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Donald Trump has chosen to turn Portland, Oregon into a photo opportunity for his re-election campaign, showing his white nationalist supporters that he is willing to use violence to quell nonviolent demonstrators who are protesting for Black lives.
But, Trump is not alone in seeing political opportunity in the violent repression in Portland. Democratic and nonpartisan officials are also using the bloodshed of Portland protesters to highlight Trump’s authoritarian tendencies while ignoring that violent policing in cities — often considered bastions of progressive governance — is a core catalyst for the national uprising.
The city might seem like an odd choice for such a drastic escalation in this national moment, but for those like myself who are born and raised in Portland, it makes perfect sense. While the rest of the country often views it as a weird, progressive, and mostly white place; my home is a deeply segregated city. To understand what is currently happening in Portland, you must first understand our tragically racist history, the 50 odd days that precipitated the invasion of Trump’s armed troops, and the on the ground reality both of protesters and for the rest of its residents.
Portland, which sits on the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, is a beautiful, pristine, and complex place. Beneath the surface, however, is a history of violent segregation and racial exclusion that has never seen a proper reckoning. While the entire U.S. west holds a varied libertarian streak, a legacy of the pioneer experience; Oregon itself was founded on stolen indigenous land as a white utopia. While Oregon was not a slave state, this was not due to any moral virtue but rather due to the fact that Oregonians simply wanted no Blacks in Oregon, slave or not. Blacks were not allowed to legally live in the state and, while not enforceable, there are property deeds which, to this day, prohibit homeowners from selling to Blacks. After constitutional amendments and challenges, Blacks and other races began to move to Portland. One of these migrations occurred during the build-up to World War II. The neighborhood of Vanport, Oregon was constructed in large part for those working in the Kaiser Shipyards to be segregated from the rest of white Portland. Due to a lack of support and infrastructure from white officials and corporate interests, the entire town of Vanport was wiped out in a flood. There are disagreements over the death toll, but the Black community believes to this day that the number is much higher than white officials reported. Regardless, the bulk of Black Portlanders were displaced. My grandmother, a Vanport resident, was forced to migrate once again. Following this displacement, the Blacks who remained in the area settled into neighborhoods through racist zoning policies that just like many American cities are now unaffordable, gentrified, and littered with reminders of the forced removal of our culture.
This racial dynamic must be understood for one to fully digest the current moment. Racist attacks in Portland have occurred throughout that time. From the murder of Mulageta Seraw, the murder of Larnell Bruce, all the way to the Max stabbings of 2017 that shook the city to its core. We are not new to the struggle against racism.
Concurrently with explicitly legalized segregation and racial violence, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) became the first police department in the United States to unionize creating the Portland Police Association (PPA), and the first to launch a public relations campaign to “Back the Blue” to generate public support for their cause. The union has a history of protecting police officers from accountability, including demanding the reinstatement of fired Portland Police Captain Mark Kruger, who is a Nazi war re-enactor. Years after the union won his reinstatement, Kruger recently retired having secured several internal promotions, and the people of Portland will continue to pay his pension because of the PPA contract. Other examples from the PPA’s sordid past include a precursor to George Floyd and Eric Garner: In 1985, Portland Police choked Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson to death after mistaking him for a suspect. Following Stevenson’s death and the subsequent banning of “sleeper” holds, on the day of his funeral, Portland Police Association members distributed t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Choke ‘Em, Smoke ‘Em’’ asserting that officers should use their firearms instead of their hands to execute Black Portlanders.
In 2010, the PPA successfully forced the city to rehire — with backpay — Officer Ron Frashour who was fired after shooting unarmed Black man Aaron Campbell in the back while he was running away. Mr. Campbell’s brother had died earlier that day and the police were called to perform a welfare check on him. Instead of safeguarding Mr. Campbell’s welfare, the Portland Police forced his mother, Marva Davis, to lose two sons in a single day. Examples like these should contextualize why protesters have recently been demonstrating at the PPA headquarters — far from the storied downtown of Portland.
