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Shooting Death Of Aidan Ellison Rocks Oregon Town

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the city of Ashland, Ore., a Black teenager was shot and killed outside a hotel last week. A white resident of that hotel is accused of murder. Jefferson Public Radio's April Ehrlich reports on the aftermath.

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: A couple of hundred people have gathered for a vigil at the Jackson County courthouse. Black community leaders chose this location to send a message to the district attorney handling the shooting of 19-year-old Aidan Ellison in Ashland, that there needs to be justice.

Aisha Wand is drawing Ellison's name in big, chalky letters at the courthouse steps.

AISHA WAND: It's just horrific. The tragedy is horrific, and it happens too often. It's hard for me to talk about it. I have a 16-year-old boy, and I worry about him as well, being out at night, being out with his friends because of incidents like this happening.

EHRLICH: Ellison had been playing music in a hotel parking lot in Ashland - a small city just south of here - when 47-year-old Robert Keegan asked him to turn it down. They were both guests at the hotel. According to court records, the two had an argument, then Keegan went back to his room and returned with a gun. Police say he then fatally shot Ellison in the chest. Keegan now faces several charges, including second-degree murder. The FBI says it's investigating whether federal laws on bias were violated in this shooting. Kayla Wade grew up here and helped organize Ellison's vigil.

KAYLA WADE: We're here because a white man thought that a young Black kid just expressing himself and listening to music was unacceptable and needed to be dealt with.

EHRLICH: About 80% of people in this county identify solely as white. Less than 2% are Black. Many Black people say they encounter racism every day, even in a town like Ashland where there are Black Lives Matter signs in many front yards. Andrea Wofford is Aidan Ellison’s mother. She moved with her two sons and her daughter to Ashland several years ago.

ANDREA WOFFORD: We came out here from California for a camping trip and fell in love with the mountains, the greenery.

EHRLICH: Her son had been living at the hotel when he was killed. He had recently lost his job at a Burger King that burned down in a wildfire this summer. Keegan was also living at the hotel. His house was among the 2,400 homes that were destroyed by the same fire. Wofford says her son, Ellison, had an infectious smile, and he would wear himself thin trying to make everyone around him happy, and he loved music. She gets emotional, recalling how much he struggled being one of the few Black people living in Ashland.

WOFFORD: (Crying) There's two rules here - smile and be whitewashed - because you can't dance, you can't have your music. You have to talk a certain way because no one understands what you're saying, and you have to recreate your whole self. And it angered him. It angered him so much that he could not be who he was but everybody else could. And if you don't submit here, you're a problem. You're a problem.

EHRLICH: Wofford says the death of her son, Aidan Ellison, is a loss for this world but a gain for heaven where, she says, he is free to be Black now.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in Ashland, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.