Initial threats were in January, but have also occurred more recently
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
Death threats made to Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett and other staff that started in January have also been made in the “recent” past — within the past three months — according to David Schmitz, executive director of OSF.
Schmitz met with Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara earlier this month, along with a security firm hired by OSF, and said plans are in place to meet monthly regarding security. Schmitz said the organization is committed to working with APD and will seek prosecution if at all possible. Death threats made to Garrett and other members of the largest organization in Ashland are also under investigation by a private security firm hired by OSF.
The threats to Garrett and OSF this year were first reported in a story by NPR published Sept. 28. Garrett told Ashland.news the threats began in January and that she’s been traveling with security since then.
“I tried to make it clear that the police department will be there for them any way that we can,” O’Meara told Ashland.news on Oct. 7. “Right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything that’s immediately actionable, but we want to partner with them to navigate this and every other situation that touches on public safety.”
O’Meara said the threats would most likely not be taken to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Department of Justice unless there was a violation of a federal statute. Depending on the contents of the threats, which he couldn’t discuss with Ashland.news due to safety concerns, O’Meara doesn’t believe all constitute “a police matter.” Depending on the context and delivery, O’Meara said some of the content is protected by the First Amendment.
In an interview with Ashland.news, Schmitz describes the threats as a “promise or suggestion of harm” to individuals at the organization, though he couldn’t give specifics.
“I think the fundamental nature of threats like that is, that the more you talk about the details of them, the more you encourage them,” Schmitz said. “And the more you actually continue to put at risk the people who are under threat.”
Garrett told NPR in a followup story published Oct. 27 that she can’t even go for a walk unless her security detail is with her. She also told NPR she has been called a “Black bitch” and followed home, and had to relocate her housing since living in Ashland.
Schmitz said OSF will remain vigilant and are committed to keeping their employees safe. He also noted that whenever there has been a significant change in artistic direction, there is a significant conversation in the community about it.
“We’re both working toward the same goal of safety for this community and OSF patrons and staff,” Schmitz said. “And we’re super grateful for the help that they can provide to help our staff and the community stay safe, in partnership with our security.”
It also isn’t the first time that OSF has had to make aid employees who feared racism within the community it serves.
Emily Simon, co-chair of the city of Ashland’s Social Equity and Racial Justice Commission, similarly emphasized in an address to Ashland City Council on Oct. 18 that the “ “abhorrent, racist, death threats” aren’t isolated incidents, either. In 2017, Simon asked the city for support for people of color after a Black, female OSF actress was targeted with specific racist threats in 2017, causing her to fear walking in Ashland’s Railroad District.
At the time, OSF instituted car shuttles for Black employees to ensure they made it home safely.
Simon lauded city officials who have spoken out against the threats and invited others to join in educating themselves and the community about systemic racism, which she identified as an issue for Ashland. She called for the uprooting of “our racist past and embrace an anti-racist culture.
“The event that occurred in Ashland is not something that should be viewed in isolation or diminished by being termed an incident,” Simon said. “The threats to Ms. Garrett did not happen in a vacuum, nor is she the only victim.”
“Our community’s history of racism needs to be confronted and exposed,” Simon added.
“Without this confrontation and exposure, the work that this community and City Council have been doing — and we applaud you for this — to root out our racist past and embrace an anti-racist culture.”
O’Meara acknowledged the threats must be considered through a “racial lens.”
“Whether or not Nataki’s been called out because of her race, I don’t know,” O’Meara said.
“The nature of this discord is that OSF is pushing progressive programming on social issues, including representing for various minority groups and the fact that that is upsetting some people, I think, by definition, says that there’s a racial component to it.”
He emphasized the department’s support of safety for all involved.
“We want to be supportive of everybody in town, perhaps most especially our most prominent figures,” O’Meara said. “We recognize that they put themselves out there on behalf of their causes in the community, so what I’m saying about the nature of ‘death threats’ is not taking away from the significance of them … but a death threat generally is not something that we can take any action on.”
OSF has had somewhat of a tenuous relationship in recent years with law enforcement, most notably following the arrest of OSF actor Anthony “Tony” Sancho for resisting arrest. Sancho performed in 2019 productions of “Mother Road” and “La Comedia of Errors.”
Ashland police officers initially took Sancho into protective custody but then arrested him for resisting arrest, according to a report by Jefferson Public Radio. Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara dropped the charge.
American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Ashland for $2 million in 2021 in relation to the arrest, according to the report by NPR. A separate suit was filed earlier by Sancho against the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office for excessive use of force while he was in county jail.
Schmitz said he couldn’t comment on the incident because he wasn’t in his current role at the time.
“My understanding of the relationship (with APD) is that it has been a little more reactive and we’re trying to move it into a proactive space,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz appeared optimistic, however, in working with law enforcement to ensure safety for the organization, and O’Meara appeared to acknowledge the level of concern the threats have drawn both on a local level but also regionally and nationally.
“We’re both working towards the same goal of safety for this community and for OSF’s patrons and staff,” Schmitz said. “We’re super grateful for the help that they can provide to help our staff and the community stay safe with our security.”
History of racism
In an interview with Ashland.news, Mike Green addressed the threats made to Garrett and OSF through a much broader lens, looking back at the last two dozen or so generations that Black Americans have been on U.S. soil.
Green, along with his wife, Emily Green, started Common Ground Conversations in summer 2020. The Greens work with school districts, cities, and law enforcement and have served as consultants to Black Alliance & Social Empowerment (BASE) in Medford.
He sees the threats as representative of “a series of episodes of adverse reactions, across the nation, to anything that threatens white supremacy.”
“If you dare change the imagery, you will then receive a hostile backlash from the white supremacists,” Green said. “If you dare change Shakespeare and any of his works into something that is not accepted by the majority of white America, you will receive backlash.
“When people are so invested in a particular artist or a particular lens, they do not want that lens disturbed because it disturbs their paradigm, it disturbs their comfort and it brings in the problems of the outside world.”
He also explained that when a person of color talks about an experience with another person of color, “there’s an instant belief there.”
“There’s a shared understanding, this is systemic,” Green said. “We know that there’s this prominent, hostile experience that non-white people have.”
“We don’t all experience our society the same way,” he added.
Green also shared about the responsibility of individuals to leave the next generation better than the last.
“We were all born into a chapter of U.S. history – We inherited conditions that we did not create,” Green said, referencing individuals living in today’s society. “In our chapter, what condition will we then pass on to future generations?
Green said his work with Common Ground Conversations is working to disrupt and dismantle the status quo in society, so it is more inclusive and equitable for everyone.
“We have the responsibility now of either sustaining the status quo or disrupting, redesigning, reforming, reconstructing our society for a better tomorrow. And there are those who are saying, ‘I want everything to stay the way it is because it benefits me and I’m a beneficiary of the status quo.’”
Schmitz emphasized that there is a lot that the community can do going forward to show support for OSF, including stepping up for people of color.
“One thing that’s really important for this community is to take the knowledge of these threats to Nataki and others at OSF seriously and to recognize that, you know, although that may not be the experience of the 90 to 95% white population of this town, but it is in fact the experience that folks are having and not to question that experience, but really ask the question, ‘Well, what can we do about it?’” Schmitz said.
“Don’t be silent when you’re in a conversation with a member of the community whose questioning the experience of people of color in the community,” Schmitz said.
Schmitz encouraged theater-goers to support Garrett’s artistic vision.
“Close out the season strong,” he said.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.