ashland.news
May 19, 2024

Speakers call for work against racism as former student’s killer goes on trial

Students lay flowers at the foot of slain Aiden Ellison's memorial mural on Monday. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news
May 1, 2023

Ashland High School students walk out, hold rally in honor of Aidan Ellison’s memory

By Debora Gordon for Ashland.news

Aidan Ellison, a 19-year-old African American shot dead in the parking lot of the Stratford Inn in Ashland on Nov. 23, 2020, was remembered by students at Ashland High School, where he used to be a student, on Monday, May 1, the day his accused killer was set to go on trial.

Some 75 students walked out of classes at about 1 p.m., gathering on a vacant lot across North Mountain Drive from the high school to remember Ellison, killed after a hotel guest said he was playing music too loudly.

Robert Keegan, 49, claimed he shot Ellison in the chest in self-defense, but police reports said they found no evidence Keegan had been struck or Ellison struck anyone. Keegan’s trial is being held in Medford.

Ashland High School students walk off campus Monday toward a rally remembering Aidan Ellison. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

The Ashland High School Truth to Power club organized the walkout with the support of faculty advisor and humanities teacher Shane Abrams. Abrams had planned to make an announcement of the walkout at 1 p.m. over the school’s public address system, but when he learned he would not be allowed to do so, he instead gave a literal shout out to the students already gathered across the street from the school.

“I need contingent of students to run loudly through the hallways,” yelled Abrams, who took personal leave to participate in the walkout, “and announce that we are walking out now!”

“Today’s event is about bringing awareness to State of Oregon vs. Robert Paul Keegan, the person who murdered Aidan Ellison in 2020,” said Truth to Power member Amy Preskenis Perrin once the rally got underway. “As students, we are trying to bring it back up to the light, into the minds of everyone, because this is a really important case for our community and it’s really important to keep this relevant and it’s a way we can fight racism and, as young people, one way we can show our participation and engagement is by doing a walkout, so we’re here today in support of Aidan Ellison, to remember and honor him as the trial for his murder begins.”

Ashland High School teacher Shane Abrams, who took personal time off so he could attend the rally, speaks at Monday’s gathering. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

Abrams pointed out a table where students could sign up to take a turn attending the trial. “We’re trying to get coverage,” he said, “so that there are community members bearing witness and being a public presence at all times.”

City Councilor Gina DuQuenne addressed the group, beginning, “Think about why we’re here. None of us want to be here. I want to thank Truth to Power for creating space for us to be in today. Aidan lives with our ancestors now. His life was taken before it even started. He will never know the joy of having a full successful life.

“He will never be married, he will never be a dad, he will never be a grandfather. The adventures and experiences of ups and downs in day-to-day life, Aidan will never know.”

Ashland City Councilor Gina DuQuenne speaks at Monday’s rally. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

DuQuenne quoted Ellison’s mother, Andrea Wofford, as saying, “I have a son that was murdered, and the irony is that I was born the same year, the same month that the Civil Rights Act was signed and look where we are.”

“Ashland, look where we are, look where we are today,” DuQuenne continued. “All of the hate has to stop here. What are we doing as individuals? What conversations are we having? How are we raising our children? And how are we living on a day-to-day basis? Anti-racism has to be in the DNA of Ashland and its starts within us.

“There are so many anti-racism groups here in Ashland, some run by black people, some run by white people, and some are kind of in a mixed bag. I suggest that we all get together and cross-pollinate and have the conversation and our book clubs, our temples, our churches and enrich our conversations with the true history of Oregon and the history of the United States. I would like to see us come together and have conversations with people who don’t look like us and don’t share our same cultures or lived experiences. Because at the end of the day, we are all humans.

