Two Salem talk show hosts say that a coordinated  conspiracy by the local Left resulted in the removal of Ward 6’s Daniel Benjamin, a sitting city councilor. They insist Benjamin’s ouster was part of a deliberate process of replacing him with a pre-selected progressive candidate.

The assertions were made on January 19th and 20th on Gator’s Radio Experience, a weekday conservative talk show broadcast on 1430 KYKN and hosted by Gator Gaynor and Denise Nanke.

“The progressives went on a witch hunt over Thanksgiving,” Gaynor said, “and ousted Daniel Benjamin from that seat… in an unbelievable, unfair, unethical, wrong way.”

Gaynor stated that he did not completely support Benjamin’s posting of a video judged offensive by many. He said, however, “This was clearly – and we’ve been following this enough – we know the purpose of why the progressives went after this. It was a progressive ‘witch hunt’ and the progressives had set up their candidate to take that seat.”

Timeline of the resignation

On Monday, November 21, 2016, a story broke on KATU TV Portland about a video the Ward 6 councilor had shared on his personal Facebook page, which showed African-Americans being run over by vehicles. The video was widely seen across Oregon, and by November 22, more than 60 individuals indicated that they wanted to address the next Salem city council meeting, to be held Monday, November 28, to call for Benjamin to resign.

Because of this heightened interest, by Wednesday, November 23, the council meeting was changed from chambers to the larger Loucks Auditorium at the Salem Public Library. Benjamin also resigned on November 23.

It was the day before Thanksgiving.

Who first noticed the Benjamin video?

Pastor Marilyn Williams, Secretary Salem-Keizer Branch of NAACP, Pastor of Salem Mission Faith Ministries Church, says the post was first noticed by a member of the local NAACP. “I don’t do Facebook, but this member did,” Pastor Williams says, “they were a Facebook person. They sent it to us, saying, “please look at this.’”

According to Pastor Williams, the video immediately “snowballed. It spread like wildfire in the community. I begin to get lots and lots of emails from people. It spread to the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, the NAACP, Racial Justice Organizing Committee (RJOC) the Marshallese and other organizations.”

Civil justice groups had already united with each other and local government

In the weeks after the November 8 Presidential election, communities of color and organizations aspiring to social justice were frightened. Not only had the president elect made comments disparaging to Hispanics, Jews, African-Americans, not only had he publically ridiculed a disabled man, but his words were not in accord with a leader and protector of all.  The opposite was indisputably true.

When in August 2015, two Boston Trump supporters, invoking his name, beat up and urinated on a homeless Latino man, calling him an “illegal,” Trump’s first response was not reassuring. Although he called the attack “a shame” he added, “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

Again, after a November 2015 Alabama Trump campaign rally incident when several white men kicked and beat an African-American man who chanted, “Black Lives Matter,” Trump responded, “Maybe [he] should have been roughed up. It was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

These statements, a matter of public record, made it difficult for thousands of local Oregonians to feel personally protected by the United States Constitution.

Shortly after the national elections, Pastor Williams recalls, Salem’s then-Mayor Anna Peterson became concerned by the increase in national hate crimes. In mid-November, a meeting occurred at Salem City Hall that included grassroots organizers such as Benny Williams, the President of the Salem-Keizer NAACP and Pastor Williams, and city representatives like Mayor Peterson, Dr. John D. Choppala, Chair of the Mayor’s International Council and Police Chief Jerry Moore. “We talked about [hate crimes] and what we could do about it,” Pastor Williams says. “Mayor Peterson promised to stand together and not let things like that happen here.” The group made a CCTV video affirming the welcome Salem felt for all its diverse residents.

It was in this atmosphere of heightened national insecurity and increased local solidarity that the Benjamin video was shared. The unified groups and other allies, including CAUSA, Mano a Mano and RJOC, joined together to write letters to Mayor Anna Peterson, Salem City Council and Daniel Benjamin, requesting Benjamin’s resignation and coordinating a city council presentation for the Monday following Thanksgiving weekend.

Members of the local coalition say that the KATU breaking report, as well as subsequent stories by Oregon Live and Statesman Journal, were mistaken to engage with a Portland social justice activist when, as Pastor Williams says, “we had done the majority of the organizing” in the Salem-Keizer area.

