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After a year of Portland protests, activists see no end in sight

UPDATED: Sat., May 29, 2021

By Catalina Gaitán The Oregonian

When Margaret Carter reflects on police, she remembers the 1970s, when officers in North Portland planted marijuana in people’s cars and arrested them.

Since then, said Carter – the first Black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature – little has changed to restore trust between Black Portlanders and police officers. And continued police killings of Black Americans have only exacerbated these long-simmering tensions.

“You’re going to find distrust and mistrust with police departments all across this country until they see some changes,” said the longtime public servant.

That mistrust – and the demand for change – erupted a year ago today in Portland and across the country with thousands protesting the murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Much has changed in the ensuing year. The protests, once more frequent and driven by community marches and wide engagement, have grown more sporadic but also more prone to property damage. Organizers more regularly lead “direct action” events that frequently involve vandalism and fires set on or near buildings.

The protests often involve intense, violent clashes between police and protesters. The Portland Police Bureau, whose officers have been clad in riot gear, have consistently dispersed crowds with force, including batons, tear gas and impact munitions. Protesters, who have geared up with shields, gas masks and helmets, have thrown frozen water bottles, fireworks, rocks and eggs at officers.

The protests now occurring have drawn criticism from some city leaders and residents who say participants are no longer pursuing racial justice. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has become a frequent critic.

“There is no excuse for the violence and damage a small group of people have repeatedly brought to our streets,” Wheeler told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Businesses have closed, Portlanders have lost their jobs, and our efforts to reopen and begin the work of recovery have been slowed by these people.

“We challenge this group to show how breaking the windows of small businesses owned by people of color, and launching mortars in neighborhood streets, support our community’s shared values and advance the work of reform.”

But some activists say focusing on protest tactics and not their demands and use of force by police is misguided.

“I think that the mayor and any other elected leader who wants to write off the individuals breaking windows as simply anarchists have to think deeper about why these people feel like they still need to break windows,” said Darren Harold-Golden, a political consultant and member of Portland’s Black Millennial Movement. “Martin Luther King is the one who said, ‘A riot is the voice of the unheard.’ These individuals still feel unheard.”

Fissures have developed within the protest community over actions by some that have harmed communities of color. That has caused support for protests to dwindle within the movement itself, some observers say, with several of the city’s most prominent and respected activists alleging some of today’s protesters are no longer aligned with the original goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.

One thing that hasn’t changed, community activists say, is the desire for real change that addresses systemic racism and police brutality across the United States. But disagreement over how best to reform what activists say is a broken system has surfaced differences among community and protest groups over how best to achieve their goals.

Some Black leaders, like Carter, say more conversation is needed along with policy changes. Others, like Mac Smiff, a local journalist, activist and editor of We Out Here Magazine, say education and constructive engagement are called for, along with continued protests. And some, such as Portland activist Demetria Hester, a longtime fixture at protests, say events must be planned more intentionally and deliver progress for communities of color.

Whatever will emerge in the next year, almost all involved agree that achieving racial justice is a long-term process, challenged by the many voices and ideas of what justice looks like. But some constants remain: The work is only beginning, activists say, and protests in Portland won’t stop until true progress is made.

Protesters see little change

Protesters, activists and organizers for the past year have been unified in one of the movement’s primary goals: the significant defunding of the Portland Police Bureau. And protesters who organize direct action events go further, demanding the abolition of law enforcement.

But while the City Council has cut some of the police budget, demands for massive defunding have gone unmet. That lack of drastic change, along with the use of force by Portland police, activists say, continues to inspire the Black Lives Matter movement, in its various forms.

“It was Breonna Taylor, then George Floyd, and then it just kept going … people just decided enough was enough,” said Jasmine Casanova-Dean, a Black Lives Matter organizer at Unite Oregon, a local nonprofit working for racial justice. “What really accelerated [protests] was how people, especially Portlanders, were being treated by police and they had never been treated that way before.”

When thousands first took to the streets last summer to protest Floyd’s murder, a list of demands was crafted by local nonprofit Unite Oregon and Imagine Black, previously known as Portland African American Leadership Forum: defund Portland police by at least 50% and reinvest that money in community programs; release all protesters from jail; remove federal troops from Portland; and force Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to resign.

During protests, these demands were read aloud and projected onto the side of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, and the issue prompted unusually widespread interest in city spending. Commissioners received over 63,000 emails about the budget, and nearly 750 people signed up to testify in front of the City Council.

Most appearing before the council demanded $50 million be slashed from the police.

A week after listening to hours of public testimony, the council in June approved a $5.6 billion budget that diverted $15 million from the police bureau to other city programs and initiatives – far short of Unite Oregon’s $50 million goal.

“We were engaging in tactics that are deemed legitimate by the City Council,” said Callie Riley, communications and policy analyst at Unite Oregon. “And the City Council, in particular Mayor Wheeler, rejected that.

“It’s really frustrating for me as an organizer to be told that there’s certain ways to air our demands, and then we go and do these things and we are ignored or dismissed.”

