taphouse, Soper says he never denied COVID-19 was real or dangerous. Their view is that people who are potentially vulnerable should remain in quarantine, while everyone else goes back to work.
The Oregon Health Authority has reported under 2,000 tests so far in Deschutes County, with a population of almost 200,000 people. Currently the only people who can be approved for a test in this region are those who talk to their doctor and show symptoms. St. Charles Bend may offer tests for those without symptoms as part of a long-term strategy in the future.
As for this Friday’s "Town hall 2," Soper was not issued a permit by the City of Redmond, but he doesn’t need permission from the government as a general rule, he said.
“This is not a protest,” Soper said. “It’s the community coming together insistent on finding a solution to our problems with or without the blessing or help of the governing bodies. It’s a statement from our community that we still understand the concept of a self-governing society. It’s a statement from our community that when issues arise we will look to the elected we hired to solve the problem, but that we are not afraid to work towards a solution when they fail at their duty.”