Progressives partnered following Benjamin video release

Salem Weekly could find no indication that social justice groups actively tracked Benjamin’s postings. However, there is considerable evidence they collaborated in response to seeing the video. For example, Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario, a Woodburn community organization that supports immigrants and others, organized a writing campaign and repeatedly posted a MoveOn petition calling for Benjamin’s resignation. Their Facebook on November 22 said, “The idea for this action came from African-American and Latinos who are longtime residents of the Salem area… The beauty about democracy is that we have different independent organizations to express ourselves.”

Of the November 28 City Council session, Paul Krissel of RJOC says, “The event at the city council meeting was entirely planned and carried out by local community organizations here in Salem.” Krissel agrees with Pastor Williams that news coverage should have featured organizers from the area, who brought scores to the meeting to attest to their experience of lack of personal safety.

Those who attended the city council meeting, according to Pastor Williams and others, were not there solely to comment on the Benjamin video, but on other incidents of local hate crimes including school incidents and those involving two local law enforcement officers.

“It was not just for Mr. Benjamin, but we were also there because we were concerned about the way the police officer… and sheriff officer were bullying that woman online,” Williams says. “This was very unacceptable to us. We were… there to hold all these individuals accountable for their actions.”

Was there a ‘witch hunt’?

Salem Weekly repeatedly asked Gator Gaynor and Denise Nanke for evidence of “the unfortunate, unwarranted ‘witch hunt’ over Thanksgiving weekend,” as stated by Gaynor on January 20, “that took out Daniel Benjamin from the Ward 6 seat.” We received no reply. Gaynor maintained on air that Benjamin’s video posting “was not worthy of the ‘witch hunt,’ it was not worthy of… him having to resign from his position on that council.”

We did learn local human rights organizations had been aware of, and concerned by, Daniel Benjamin’s postings for some time. This includes the local NAACP member who first bought the video to the attention of that organization.

Was that NAACP member tied to any progressive candidate?

We could find no evidence that any of the social justice groups who mobilized – including the NAACP of Salem-Keizer, RJOC, CAUSA, Mano a Mano, Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario or the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality – had any intention of replacing Benjamin, or had a candidate lined up to do that.

These organizations have not put forward a candidate, nor have they endorsed any of the four men running for the Ward 6 seat in the March election.

Pastor Williams says, “None of the organizations had any.. agenda of replacing Councilor Benjamin. So at this time Ward 6 has four people running for that position. The opportunity is open for anyone who wanted to run for office.”

We can also find no evidence that any organization or member of organizations supporting the progressive candidate for Ward 6, Chris Hoy, was watching Benjamin’s social media. We spoke to the Chairperson for Marion County Democrats, Barbara Fuller. “Marion County Democrats would not have done anything, or take any kind of action like that,” Fuller says.

We contacted Progressive Salem, a group focused on helping elect progressive candidates to area office. Progressive Salem has endorsed Chris Hoy, who is also endorsed by four progressive city councilors and a local union.

The group absolutely did not monitor Benjamin’s social media postings, says leader Tina Calos, adding, “We paid no attention to his Facebook page.”

Calos adds that no one in the group was aware of candidate Hoy, or his residence in Ward 6, at any time during Benjamin’s resignation. They believed Benjamin would complete his term as scheduled and had not considered searching for a Ward 6 candidate before that time.

“In late December, one of our members alerted us to Chris Hoy’s possible interest in running, and we contacted him,” she says. At that point the last day to file for the election was just weeks away.  “The idea that Progressive Salem possibly plotted to remove Daniel Benjamin from his seat is ridiculous.”

Other area progressives include the “Bernie” contingent of the local Democratic party, whose Maryann Byrne says, “Of the Bernie folks I am associated with, there has been no thought or mention of or even any interest in anything to do with Daniel Benjamin before he did himself in.”

Finally, we contacted Oregon PeaceWorks, founded in 1987 to educate and activate people to work for peace. PeaceWorks’ Peter Bergel called the charge “pretty preposterous…  certainly Oregon PeaceWorks did not monitor Benjamin’s page. In fact, the first I saw of it was when an email directed me to it after the scandal broke. When a person puts clearly outrageous material on a public FB page, a “witch hunt” is scarcely necessary. The unacceptable posts were put there by Benjamin himself.“