Sophomore Piper Banks, left, takes signups to attend the trial in Medford of the man who shot and killed Aidan Ellison in 2020. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

“If Robert Keegan would have looked at Aidan as simply a human being, a 19-year-old doing what 19-year-olds do, he might still be alive today. I don’t want Aidan’s murder to be in vain. I hope that Aidan opened the eyes of people that have been walking around with closed hearts. I believe that Aidan came here to teach us, to teach us a lesson in how to be mindful and how to love. Today we are here in solidarity for justice for Aidan.”

One of the cofounders of Truth to Power, AHS student Isadora Millay, followed by saying, “Our promise to Aidan: we vow to never forget you. We commit to ensuring that your death will catalyze a transformation in our town. We will use our voices and the opportunities afforded us to stand with people of color in our community. We will fight to honor you and all of the others who have fallen to systemic racism engrained in our valley. We will fight to be better.

“We set out to fulfill our promise to Aidan, beginning with a series of anti-racism workshops. These workshops were the first steps to recognizing racism in all its forms and working to become better as individuals and as a community. This morning, the Keegan trial began. It is a trial that will determine the sentence of the man who killed Aidan Ellison. The BIPOC celebration mural (across the street at the high school) and us gathering here today as the Keegan trial begins is our continuance of our promise to Aidan.

Senior Isadora Millay hands out flowers for students to lay by Aidan Ellison’s mural. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

The BIPOC celebration (mural) was created with the intent to honor and celebrate the life of Aidan Ellison, highlight the many contributions of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in our valley, remind Ashland of its anti-racist responsibilities, and create a more inviting, inclusive space for BIPOC students, staff, visitors and neighbors. The mural aims not only to remind our community of the senseless death of Aidan Ellison and to encourage ourselves to do better, but also to honor the work of influential BIPOC community members and educate Ashland about their legacies, specifically here at Ashland High School. We hope that the mural can be a strong force of community grounding and gathering. We hope it can be a base for action, reflection, inclusion and support, like how we are all using it today. We invite everyone to take a flower and place it underneath Aidan’s portrait. That space is always open to honor his being.”

“We’re here today to say that volume of your music has nothing to do with the value of your life,” said Abrams. “We have gathered today because nearly 900 days after he murdered a child, Robert Keegan faces accountability. With this trial our state has several opportunities. The opportunity to condemn a man’s brutalization of a teenager, the opportunity to condemn his reckless and irresponsible use of a firearm. …

“No prison sentence can make whole Aidan’s family or set right the scales of justice after the senseless loss of a human being. No state condemnation of a singular act could dismantle our culture’s and government’s histories of racism. … It falls to us, the ordinary, the individuals that make up the collective, the privileged and the oppressed, the allies and the accomplices, those embodied in whiteness and those whose bodies are exploited to maintain white supremacy. It falls to us, adults and young adults and children, some of you who are too young to participate in our democratic process yet nevertheless shape our culture and all of our possible futures.

Students walk along South Mountain Avenue at Ashland High School toward the mural of Aidan Ellison. Drew Fleming photo for Ashland.news

“It falls to us to interrupt racism, to throw our weight against the machinery that is bigger than mean stereotypes or insensitive jokes but is really a fine-tuned system of premature death. It falls to us to learn from and to teach one another about the past, present and future and about ourselves, and about others, about humans and about the earth and our place in it. It falls to us to demand that it doesn’t have to be this way and we are the ones to make it heal.”

Current high school freshman Amara Lowe was in seventh grade when Aidan was murdered. “For me, it was somewhat upsetting that I go to school and no one really mentioned it,” she said. “We were young, but we need to understand and know what is happening around us. It’s very hard to hear and it has to be known. I think he does need to be brought to justice and I feel that no altercation should lead to somebody’s death. Because this is very similar to George Floyd, it starts off with something small, miniscule, and which turns into death and taking someone’s life, and that is never the way to solve something.”

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist who recently moved to Ashland from Oakland, California. Email Ashland.news Executive Editor Bert Etling at betling@ashland.news or call or text him at 541-631-1313.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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