However, while racism and white supremacist infiltration of police departments is deeply embedded in our city, so is a long storied history of protests, union organizing, and fights against authoritarianism. In fact, the Justice Center that is the epicenter of the current protests sits on the exact address of a former IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) union organizing location. The hall was ripped from IWW after Oregon state law made revolutionary organizing illegal and the Justice Center was built over the location in the ’80s. This pattern of local officials cracking down on protesters has continued to this day. A wave of white nationalists invading Portland from surrounding areas following the election of Trump saw swift counter-protests from Portland’s thriving antifascist scene. White nationalists have been consistently outnumbered in street clashes that sometimes turned violent. Despite blatantly eliminationist rhetoric and sometimes open-carrying, Portland Police always kept their backs to the white nationalists and faced the diverse Portland crowd of antifascists. This positioned the police to join the white nationalists as they faced off against those standing for equality — again resulting in violent crackdowns as members of the alt-right cheered the police on. In a notable encounter, while Chapman Square was cleared with tear gas and flashbangs, the assembled white nationalists in Terry Schrunk Plaza, the adjacent block, chanted, “USA! USA!” as though the gassing of their fellow human beings was a July 4th fireworks show. Later, a diligent local press revealed that Portland Police had covered up the known presence of armed white nationalists atop of nearby parking garages with guns trained on antifascists and that Portland Police had been coordinating events with white nationalists via friendly text messages.
Most national media fails to grasp that on the ground here in Portland, this is not all about Trump. The 50 odd days of protests that occurred before DHS head Wolf descended upon Portland with his troops were about Black lives under threat of violence from Portland Police and the white nationalists who still call the pacific northwest their proposed white utopia. The death of George Floyd reignited protests that have occurred for years organized by groups like Don’t Shoot Portland, PopMob, Portland Democratic Socialists of America, PNWYLF, Portland’s Resistance, Direct Action Alliance, and many more over the murders of Portlanders such as Quanice Hayes, Patrick Kimmons, Kendra James, Keaton Otis, Terrell Johnson and more. These protests have consistently been violently attacked by the Portland Police Bureau. Unlike in most large cities, our current mayor also serves as the Police Commissioner thanks to our outdated form of government. Thus, he unilaterally held the power to deescalate tense situations prior to the arrival of federal troops. While that moment has passed, Portland Police continue to violently attack nonviolent protesters shoulder to shoulder with Trump’s forces.
The national argument now occurring between Trump and Portland’s current Mayor Ted Wheeler is not over tactics, rhetoric, or even the views of the nonviolent demonstrators. The argument is about which armed force should have the right to “quell” the protests. The people of Portland see right through this, and it is understandably frustrating to see the Portland mayor lauded in national circles for condemning the presence of Trump’s forces while continuing to work with him in trying to end the protests. Both President Trump and Wheeler want the protests to end, they want credit for ending them. Both of them gas, beat, and arrest nonviolent demonstrators on a nightly basis.
Elected simultaneously with Trump, Portland’s mayor seems out of place to those who think of the city as a progressive bastion. Wheeler is a sixth-generation Oregonian — meaning his family was a part of Oregon’s white utopian founding. His family business, timber, is one of Oregon’s largest cash crops, Wheeler is one of the wealthiest people in the state. He is closely linked to Portland Business Alliance (PBA), which recently attempted to blame their COVID-linked losses on Black Lives Matter demonstrators. On behalf of PBA, Wheeler opposed grassroots climate action when 65% of Portland voters approved a 1% tax on major corporations to invest in the Portland Clean Energy Fund. Portland voters approved campaign finance limits, and Wheeler continued to violate the law and challenge it in court, accepting huge contributions from wealthy out-of-state donors and disgraced Trump bundler Gordon Sondland. Wheeler is currently in the midst of a re-election bid. The most recent polls show him tied with his challenger from the left Sarah Iannarone, a frequent attendee at Portland’s protests.
Over the past 51 days, Portland police have deployed tear gas, arrested and assaulted journalists, and beaten protesters. Each protest becomes a protest of the previous night’s actions in addition to the continued demands for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the lives lost to Portland Police. Meanwhile, protesters and communities of color made the demand that $50 million be removed from the Portland Police budget to invest in and protect the Black community. One commissioner said that 70,000 emails had been sent in support of this plan — more than she had ever seen. Testimony on the topic was unanimous. Instead, Wheeler cut roughly $15 million — some 5% of the PPB’s shockingly large budget. The cuts bring PPB’s 2020-2021 budget back to 2016 levels, a time where police were just as violent. Following that insulting dereliction of duty, the protests were further emboldened. Had City Council simply done what the community had been asking for, it would have de-escalated tensions. Later, Portland City Council voted to extend the PPA contract due to complications in negotiation due to COVID-19, giving some demonstrators more complaints of City leadership.
