Around 100 people gathered in Wait Park Saturday afternoon for a “Canby Backs the Blue” event held to show support and appreciation for law enforcement in general and the Canby Police Department in particular.
Canby Mayor Brian Hodson opened the event with prayer and the pledge of allegiance before remarks by organizer Shannon Wernecke; her mother, Jean Bremer; and three candidates for the Canby City Council: Traci Hensley (who is currently on the council), Jordan Tibbals and James Hieb.
Canby City Councilor Shawn Varwig, School Board member Stefani Carlson and Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay were also in attendance but did not speak.
After about 30 minutes, the group moved en masse to Highway 99E, where they lined both sides of the road between Grant and Elm. They waved American flags, some with a blue or red line for first responders, as well as banners supporting the reelection of President Donald Trump. One, memorably, declared, “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit.”
Few — fortunately — have ever experienced as serious a need for the police as Bremer, Wernecke and their family. Bremer’s brother- and sister-in-law (Wernecke’s aunt and uncle) were two of the victims in a quadruple homicide by Mark Gago at his home on South Barlow Road in January 2019.
“Our state police officers who came out and helped our family — they saw some horrific things that they won’t even let me know about,” Bremer said, wiping a tear with one corner of the thin blue line flag she held. “I’ve heard some awful things. But I just thank them that they’re willing to go in these awful scenarios all the time, because that’s where their lives are. They love our people.”
See below for the Current’s live broadcast of the event in Wait Park:
Canby police did not attend the event in person, though several patrol cars cruised by afterward with lights flashing for a brief parade — to much applause from the crowd.
Chief Bret Smith declined an invitation to speak but drafted a brief statement thanking the community for its support, which Wernecke read from the gazebo steps.
“Today is not about politics,” Wernecke said. “It’s a simple support gathering for our first responders. … Current events have shown how people are brainwashed into believing that if one person makes a mistake, the whole group must be bad — which is not true.
“It breaks my heart and scares me for my children’s future how much people push for defunding law enforcement, and then turn right back around and shout, ‘Call 911’ when they need help.”
Tibbals said police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect citizens, often with little gratitude or appreciation.
“But not in Canby,” he said. “Part of what makes Canby great is events like this, where patriots are willing to show up, stand up for what is right and back the blue.”
Tibbals and Hieb both spoke on the situation in downtown Portland, where peaceful Black Lives Matter protests have been followed on an almost-nightly basis by violent riots, at which both police and demonstrators have been injured — sometimes seriously — and attempts have been made to burn down public justice buildings. (No such activity has been reported in Canby.)
“We, as citizens and leaders of Canby recognize what our Portland neighbors have forgotten: that these police officers are human beings, same as you and me,” Tibbals said. “They have children, moms, dads, brothers, sisters of their own, and they deserve to come back home to those individuals.
“When you tie their hands behind their back and allow anarchy and riots to run your streets and go unpunished by the district attorney, you’re creating an environment that disregards the safety of our officers and the value of their lives.”
Hieb reflected on the 9/11 terrorist attacks of a generation ago — which inspired him to enter the United States Marine Corps — and the national unity that were fostered in their wake.
“There’s so much destruction happening in our society around us,” he said. “I’ve gone downtown [in Portland] and have seen the abuse that these officers are enduring on a daily basis. I’ve seen people throw urine and feces at these officers, random objects, sewer lids, rocks, all sorts of stuff.
“And they stand there and take this abuse without lashing out at these kids, these anarchists. The abuse they’re getting disgusts me. And that’s why I really appreciate events like this, that show we support our officers.”
Councilor Hensley said she appreciated the crowd for showing up.
“I so appreciate our law enforcement and everything that they do,” she said, “but I wanted to let you guys know that I also appreciate you, and the way that you come out for all these kinds of events. You support our community and you support our law enforcement and fire district, and show all the communities neighboring us the Canby way.”
Russ and Tish Wallbaum, of Canby, were among the group that attended the event in Wait Park then walked to Highway 99E afterward. They were there to support their son, Canby Police Detective Nate Wallbaum, and other law enforcement.
“It’s tough to know that he’s going out there, not knowing what he’s going to come up against,” Tish said. “But we’re Christians, so we pray for him and we trust God, and we know he’s always in good hands. And he’s got his partners to back him up.”
Both said they appreciated the event and the support from ordinary citizens and elected officials.
“You just look out here, and you see how people have the freedom to drive up and down this highway,” Russ said. “They have the freedom to go where they want and the freedom to live where they choose. And the only reason we have that freedom and can live safely is because we can dial 911 and they show up.”
Jack and Shelley Kennedy, of Gresham, also made the drive to support Detective Wallbaum — their son-in-law. Shelley held a blue sign that read, “We Love N. ‘Wally.'”
They lamented the politicization of law enforcement, while saying they are grateful for the Canby Police Department and the support it receives from the community.
“We love Canby,” said Shelley. “We would move here in a minute.”
Portland — not so much.
“They feel like their hands are tied,” Jack said, referring to the Portland Police Bureau. “How do you do a job when your hands are tied?”
He believes many cases of police violence are the result of subjects deliberately antagonizing officers or resisting arrest — and could have been avoided.
“So much would be avoided if people would just listen,” he said. “You don’t have to respect them, but just do what they say and everything will be OK.”
After most of the participants had proceeded to Highway 99E, a smaller group of Canby High School students and young people assembled at the park for an impromptu Black Lives Matter demonstration.
The students were incensed by their perception that the group’s “Blue Lives Matter” message was being equated to “Black Lives Matter.” Being a police officer is voluntary, a uniform that can be taken off at the end of the day, they said — being Black cannot.
They carried signs and banners and chatted respectfully with several people from the Back the Blue event, including Hieb and his mother, Gina, who spent almost an hour in polite dialogue with the group.
“Proud of my friends and the peaceful conversations we had,” said one of the teens afterward. “Proud of the people who stopped and listened to our points, even when they disagreed with us. Not proud of the people who justify their racism because ‘We know Black people!’ Not proud of the people who ignore me and my mixed [race] sister.”
While several complained on the Current‘s Facebook page about the gathering in light of the Covid-19 pandemic — some even pointing out the irony of waving Trump banners at an event they deemed to be unnecessarily risky, while the president himself was at a hospital being treated for the coronavirus — Mayor Hodson did ask participants to observe the minimum 6-foot social distancing guidelines at the park, and most followed this advice.
Few participants wore masks consistently, but the majority seemed to have them around their necks or on their person, and several put them on when asked or offered to do so when approached by someone from outside their household.