LaNicia Duke

LaNicia Duke shares a happy moment with her husband, John.

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LAVA HOT SPRINGS — LaNicia Duke says her weekend getaway to this small resort town was ruined by four young men slowly cruising the streets in a pickup truck displaying a Confederate flag, an American flag and a Trump 2020 flag.

Duke — who lived in Ogden, Utah, at the time of the June 18 encounter and now resides in Tillamook County, Oregon — says the young men singled her out for intimidation and taunting while she was dining at a local restaurant’s outdoor table.

Initially, Duke, who is black and works as a private chef specializing in soul food, took to social media urging people to avoid Lava Hot Springs. She’s since experienced an “outpouring of kindness” from the community and its Chamber of Commerce and has offered her help as a resource, leading conversations about “ensuring tourists and community members all feel safe and respected.”

True to her word, she’s scheduled to live stream the first in a series of presentations online from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on July 9 titled “How to Talk About Race in Rural Communities.” People may sign up using this link: https://tinyurl.com/RuralRaceTalks. Duke is a leader with an Oregon Coast nonprofit organization called The Love Coalition, which formed to promote a local Martin Luther King Day observance and has evolved into a platform for community conversations on difficult topics.

Duke said the young men in the truck — two sitting in the bed and two inside the cab — shouted vulgarities at her and her white husband as they made repeated laps past her table at 78 Main Street Eatery. She acknowledges she heard no racial slurs among their insults, but she’s convinced she and her husband were singled out for being an interracial couple.

Duke’s husband responded by showing the group his middle finger, and they were clearly agitated when he made a point of giving her a kiss as they watched. She believes the young men further sought to intimidate her by sitting at a table across the sidewalk from the restaurant and making their guns visible.

Duke is thankful that the situation didn’t escalate, but her greatest disappointment about the experience was that nobody spoke out or interceded.

“Not one person spoke up and said anything,” Duke wrote in her initial Facebook post on June 21. “I believe in the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms but not at my expense.”

During the past year, Duke made regular visits to Lava Hot Springs and experienced no harassment prior to her most recent trip.

Collin Petrun, a local business owner who serves as treasurer with the Lava Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, also observed the young men — they appeared to him to be teenagers. He observed them cruising the streets from the window of the Rooftop Bar, 289 E. First Alley South, where he was bar tending. Petrun said they don’t reside in Lava Hot Springs.

“At one point I saw them walking down the street with their flags. ... It’s kind of ridiculous in the State of Idaho where we had nothing to do with the Confederacy,” Petrun said.

Petrun saw Duke’s Facebook post and was compelled to call her on behalf of the community. He explained to her that he heads the Chamber’s beautification committee and such public nuisances detract from its mission. He brought up the issue at a Chamber meeting and plans to address the City Council to discuss “preventative measures so nobody else like LaNicia has to go through this again.”

Duke is accustomed to being one of the few brown faces in a mostly white community. She’s concerned that the ongoing nationwide protests surrounding race relations may work well in urban areas but will prove to be ineffective in small towns. In rural communities, she believes a broader, all-inclusive approach yields better results.

“There are ways to have this conversation without trying to push a national agenda,” Duke said. “Hashtags and slogans don’t build bridges. ... It’s going to be dangerous if we keep trying to push a Black Lives Matter agenda or a Blue Lives Matter agenda or an All Lives Matter agenda in places where there’s such a disconnect it would do more harm than good.”

Duke, who recently met with her county’s commissioners about translating meeting minutes into Spanish for the benefit of Hispanic residents, advocates for focusing on commonalities in race discussions within small towns. Duke finds lasting change can happen when people in a community avoid using labels, engage in tough conversations with open hearts and open minds and truly listen to one another.

“This fighting back and forth isn’t going to do it and it’s definitely not going to build a sustainable model for change,” Duke said.

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