Instead of listening to the community, Wheeler and his police have been engaged in a communications war against demonstrators. Officials have tried to paint demonstrators as radical violent anarchists that are distracting from the movement and not speaking for the Black community. On its face, this claim assumes the Black community is a monolith. But, this is also the exact rhetoric that Trump has deployed against demonstrators. What outside spectators view as a progressive city demanding Trump leave is, in reality, a conservative mayor arguing with Trump over who gets to gas, beat, and arrest the demonstrators they both loathe. Portlanders deserve better.
Portland elected its first Black woman City Councilmember in 2018. A former state representative to the Oregon House, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was elected in large part for her background in police reform advocacy and is well respected in Portland’s Civil Rights movement. She has just demanded that Wheeler hand over the police bureau as he is either unable or unwilling to stop their violence and cooperation with Trump’s forces. If he gives her the police bureau, he will have admitted that his leadership once again failed. If he does not, there will be a swift community backlash.
So, what can be done now? How does this end? Local officials want the national media and their constituents to believe that their hands are tied and when it comes to expelling Trump’s secret police. That might very well be true, but they have failed to do anything at all and fail to recognize that their inability to de-escalate the situation is why Trump seized upon this opportunity. Portland’s mayor should have sided with demonstrators from day one. He should not have sent armed officers in warrior costumes to escalate nonviolent situations. He should have been in the streets with his community, as Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has been. Yes, many in the crowd would have yelled at him, but he would have regained some modicum of respect from those on the ground. He should have listened to the community and defunded the police budget by a significant amount. We see now that the money that PPB is spending; such as $20,000 in one day on tear gas, is not keeping Portland safe.
During a pandemic, the $50 million that was proposed to be cut could have gone into community investments that actually kept us safe. He should have banned tear gas, a chemical weapon banned in war by the Geneva Conventions, and particularly heinous in the midst of an airborne pandemic. Instead, he had to lose a lawsuit filed by Don’t Shoot Portland and wait for a judge to stop his police from deploying the gas. Yet officers continue to violate the court order. He should have directed his officers not to attack members of the press, but instead, a judge had to force him to stop that authoritarian practice. Likewise, he has continued to violate that court order. Wheeler could have directed his officers not to meet with the Trump administration, but he did not, and the officers did meet with Trump officials. A mayor with control, who understood what a sanctuary city is supposed to be, could line their city’s police officers up facing Trump’s troops and protect his constituents from Trump’s weapons of war. Such a move would “protect and serve” the people of this city. Instead, Wheeler’s forces are working together with Trump, as our conservative mayor uses Fox News appearances to condemn Trump’s presence.
Demonstrators are angry, but still focused on the movement for Black Lives. We don’t want to hear about broken windows or graffiti. We don’t want to hear about peaceful versus violent demonstrators, while there is no justice for the extrajudicial murders of so many Black Americans. We don’t want to hear about how these demonstrations should come to an end. This is about Black lives. Protests will continue whether the tear gas comes from Wheeler or Trump.
It is extremely frustrating to this Black Portlander to see headlines such as “Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Wants Federal Troops Out of His City” as though he is some #Resistance hero. We protested him for 50 days. He brutalized us for 50 days, not to mention countless other times throughout his tenure. Last week, he went on national TV to say that the protests were dwindling before federal officers arrived, as though it were a good thing. What he fails to realize, and what history has continuously taught us is that protests are not the problem. Protests are a reaction to something very wrong in our society and our city. Protests won’t end in Portland when Trump’s forces retreat. They won’t end when the national media picks up and leaves after “sorting out” what is happening here. They won’t end until #BlackLivesMatter.
I want to note one place where I have hope. White Portlanders are showing up in record numbers for Black lives. Our city has a long way to go in relations among Black and non-Black communities. But , white people are starting to wake up to the reality that Black Americans face every day. In waking up, they’re standing up in record numbers to our out of control Police Departments, and as a result are facing unprecedented repression from local, state, and now federal police. This moment calls us to choose a side in history. The people of Portland are firmly on the side of the movement for Black lives. The same is true in cities across the country. Whether our elected officials actually heed the lessons of this moment is another question.
- Gregory McKelvey, Vice-Chair of Black Caucus - Democratic Party of Oregon