On Sunday afternoon, the family of Kevin Peterson Jr. led a march of hundreds through the sleepy streets of Hazel Dell, Washington, accompanied by a now familiar rallying cry: "Say his name!"
Peterson, a 21-year-old Black man, was killed by Clark County sheriff's deputies on October 29 in Hazel Dell, a suburb north of Vancouver, Washington. Peterson was lured to a hotel parking lot on Highway 99 by undercover deputies who believed he was illegally selling Xanax, a prescription anti-anxiety medication. After being confronted by the deputies, Peterson ran north, allegedly dropping a gun—and then picking it up—in the process.
Peterson was ultimately cornered and shot by three deputies in the parking lot of a US Bank. According to a recently released investigation into Peterson's death, the deputies fired 34 rounds at Peterson, striking him a total of four times. Despite early reports from the Clark County Sheriff's Office, Peterson did not fire a gun during the encounter. Deputies had mistakenly believed the sounds of their own guns firing was Peterson shooting at them, the investigation found.
The Sunday march, which began in the US Bank parking lot, was organized by Portland activists in collaboration with Peterson's family, the majority of which live in and near Hazel Dell. Several members of Peterson's family have attended previous vigils for Peterson, but the Sunday event drew at least 30 close friends and family. Many were wearing shirts emblazoned with photos of Peterson and his nickname, "Splash."
Peterson's aunt Shelly Washington said she helped coordinate the event for a simple reason: "No justice, no peace." Asked what that phrase meant to her, Washington replied: "People must be held accountable for what happened."
Information about the circumstances leading up to Peterson's death released by law enforcement has been both delayed and contradictory.
Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins initially told Peterson's family and the public that Peterson had "reportedly" shot at deputies first. Two weeks later, investigators said they found no evidence or witness testimony to suggest Peterson had fired his gun. Another contradiction: Lawyers representing Peterson's family say footage of the encounter captured on surveillance videos show Peterson was shot in the back. Deputy Jon Feller, one of the three deputies who shot Peterson, told investigators that Peterson turned to face Feller, pointing a gun at him, before he was fatally shot. Peterson was also on the phone with his partner, Olivia Selton, as he was fleeing the hotel parking lot. Selton said that, at one point, Peterson held the phone out in front of him to show her the deputies chasing him—an object that could have been mistaken for a gun.
These wrinkles have stoked distrust in Peterson's family and members of the public, many of whom have been engaged in Black Lives Matter protests since the late May death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Several Black community members who spoke during the Sunday march referenced Portland's summer marches for racial justice, which at times drew up to 10,000 people.
Laila Deweese, a sophomore at Portland's Jefferson High School, questioned why the death of a local Black man by police hadn't draw the same kind of attention.
"Why don't we care anymore?" Deweese asked. "Just because the election is over, just because we settled for Biden, it doesn’t mean this is over.”
An estimated 400 people attended the event, some carrying signs and banners, some performing music, and others volunteering to provide security. The latter kept their eye on a group of 15 people with "Blue Lives Matter" flags and pro-Trump gear who had gathered a few blocks north of the US Bank lot to purportedly protest the march.
This isn't the first time armed right-wing activists showed up at a memorial for Peterson. On October 31, days after Peterson's death, 40 people carrying Trump and US flags showed up to protest a peaceful vigil being held for Peterson in the US Bank parking lot. On Sunday, marchers largely ignored the small group of activists, dodging the kind of confrontation that sometimes leads to violence during dueling protests in the Portland area's (recent) past.
"We’re not engaging with them," said one man addressing the crowd from a microphone at the head of the march. "We’re not here for them. Who are we here for?"
The crowd responded, “Kevin Peterson!”
Many marchers had known Peterson when he was alive. Stefani Stephens said her 20-year-old son had been close friends with Peterson for the past four years. Stephens, who lives in Vancouver, attended the march without her son—she said he is still processing his friend's death. She teared up when she talked about Peterson, who was a regular visitor at her house.
"I'll never forget his smile," said Stephens. "I didn't know him very well since, you know, I was 'the mom.' But he had such a great smile."
Stephens said Peterson's death made her even more worried about how her own son, who is biracial, is treated by law enforcement.
"That could have been my son," she said. "It's already hard enough to be a single mom in a very white community, raising a biracial boy. This is the nightmare scenario."
The three Clark County deputies have been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation into their conduct continues. The investigation is being conducted by Cowlitz County law enforcement, to avoid conflicts of interest.
Peterson's family is currently being represented by Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney who also represents the family of George Floyd. Washington said she's confident that with the community's help, her nephew's case will get the attention—and justice—it's owned.
"The truth must come out," Washington said. "The truth will come out."