The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A driver hit Black Lives Matter protesters. It was a neighboring town’s mayor, protesters say.

Police are investigating claims that Chris Luz, the mayor of Phoenix, Ore., hit protesters with his car during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. (Google Maps/The Washington Post)

As hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters marched through Medford, Ore., earlier this month, one driver appeared to get frustrated. He laid onto his horn, video shows, and drove steadily into the mass of demonstrators. When one woman stopped to hold up her sign, the bright yellow car struck her with its left bumper and mirror.

The woman who was hit now says she knows exactly who was behind the wheel. In fact, she confronted him in person this week at a city commission meeting in the neighboring town of Phoenix, Ore.

The driver, she said, was none other than Chris Luz — the mayor.

“The city of Phoenix cannot ignore that the mayor is in fact a criminal. There is absolutely no excuse for the actions that you took that day, Chris,” the protester, Mikala Johnston, said during a commission meeting chaired by Luz on Monday. “Chris, you assaulted me.”

Medford police have now opened a criminal investigation into the allegation, Sgt. Jason Antley told The Washington Post on Thursday.

Luz didn’t respond to a message sent to his official city email. During Monday’s commission meeting — which was also marred by armed militia members who protesters complained were intimidating them outside the chambers — Luz didn’t address Johnston’s claims.

Across the country, cars have been driven into anti-police-brutality protests in at least 19 cases, The Washington Post reported, resulting in eight drivers facing criminal charges and raising fears of deliberate auto attacks that echo the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017.

Amid massive demonstrations, vehicles striking protesters raise disturbing echoes of 2017 Charlottesville attack

In Medford’s march on June 1, Johnston told the Phoenix commission, the crowd was peaceful and police helped to keep demonstrators safe as they blocked traffic.

“We were not causing any harm. Any logical driver would have thought to wait for those couple hundred marchers to walk on by,” she said. “However, Chris decided to take a different approach.”

When they turned onto a main street, Johnston said she noticed a yellow car “accelerating toward us at a less than comfortable speed.” Johnston said she stopped and held up her sign, “so he could see why we were here.”

“He then proceeds to drive his car right past me, hitting me with the front left of his vehicle and again with the side view mirror,” Johnston said, an account backed up by video shot by protesters. “I couldn’t believe this man would avoid slightly turning his wheel to not hit me. He then proceeded to try to drive through a crowd of peaceful protesters.”

As Johnston recounted her story to the commission, Luz sat directly in front of her. He didn’t respond except to briefly shake his head, prompting Johnston to interject, “I have it all on video, stop shaking your head.”

A video of the incident uploaded to YouTube shows that after angry protesters surround the car, the driver gets out and pleads to be let through, cursing at a protester he said dented his hood before insisting, “I’m on your side, dude.”

Johnston said the incident should shake the city’s faith in its mayor.

“A man like Chris does not deserve to hold a spot of power,” she said. “If he can lose his temper that easily and react in an immature, impulsive, outrageous and hypocritical manner, imagine the harm he can bring the city of Phoenix.”

One council member who was also at the protests confronted the mayor.

“I can’t believe the actions that you took, nudging teenagers with your car, intimidating and threatening them for expressing their opinions,” Sarah Westover said. “I think this is unacceptable behavior, and I want to call on the mayor to resign tonight.”

Luz didn’t directly respond to her or to another council member who asked him to address the matter.

Amid the allegations against the mayor, other speakers told the commission that at least two militia members armed with semiautomatic weapons and knives were outside the chamber, where more than a dozen protesters had gathered to support Johnston.

Armed right-wing activists have become a flash point at other protests against police brutality and racial injustice around the nation, culminating in a protester being shot and critically wounded in New Mexico this week as demonstrators trying to tear down a statue faced off with members of a local militia.

“There’s a man standing outside with an M-16,” one speaker, who is black, told the Medford commission. “Now imagine if me and 20 black men came and did that. You guys would be saying that’s a threat.”

The commission later asked the town’s police chief to ask the armed men to stop open carrying outside the chamber, citing the concerns of protesters, while noting that under Oregon state law they had the right to do so.

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