Occupying the homelands of the Chinook people, as well as areas belonging to the Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin, Kalapuya, and Molalla, Portland was named after a city in the east, named after a city in England. Prior to 2020, ‘Stumptown’ was known for a self-parodying television show, an exceptional basketball team and as the birthplace of a handful of indie saints (Mark Rothko, Kathleen Hanna). It surprises me still when people on the other side of the world have heard about my hometown since it topped the list of “The Top Five Coolest Cities to Move to with Sour Coffee and Freezing Rainforest Winters” in the years since I left. My youth there became novel in retrospect. Portlanders lament “Old Portland” as a fabled time before the 2008 crash when the Californians were forced North and rents became speculative assets. Or maybe it was in 2011 when the Satyricon closed. Or maybe it was earlier in the 1990s when white Portlanders started moving into the historically Black Albina neighborhood in North Portland where the refugees from Vanport had built a resilient and vibrant community against all odds. And when I say “odds” I mean the violent blend of redlining, planned segregation and community divestment from city hall in a state that was conceived as a white utopia with Sundown Laws. Up until the late 1990s there were laws on the books prohibiting POC from owning property in Lake Oswego, an affluent suburb of Portland, and when I was in high school we colloquially accepted that Portland was “sooooo white”: A statement that effectively erased the experience of communities in North Portland or the multiple languages spoken in homes East of 82nd. Portland has the largest white majority of any major US city; a dangerously ignorant whiteness flavored by a liberalism that prefers passive lawn signs to anti-racist action. A whiteness that would pull their kids from the Jefferson or Benson neighborhood schools or bully a young Adam Daniel then turn around and try to claim Aminé.
At the time of this writing the Black Lives Matter movement has been protesting on the streets of Portland for seventy five consecutive nights. Activists and protesters have withstood the brutality of the Portland Police Bureau, Homeland Security, the divisiveness of Left Twitter, and an international spotlight and ceaseless critique of a sustained action that refuses to be ignored by the voracious 24 hour news cycle. Talking heads on my Facebook timeline ask: What is the point of these protests? The answer is simple: They command attention to the demands of a disenfranchised minority in the devil’s white city. Demands that have not been met.
In July, when the nightly demonstrations started to receive national attention, the Portland NAACP President Rev. E.D. Mondainé stated that the actions of white protesters were provoking a “spectacle” and detracting or de-centering from the goal of the BLM movement. “I am proposing that we take the cause of Black Lives Matter into those places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us, and where there is less risk of spectacle distracting from our true aims. In boardrooms, in schools, in city councils, in the halls of justice, in the smoky backrooms of a duplicitous government — that is where we will finally dismantle the gears of the brutal, racist machine that has been terrorizing black Americans and hollowing out the moral character of this nation since its inception.’” This statement conveniently registered with people like my Dad who attribute the passage of the Civil Rights Act exclusively to MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. There are many droplets that move in a rising tide, pulled by an unjust moon. There are as many ways to grieve as there are to stand. In August, two national leaders from the BLM movement spoke to the Portland Mercury. Janaya Khan told reporter Alex Zielinski, “‘Local fights and local discourse change what's possible at the national scale,’ they said. ‘Justice has never been given. It's been won.’” I heard of more Black folks that were murdered by the police growing up than I had Black classmates growing up in inner SE Portland. The PPB was beyond the reach of reform before these protests started. Portland’s BLM contingency demands that a 50% reduction in funding for the PPB be funneled into community action groups that have been previously neglected by city hall. A simple budget re-prioritization that would invest in resources for struggling communities rather than the para-military force that shows up when things have already gone south and have left 53 bodies full of bullets since 2010. The PPB are not an exception in racist policing practices nationwide but these protests have demonstrated just what a violent and blunt instrument Police are. And they wrote the manual on “crowd control” long before the Feds showed up.
Martin, The Absolute Artwork (c) Hallie Frost
Cloaked in the binary of two party politics are the different shades of conservative (or progressive) that vary by region or creed. Though the population has boomed to 4.2 million it is primarily focused in the urban centers of the lush Willamette valley in the west of the state.Beyond the Cascade Mountains, the land changes remarkably. Two hours from Portland, located in the far northwest of the State, one could drive out onto what looks like a martian desert. Politically, Oregon is a solid “blue state” as so many of her inhabitants are urban dwellers, but out in the desert, along the coast and in the mountains, the isolated rural communities tend towards a political conservatism that may be familiarly Jesus-flavored but spiced with an erratic Libertarianism. In January 2016, a group of 26 men commandeered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in far eastern Oregon and seceded from the United States of America. Their symbolic stance against “Big” government and Federal ownership of state lands was the basis of a 40 day stand-off with local law enforcement as Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown begged the Obama Administration to end the occupation by the Burns Militia, as they came to be known. In response the FBI stated that their response to the insurrection would be “‘deliberate and measured as we seek a peaceful resolution." Eventually someone got shot and the rest of the militia got 2-3 years probation. There is precedence for Federal “involvement” in secessionist movements within Oregon, but when Trump sent Homeland Security to guard the Justice Center it was another performance entirely. “The Feds” showed up because it’s an election year.