After the budget approval, protesters continued showing up nightly outside the federal courthouse and Justice Center. President Donald Trump’s dispatch of federal troops to assist in policing protests inflamed tensions as clashes grew larger and more intense through July.

The militarized response, Casanova-Dean said, to a small faction of what was a largely peaceful crowd only intensified calls for defunding or abolishing the police.

“The true frustration is that we’ll spend so much money on these police officers [for] them to terrorize us,” Casanova-Dean said.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell has defended the bureau’s use of force during protests, especially after a court ruling in June limited police use of tear gas.

“When tools [CS gas] are restricted that help us disperse crowds, the options are limited to batons and physical force,” he said in a statement in July. “This makes it more likely people will be injured. No one had to be subject to arrest, force, or munitions. This happened because some people chose to engage in violence and destruction.

“We will always support everyone’s right to peacefully protest, but what is happening nightly in some parts of Portland is not that,” Lovell said.

Earlier this month, the City Council discussed the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget. Unite Oregon released another list of demands, including divesting $35 million from the Police Bureau and reinvesting the money in public safety programs like Portland Street Response. That pilot program sends an unarmed paramedic and social worker instead of police officers to assist those experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis.

In contrast, Wheeler’s proposed $5.7 billion budget included only a $3 million reduction to the police budget.

Similar to last year, Portlanders called in via Zoom to testify before the council, many expressing support for an amendment by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to scale up the Portland Street Response citywide. When the council approved its budget two weeks later, however, Hardesty’s amendment was voted down, and Unite Oregon’s calls for police cuts went unmentioned.

A month ago, a poll of 600 people, conducted by DHM Research on behalf of the Oregonian/OregonLive, found fewer than a quarter of survey participants in Portland – and even less among suburban residents – believe there should be fewer police officers.

In the email to the Oregonian/OregonLive, the mayor’s office defended the budget and said substantial cuts were made to the police bureau.

“We are working toward a better system of public safety services, not just a smaller police agency,” Wheeler said.

Activists said that’s why protesters will continue taking to the streets.

“There will be protests, and it will be a massive movement,” Casanova-Dean said. “Because this fight is still not over.”

Over a year, differences emerge

Floyd’s death brought a massive outpouring of public support in Portland for the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the first wave of protests, thousands turned out nightly to march. People lined busy streets in the daytime and waved “Black Lives Matter” signs to loud honks from passing cars. Families participated in weekly kid-friendly marches or car caravans through neighborhoods, playing music and waving signs from rolled-down windows.

But after federal agents withdrew, crowds began to shrink, and the atmosphere of nightly protests changed.

Protesters migrated away from downtown and began marching at night to police precincts in late summer. More participants began arriving in “bloc,” a tactic of wearing black, identity-obscuring clothing. These direct action events would bring clashes with police in neighborhoods, with tear gas and impact munitions deployed steps from homes. A subset of participants often splintered from the larger group to smash windows, light fires and graffiti buildings.

Such demonstrations have continued into 2021. The actions of some of these protesters – in particular, when they negatively impact communities of color – has “rubbed the Black folks the wrong way,” said Mac Smiff, the journalist and activist.

“I’m not particularly pleased with the way the protests are going at the moment,” Smiff said. “I think that a lot of Black people feel like we don’t have a say in the protests any further and that it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Excitement for the Black Lives Matter movement has dwindled, Smiff said, partially because some protesters don’t consider the impact their actions will have on Portland’s Black residents.

On April 20, Smiff and 57 other Black protesters published an open letter addressed to the “Portland Protest Community” in We Out Here Magazine. The letter stated their shared goals of ending police violence and asked that allies be more thoughtful in their actions.

“It was more about keeping us in mind [and] keeping the Black people and our homes and livelihoods in mind as we do these things and how it impacts us,” Smiff said.

Other longtime racial justice activists in Portland have echoed similar concerns, including Hester.

“These [direct action marches] have no goal, no reason for anything,” Hester said. “If you put them together to smash the Boys & Girls Club, you’re putting on [direct actions] that have no meaning.”

Over the past several years, Hester has become one of the city’s most prominent racial justice activists. She testified in January 2020 against Jeremy Christian for assaulting her on a MAX train the day before he killed two in a racist attack in 2017. Hester has been a leading figure in protests against systemic racism and police brutality since they began last summer, helping found Moms United For Black Lives and spending a night in jail after police arrested her at a protest in August.

But Hester said she’s observed some protesters losing focus and becoming more concerned with pursuing an adrenaline rush from clashing with police or attention on the internet rather than fighting for racial justice.

Some of today’s protesters – especially white protesters – are attempting to re-create the energy they experienced last summer, Hester said.

“It’s something for them to talk about,” Hester said. “We’re not your entertainment. We’re here because we’re dying, and you should be here with us, too.”

While Hester is supportive of continued protests, including direct action events, she said they need to be more intentional.

