Portland is No ‘White Spectacle,’ but a Flashpoint in the Struggle for Human Dignity
I remember the start of my activism twenty years ago when, as a 17-year-old Black teen from a small city in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I scrounged up what money I had, filled my backpack with clothing for a week and caught a train to Philadelphia to attend the protests against the Republican National Convention in 2000. Philadelphia was not an entirely novel city to me. My Grandmother moved there during the latter waves of the great migration from the rural South Carolina town where she was born and raised. My father was born in North Philadelphia in the mid-20th Century, along with all of his brothers and sisters, and witnessed its decay as the white supremacist power structure of the city relentlessly sought to impoverish its Black communities through patterns of policing and economic violence. Understanding this history, and having not previously engaged in protest, civil disobedience, or even staying outside of my hometown on my own, what lay ahead of me was a frightening prospect. What I understood at 17 riding the train into Philadelphia in late July of 2000, however, was that change doesn’t come through the path of least resistance, but through confronting power in the places where that power threatens human dignity.
I knew this because it was what had been handed down to me from the history of those who had come before me in this struggle. As Fredrick Douglas put it in his August 3rd, 1857 speech at Canandaigua, New York: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” This is as true today in the movement toward the abolition of prisons and modern policing as it was during the movement toward the abolition of slavery.
I’ve lived in Portland for 15 years. In the years following my first large demonstration in Philadelphia, I had become intimately familiar with the character and patterns of peaceful and militant protest from the streets of Columbus, Georgia to those of Quebec City, Canada. Today, witnessing the nightly protests occurring just two miles from my home primarily through the lens of livestreams and news reports, I can say confidently that I have never seen anything like what I am seeing unfolding in the City of Portland. I am deeply thankful for the powerful longing of many thousands of my fellow Portlanders of all races, and of many identities, to come together and proclaim an inalienable truth: “Black Lives Matter.” Moreover, I am heartened by the fact that so many of these, from so many walks of life, are willing to put their bodies on the line in the face of police violence directed at a public who are threatening their impunity in killing Black people. I am not going to question the tactics of “Naked Athena” when the naked brutality of the Department of Homeland Security and the Portland Police Bureau is on full display. I am not going to question the spectacular nature of the beating of Navy veteran Christopher David at the hands of Customs and Border Patrol agents at a time when we must demand that the world not look away from the scenes unfolding in our city.
I’m not going to question these images because I recognize that our collective struggle for freedom knows no definite shape, and holds no permanent form. While the events that continue to unfold in Portland and across the United States find their most immediate origin in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and more broadly in the foundational crimes of American history — the enslavement of stolen people from Africa and the genocide of the indigenous people of North America — they do not stop there, nor can they be contained there. What we have seen over the past two months has been a process of protest met with needless violence at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau. It has been a cycle of escalation, winding down, and re-escalation — most prominently re-escalating with the introduction of federal agents at the behest of the Trump Administration. Make no mistake, however: the fundamental bridge between the beginning of these protests in late May, and where they have come today is the inherently violent nature of modern policing itself. In response to this, the public has become fed up with official excuses for ordinary terror. Thousands of Portlanders have tied up police resources that are typically employed in the capture of Black, Brown, and poor people for the defense of commerce and property and have forced City officials to contend with public anger.
The danger of recent federal escalation is a very real one. Just as medical professionals cannot conscionably attend to a broken leg while their patient’s airway is obstructed, the residents of Portland cannot under any circumstances stand down in the face of the present repression being meted out at the hands of federal authorities. Much as Portlanders have grown wary of the lies and misdirections of local officials, we must remain vigilant against those of federal authorities as the creeping hand of repression works its way around the neck of dignity and freedom. As the Trump administration seeks to insert federal agents into the role of local law enforcement across the country, we cannot expect this federal occupation of our cities to de-escalate simply because the protests end. To make it plain, this is an outside occupying force, staffed largely by agents from far-flung places, bringing their cultural biases and expectations to our city without ever having been acculturated to how we do things around here, and who we are as a city. If they aren’t resisted in the streets today, who will rise to resist them when they do find us in our boardrooms, in our schools, and our city councils? Who will rise to meet them in the halls of justice, when the smoke in the backrooms of our duplicitous government comes not from burning tobacco, but from the barrels of their guns?
I was not born in this city. I moved here as an adult, at the age of twenty-three. In my fifteen years of living in this city, I have come to love it in its creative joy and wild beauty. I have also come to love the stubborn and unyielding will of many in this city to speak out against oppression whatever form it takes, even in when doing so comes at the cost of flustering those who would prefer to maintain a status quo of mealy-mouthed civility, legitimating that which they are afraid to fight. I seek leadership in neither this movement nor in local government. I wish only to convey the urgency of this present moment and to counter the narrative of so-called local Black leadership as a Black man without a platform, observing what is happening in his city. I do not know what lies ahead for Portland or Black America. My hope is that whatever is brought forth by the awful roar of these many waters moves us forward in our ongoing quest for human dignity and freedom.