The Murder of Aidan Ellison, A Young Black Man, Calls for Justice on Many Levels

Homicide prompts call to create Black agenda in Southern Oregon

by Allayana Darrow of the Ashland TIdingsSunday, November 29th 2020

In the days that followed a fatal shooting outside an Ashland hotel, law enforcement, activist groups and city officials have reflected on the implications of the statistically rare incident — the first alleged homicide in the city this year.

Suspect Robert Keegan was indicted in Jackson County Circuit Court Nov. 27 and pleaded not guilty to murder in the second degree, manslaughter, unlawful possession of a firearm and recklessly endangering another person after allegedly shooting a Black man, identified by media outlets as 19-year-old Aidan Ellison, on Nov. 23.

A candlelight vigil was held for Ellison, an Ashland High School graduate, three days after his death.

Keegan, who is white, according to his Jackson County Jail booking information, was arrested after Ashland police responded to a report of a person shot at the Stratford Inn on Siskiyou Boulevard in the early morning. No other noise or disruption complaints were reported there prior to the shooting, according to Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

Upon arrival, officers found the victim unresponsive, with a gunshot wound to the chest. Medics immediately attempted to render aid and determined he was deceased, O’Meara said. Keegan, who remained on scene, claimed he shot Ellison in self defense after an argument over loud music devolved.

Keegan was detained, transported to the Ashland Police Department and interviewed by Jackson County Sheriff’s detectives. O’Meara said Keegan’s claims of self defense against a physical attack were quickly deemed irrelevant to the charges in this case.

“Even if it’s true that Keegan is being punched by somebody, it doesn’t give him the right to use lethal force,” O’Meara said.

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“I’m comfortable with the way the police department handled this,” he continued. “We didn’t fall into any thinking that there’s a chance this could have been self defense — we saw it for what it was immediately.”

As the case proceeds through court, APD is working in cooperation with the Major Assault/Death Investigation Unit, which includes members of the Oregon State Police, Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Medford police.

Keegan purchased the firearm used in the alleged homicide from BiMart about one week prior to the incident, O’Meara said.

On Nov. 26, the Southern Oregon Black Leaders, Activists and Community Coalition leadership team affirmed in a public statement that Keegan’s actions were the product of socially-entrenched white supremacy — prompted by a refusal to submit to perceived white authority.

“It is the cultural practice of white supremacy that makes white people believe that they are an extension of the police force and have the right to police Black bodies,” the leadership team wrote. “It is the cultural practice of white supremacy to believe that Black people are to submit to the will of white people, and that violence is an acceptable way to cause submission.”

SOBLACC demanded an active effort to dismantle pervasive anti-Black sentiment beyond silent outrage or “equity and diversity frameworks;” instead calling upon resources, policies and community discussions that tangibly further racial justice for Black people and violence reform in southern Oregon.

The organization scheduled a meeting Dec. 7 — for Black individuals only — to develop an agenda guiding future efforts. Others are invited to stay apprised and support the release of the agenda, according to the statement.

While Keegan made no statements during his arrest indicating his actions were motivated by racism, O’Meara said he does not discount the possibility that race was a driving factor in Keegan’s decision-making. He further recognized the legitimacy and righteousness of tension surrounding issues of violence against people of color, while standing by APD’s response and manner of handling the situation.

O’Meara speculated that any agenda crafted through SOBLACC’s community discussion is unlikely to be wholly effective without eventually bringing regional law enforcement to the table.

“I respect their need for their own space that is African American only,” he said of SOBLACC’s scheduled meeting. “At some point, when it’s right, I would like to be made part of that conversation.”

On Nov. 28, Mayor-elect Julie Akins issued a statement supporting the viewpoint that Ellison’s death was a casualty of deeply-rooted racism and an example of “how deadly white privilege can be.”

Akins said breaking down such systems requires daily commitment through diverse hiring practices, fair policing and, in this case, disposing of the narrative that implies Ellison was at fault or Keegan’s actions can be justified by his circumstances.

An Oregon news outlet reported that some media coverage appeared to perpetuate a sympathetic narrative toward Keegan by describing his losses from the Almeda fire, which led to his temporary residency at the Stratford Inn, along with his son.

In a statement Nov. 26, O’Meara said fault lies solely with the person who chose to bring a gun into an argument and use it, not with the person whose loud music supposedly spurred the argument.

If a noise complaint had been reported to APD, pursuant to Ashland municipal code, officers would have asked that the music be turned down and “that would be the end of it,” O’Meara said.

As of Sunday, Keegan remains incarcerated without bail, pending further court proceedings. Keegan’s pretrial conference is preliminarily scheduled for Feb. 22, 2021.