(c) Hallie Frost
My friend picked me up in his truck with wood pieces and ants in the back after a day of making cabinets. I was sitting cross legged on a curb incorrectly wearing black bloc which originated in the 1980s in the Berlin Autonomen movement, detangling my hair from the sand and river water of an afternoon spent at Sauvie’s Island. With the immense traveling privilege of a white US immigrant, I had arrived home amidst a plague to quarantine, languidly downing La Croix in my mom’s renovated kitchen until getting a free covid test paid for by the state of Oregon. I had gone to protests in Berlin, standing in solidarity, but I was biting at the bit to show up, be there in person and engage. With my hand out the window as we drove, my friend briefed me on the known crowd dispersal tactics used by the PPB, even in residential areas, as he checked the live-feed and PNW Liberation Front’s call for participants that night. His instructions made evident that I had underestimated the potential cost of “showing up”. He checked me into his affinity group in case I got arrested. I turned my phone off. The night we went out was a Saturday. The kind of gorgeous summer night in Portland where teenagers break into Creston pool or hang out of minivan windows crawling through the Taco Bell drive-thru. News that the Feds down at the Justice Center were pulling protesters off street corners into unmarked vans had just come out that day and when we got to the North Police Precinct the American Flag lay in pieces under the banner of the new movement. Small-statured antifa in bike helmets labeled Press reminded me that Covid had canceled the antiquated rite of passage that is Prom season and the social restrictions of the pandemic made for the blossoming of a teen social scene along the perimeter of protests. “I only believe in Gen-Z”, my friend said nodding towards the teenagers silently sitting on the curb. One of them was covering the story for their high school paper. They sat cool as cucumbers on the curb waiting for the sun to go down, waiting for the cops to show up and gas them out, waiting for their real lives to begin.
(c) Hallie Frost
We stood in the precinct parking lot until the gathering of around 150 people was “deemed a riot” and we moved onto Lombard. Later, on Twitter I would see footage of the lobby of the precinct building set ablaze. As we marched, drumming, clapping and yelling, a self-organized coalition of bikers, motor cyclists and drivers rode ahead to divert traffic. When standing in the parking lot, I had felt self-conscious and uncomfortable both in my previous eagerness and from the palpable stagnant energy of the crowd. There’s nothing like the anxiety of waiting to get beat up. Marching felt different. It felt of solidarity, of urgency, of collective power. Portlanders came out of their houses and onto their lawns, sometimes into the streets. They slammed on their horns or bumped the bass at stoplights. Essential workers pressed themselves up against the windows of fast food restaurants with their fists raised, recording on their phones. We fell into a juncated call and response. No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police No Justice (No Peace) Take to the Streets and Fuck the Police until it was fully dark and the smell of the river washed up the hot streets and the dumpsters got pulled from the 7Eleven across the boulevard and their insides were set on fire. I ran into my friend from high school theater and the Harm Reduction squad was passing out maple bars and I locked eyes with a gorgeous person from the internet and the police declared a riot and the tear gas canisters started flying overhead. Umbrellas unfurled like an afternoon at Seaside and my friend grabbed me as I stood frozen like a liability and yelled to the small statured antifa previously marching, previously singing, to Stop Running. STAY TOGETHER STAY TIGHT WE DO THIS EVERY NIGHT STAY TOGETHER STAY TIGHT through the parking lots of strip malls until we turned, pulling each other into a darkened residential street. For a moment the protesters around me started cheering until we realized we were a block from the cinderblock wall that runs the length of the freeway with the PPB pushing us down, their shiny riot gear and the pace at which they passed through the gas clouds like cheap magicians and into this narrow street they followed us. They were still coming. THIS EVENT HAS BEEN DEEMED A RIOT MOVE TO THE EAST NOW IF YOU DO NOT MOVE TO THE EAST YOU WILL BE SUBJECT TO ARREST INCLUDING CROWD CONTROL AMMUNITIONS LEAVE THE AREA NOW but it’s dark and now we are all jogging and men around me are afraid and threatening to fight one another someone singing that Kendrick refrain in a reedy voice and we’re all stepping on one another and various hedges demarcating private property and I realize as I’m trying to catch my breath that my black chords are wet and that my body will remember this response when a patrol car pulls up in the future. WHO DO YOU SERVE WHO DO YOU PROTECT. They do not care tonight or any other about the holes their ammunition finds in living bodies. A blunt tool with a dull purpose. I guess it’s one thing to know conceptually that we live in a police state. It is entirely another to feel it. I don’t get pulled into a van and I don’t sleep until 9 the next morning.
Homeland Security is a paramilitary force founded in 2002 after September 11th along with other fascist tools like the Patriot Act. Their website has a button to “Get Involved” and a blog offering primitive accountability for their occupation of the Justice Center in Portland.
Homeland Security Blog, screenshot from their website
“The Department of Homeland Security has a vital mission: to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 240,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, and our goal is clear - keeping America safe.”
