‘We’re not going anywhere’: Why Portland is still protesting 100 days after George Floyd’s killing

·7 min read
Protesters say they are not standing down any time soon: Getty
Protesters say they are not standing down any time soon: Getty

The young woman rattling the cow bell and urging police to disperse, put it most succinctly.

“We aren’t going anywhere. You’re tired – we’re not tired,” she yelled, shaking the bell with an extra flourish as if to underscore her point. “Go away.”

One hundred days after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered demonstrations across the county, protesters in Portland, Oregon, have indeed not gone anywhere. While protests in cities such as Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco have come and gone, their numbers swelling in response to specific events such as the shooting of Jacob Blake, those in Portland have continued almost without pause. Even more noteworthy is that less than 6 per cent of the city’s population is African American.

Portland has been repeatedly denounced by Donald Trump as a hotbed of anarchy and terrorism, with the president claiming wrongly that Portland “has been burning for decades”.

He and his supporters have sought to project it as one of several Democratic-controlled cities where angry demonstrations represent a harbinger of what is in store for the entire country, should Joe Biden be elected in November. Mr Trump has falsely claimed Mr Biden wants to abolish the police and the suburbs.

The African American population of Oregon is 3 per cent and in Portland just 6 per cent (Getty)
The African American population of Oregon is 3 per cent and in Portland just 6 per cent (Getty)

“Portland is a mess, and it has been for many years,” he tweeted last week. “If this joke of a mayor doesn’t clean it up, we will go in and do it for them!”

As it was, Mr Trump did dispatch federal agents to the city this summer, unidentified officers who grabbed protesters off the street and threw them into vans. His actions triggered outcry and reportedly made the situation worse, but the protesters did not leave.

Late last month, Portland saw its first fatality associated with the demonstrations, when 39-year-old Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of a far-right group called Patriot Prayer, was shot dead after a convoy of Trump supporters clashed with the protesters.

Even then the protests did not stop. And on Saturday, 103 days since Floyd died with a white police officer’s knee on his neck, demonstrators plan to gather in large numbers.

“I think it’s because a lot of people in this city have skin in the game,” said Jamal Williams, an activist with a group called Portland United for Justice and Equality, who was speaking in front of a dozen people one night this week, urging them not to give up.

“A lot of people feel very passionately about things. They know civil resistance and civil disobedience is the bedrock of change, and that the destruction of property does not equate with the loss of so many black lives in this country, over such a long time.”

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Some involved in protests this week claimed Portland’s police had long history of abuse.

A 24-year-old man who asked to be identified as Addi and who was carrying s sign that declared he was indeed an “anti-fascist” or antifa, said Oregon had a “particularly bad case of racism”.

“To people here, it’s an important issue and we need to keep coming out until they defund the Portland police,” he said. “We are asking for them to defund the police by a minimum of 30 per cent, and up to 50 per cent.”

Last weekend, the day after Danielson was shot dead, Mr Trump tweeted his condolences and attacked the city’s Democratic mayor, Ted Wheeler. He retweeted a comment that read: “Ted Wheeler is the useless f***ing idiot and comic relief that gets everyone killed in every disaster movie.”

The mayor held a press conference to hit back, only to find himself asked to respond to further tweets from Mr Trump in real time. Mr Wheeler asked the president to condemn violence and to “work together to help move this country forward”.

Yet as Mr Trump correctly pointed out, the protesters have little time for Mr Wheeler.

Last Monday, The Independent followed protesters to the mayor’s apartment in the centre of Portland where they marked his birthday by intensifying their demands for his resignation. Somebody broke a window in the apartment building and a picnic table was set on fire, leading the police department to declare a riot, sweep in and arrest up to 20 protesters.

“Ted Wheeler is like a liberal trump. He only cares about himself. He’s not enacting change here here in Portland,” said the protester calling himself Addi. (Mr Wheeler did not respond to requests for an interview.)

While Portland may have long long admired by progressives for its reputation for civil protest – in 2011 the city saw “Occupy Portland”, in support of Occupy Wall Street – conservatives have similarly denounced it. They point out that every time George HW Bush or his vice president Dan Quayle visited the city, they were met with crowds of protesters, leading staff members to term the city “Little Beirut”.

Others point out that is despite Oregon having a long history of racism. When it was established in 1859, its original constitution banned people of colour from entering its borders. While that regulation was scrapped in 1926, other state laws underscoring racial exclusion remained in place long after.

Michael German, a former FBI special agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice, said the city’s police had a history of failing to stop violence from the onset when it occurred.

“The previous two or three years of protest policing in Portland have created a fracture with the community,” he told the Washington Post. “The more aggression the police gave, the more aggression was returned.”

Celina Su, professor of political science at Brooklyn College and an expert on protest movements, said those in Portland and elsewhere following Floyd’s killing followed many years of organising in which activists had sought to highlight the need for systemic change, rather than the firing of a few “bad apples”.

She also believes that networks developed during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when the federal government failed to help people, were then tapped into when the racial justice protests began.

“When the uprisings happened and the protests started happening, people pivoted super quickly and used these lists to distribute information about the protests,” she told The Independent.

Last week, as Mr Trump repeatedly sought to present the upcoming election as a choice between chaos in the streets and law and order, Mr Biden hit back, reminding voters who the president was and blaming him for failing to protect the American people.

In a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of several battleground states, the Democratic candidate trod a careful line, denouncing the violence and looting committed in many cities, while also highlighting police violence and the struggle for racial equity. He attempted to speak to both moderate white voters and more progressive Black Lives Matter activists, an indication of the coalition of support he needs to win over to defeat Mr Trump.

“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting,” he said.

In Portland, not everyone supports the protests, the vast majority of which have been peaceful. Some denounce the damage that has been done in the downtown, leading to the boarding up of shops and streets that often appear largely empty, a combination of the demonstrations and Covid restrictions.

Yet, there is little evidence the protesters are going away any time soon. Certainly not before the election. Certainly not unless Mr Wheeler stands down.

A 35-year-old carpenter called Simon said these protests were the first time he had been politically active.

Of Mr Wheeler, he said the mayor’s purported intention to reform the system was not backed up my action.

“There is disconnect,” he said. “Because if you’re going to be for change, then there has to be change.”

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