An elected member of an Oregon school board in the state capital held a mask of former Portland Trail Blazers star Cliff Robinson in front of his face for nearly the entirety of an hour and thirty-seven minute long official Zoom meeting, in what he said he considered a protest against the dangers of online voting manipulation during the pandemic.
“I am making the point that you all don’t actually know if I’m sitting here,” said Paul Kyllo, who represents Zone 7 on the Salem-Keizer Public School Board. “And so how would the public or anyone else know who is actually at the meeting or not?”
Throughout the meeting he was never ordered to remove the mask, nor did any other members object to Kyllo, who is white, hiding behind the smiling face of a Black man. Chairperson Marty Heyen told Kyllo he could simply choose not to wear the mask if he wanted his identity to be known to his colleagues on the video call.
Towards the end of the meeting, Kyllo removed the mask. “Oh, that's so special,” said Heyen, laughing, when Kyllo revealed his face. Others chuckled. “Paul, you look good today,” said fellow school board member Jessi Lippold.
The Zoom meeting originally took place on March 30 and was first flagged on Monday by Latinos Unidos Siempre (LUS), a youth leadership group in Salem, when it published a Facebook video with clips of Kyllo using the mask and the reactions of the other board members. Latinos Unidos Siempre is calling for the resignation of Kyllo and Heyen and the removal of police from schools in Salem-Keizer county.
"Blackface and other forms of white supremacy have no space in our community," the group wrote, also calling for "the removal of any school board members aligned with white supremacy beliefs/groups [and] all the other school board officials to issue a clear apology and indicate their stance on white supremacy." So far, a petition by the group has more than 2,000 signatures.
Kyllo told VICE News that he had no racist intentions and that he was simply trying to point out the inherent cybersecurity issues of a Zoom call.
“I wore a mask to point out the insecurity in Zoom,” he said in an emailed statement. “I choose to hold the mask of Cliff Robinson as he was my favorite Trail Blazer, and the face cut out is a treasured possession.”
“I made a public apology when it happened,” he added.
To the dismay of local activists, the school board voted Tuesday evening in favor of continuing to fund police in local schools—a common policy nationwide, which civil rights organizations firmly say unequally targets students of color.
“We have been asked what would make us feel safe returning to schools, and we can tell you that Black and Brown young people will not feel safe returning to school with police in schools and a racist school board,” said an LUS statement provided to VICE News following the meeting.
“By not calling for the resignation of Director Kyllo and Director Heyen, the board placed more importance on protecting white fragility than the safety of students of color. Shame on all of you.”
Heyen, who ran a losing campaign for the Oregon House as a Republican in 2018, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. The Salem Reporter reported that a local movement of angry citizens is urging her to step down.
According to an official bio on an Oregon GOP website, Heyen’s husband Jeff is "involved with" the III% militia, which is considered a far-right anti-government militia movement by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a racism watchdog based in Montgomery, Alabama.