“We’re focusing on steps we need to take and not just having direct actions for nothing,” Hester said. “It’s supposed to be helping or standing up for Black and Indigenous community. We need to bring back the focus.”

Hester also stresses the importance of finding ways to support communities of color outside of protests, whether it be through political engagement or volunteering time. Over the past year, she has testified three times in front of the City Council and in front of the Oregon Legislature in support of Senate Bill 577, a bill that expands the state’s hate crime laws.

And Moms United For Black Lives also served more than 300 families with food, clothing and other basic needs during winter. This type of work, she said, is where protesters can re-channel their energy.

“Get in touch with the whole group that supports Black moms that have lost their children or loved ones. Channel it there. Help them heal,” Hester said. “This is what they’re supposed to do: help them.”

Smiff said many Black Portlanders are turning their attention away from protests and marches and toward education, training, political engagement and collaborating on strategies for defunding police and achieving Black liberation.

But there is still a need for protests to continue, Smiff said – even when it includes actions like property damage.

“It definitely continues to let people know that Portland is not playing around about it, we are serious, and there is a need to continue to pay attention,” Smiff said. “That’s what the protests are really designed for – to keep attention on it. It’s not designed to make the change itself.”

Where now, and how to get there?

Mingus Mapps, who took a seat on the City Council in January, said the attention garnered by protesters successfully motivated commissioners to consider “major reforms” regarding public safety. But when protesters engage in property damage and arson, they bring harm upon the communities they seek to protect, Mapps said.

“Black liberation is not about broken windows,” said Mapps, one of two Black city commissioners. “It’s about working schools and a criminal justice system that treats everybody fairly and respects people … We want you to be engaged, but throwing a brick is not meaningful engagement.”

For Mapps, ongoing protests in Portland have created a “culture of violence.”

“For the folks who are out vandalizing buildings at this point I’m not sure if they are arguing in good faith, because actually the community and the city has made a deep commitment to reinventing how we go about policing,” Mapps said. “Maybe the point of these protests is not actually real-world reform – the point in many cases is literally the destruction that we wake up to every morning.”

For some activists, however, this focus on property damage is misplaced.

“‘Violence’ is them beating us, physically throwing us, sending us to the hospital,” said Simona Bearcub, an Afro-Indigenous protester. “These are buildings, these are structures, these are monuments to colonialism and genocide – nothing more.”

Portland police reported using force 6,283 times during protests between May and the end of September, according to its quarterly reports. The actual number could be much larger, according to city-hired consultant Dennis Rosenbaum, who found significant gaps in the city’s data.

The use of force and lack of accountability from Portland police is what has kept protests going, Bearcub said.

Added Smiff: “If you want to change how people are responding, change the conditions that they live in. People are not going to be tricked into going home. You have to actually satisfy the conditions that they’re looking for.”

If city leaders want protests and vandalism to end, Smiff said, they need to make dramatic changes, including defunding police, improving conditions for people experiencing homelessness and dismantling systemic racism.

For some longtime public servants like Carter, who left the state Senate in 2009, trust in the police can be rebuilt through conversation and legislation. Carter served in office for nearly three decades in both the House and Senate.

“My approach is not meeting violence with violence. My approach is conversation,” Carter said. “And I know that that’s a difference because of generational foresight or insight into how you bring about change.”

Carter said protesters should focus on working with their local government to create the changes they’d like to see. But success depends on the cooperation of elected officials in Portland – something she said she has yet to see.

“I do think we can do it through laws, but you’ve got to have the elected bodies who have that same purpose in mind,” she said. “I think there needs to be conversation, and I haven’t seen that nor do I hear it.”

Carter recommends city leaders arrange public meetings where protesters describe possible changes. It’s especially important that police departments and police unions “get the message,” she said.

“Questions like, ‘What do we want to see in our police?’ ‘How do we want them to organize themselves around serving communities?’” Carter said. “See, that word ‘serving’ is not being used in a way that benefits Black and brown people in this country. You don’t ‘serve’ Black and brown people in this country by killing them.”

Michelle Yemaya Benton has been a community organizer for over five years and is now with Portland’s Black Riders Liberation Party, which describes itself as an organization of Black revolutionaries fighting white supremacy. Her maternal grandparents were both members of the Black Panthers political party.

She said a combination of tactics, including continued protests, is needed to achieve the transformational changes protesters want. It will also take city leaders being bold enough to embrace radical changes.

Portland is in a “unique position” to transform the way it handles public safety, Benton said, including the chance to scrap policing as it exists today and build a new “community-led” public safety system from scratch. The current policing system is not broken, she said, it is functioning as designed, to discriminate against Black people and marginalized communities.

“Nobody feels safe right now, and that needs to change,” Benton said. “The policing in Portland is not helping.”

If the city misses its opportunity, Benton said, civil unrest and protests in Portland are likely to continue indefinitely.

“I suggest our city leaders take heed to their demands and be real about it,” Benton said. “We’re on our second year of COVID, and now we’re about to be in our second year of the uprising. They’re parallel.”

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