Designed to operate on the Borders of the US primarily terrorizing refugees from the south, Homeland Security officers are not trained or equipped for any situation that would require tact rather than brute force in an urban area. The President’s hounds. The presence of the Feds did nothing to “protect” the Mark O. Hatfield Justice Center from “Vandalism” but instead escalated the situation tenfold. There was the famous Wall of Moms, the Wall of Veterans, the Dads with Leaf Blowers and even Portland Mayor and Portland Police Commissioner Ted Wheeler setting up for tear stained photo ops after the Federal Agents opened the cannisters. I was there the night Wheeler got tear gassed. The presence of Homeland Security offered Wheeler a heavy handed PR foil to show faux solidarity with his constituents who his police force had been tear gassing for 40 days. At first the Mayor stood in front of the crowd pledging his allegiance over the din of Portlanders screaming every variation of “Fuck You”, but Wheeler holds firm in his resolve to appear opposite of the Trump administration and that night would make national TV with tears streaming down his face. Little is known about the lasting effects of sustained exposure to tear gas, as it would be highly amoral to run tests with a substance banned by the Geneva Convention, but studies from Bahrain to Palestine to Chile have colluded that it acts as an abortifacient in the body. These studies counted increased miscarriages in the aftermath of exposure but I’m sure there will be other effects less obvious than dying fetuses. At least Teddy got a taste of his own medicine.
(c) Hallie Frost
When it became evident that Homeland Security was actually attracting attacks on the symbolic “Justice Center” (or maybe they were needed to spray down Chicago) a few agents pledged to stay behind the doors and let the Portland Police take over the nightly ritual. The commotion the Feds caused cloaked Trump’s original intention. I’ll say one thing about 45, he is a man who is constantly being underestimated. In 1972, the US was embroiled in the bloody and nonsensical War in Vietnam. It was also an election year and the voting age had been lowered to 18 as both the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-War movement were drawing huge crowds in American cities. That November, sitting President Nixon would win 49 states over incumbent George McGovern whose platform called for an end to the war and a federal minimum wage. Nixon’s platform highlighted his use of federal troops to quell the riots in the late 1960’s and his sweeping win against McGovern showed America’s conflict-fatigue preference for a Law and Order President. Deploying troops in Portland, a universally known liberal snowflake haven with a reputation of Antifa (because of an equal number of self-identified Nazis coming from the boonies) was Trump’s attempt to imitate this Nixon era playbook; flex control over the States and the “radical left” in particular. Even now as an uneasy truce has been defined by Oregon State Governor Kate Brown, Trump will tell this story over and over again in hyperbole: how his violent hand on the neck of the left is the reason Portland was left standing. Before I left, Biden declared cop Kamala Harris his running mate, certainly aiming to assuage the same fears of white suburbia. Republican or Democrat, local cop or Federal agent: They’re reading the same playbook.
My mom bikes to work about three blocks from the Justice Center. Sometimes there is broken glass, she says, but it is usually cleared away by morning. My mom wears her bike helmet to the protests. In her thirties when I was small, she helped organize the WTO protests in Seattle which led to the famous Battle of Seattle marches. She tells me that is what protests are for: When you break shit white people pay attention.
Summer is coming to an end. Retailers scramble to rebrand their Back to School Specials with some consolation for the children that will be trapped inside this autumn. Riot Ribs, a free barbeque and mutual Aid project that fed the movement at the Justice Center, skyrocketed to fame and then collapsed under allegations of misogyny, unsuccessfully dissolving into another aid organization Don’t Shoot PDX. My friends' Instagram highlights still light up every night with blurry footage of running ,dumpster fires, snipers on NE Emerson and MLK, tears and numbers written in marker on their arms. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tete Gulley, Patrick Kimmons, Kendra James, Shai’ India Harris. The 600$/week Federal unemployment ended and Corona still rages. Jacob Blake was shot in the back in Wisconsin last night in front of his children. It does not have to be this way. We cannot continue like this. We won’t. The summer Millennials were radicalized and Mutual Aid programs became mechanisms for collective care, expanding into the gaps that meager government programs had abandoned in the 1980’s. The summer my friend released her first EP and the wildfires waited until August to rip through California. The summer the aging, quarantined population of Florida awaited Hurricane season and Collagen Water was on sale at Whole Foods and we looked around at the unlimited consumer choices we have privileged over the dignity of human lives. The summer Beirut exploded and Belarus stood up. The last summer of Angela Merkel’s reign in the free world. The summer Hamilton aired on Disney+ and Genesis started taking spanish lessons in her Berlin apartment so she could talk to her Abuelita on the phone. I have no pride but rather a dogged hope for the dynamism of my home. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” That we may mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.
I want to acknowledge the work of the following activists and journalists who are reporting from the front lines. The true documentarians of the Portland Protests without whom I would not have been able to show up let alone write down a thought about.
PNW Liberation Front
Lindsey P. Smith
Please show monetary solidarity if you can:
Don’t Shoot PDX
The US Postal Service
Because Americans will be mailing in our ballots come November.
- IMAGE CREDITS