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As Protests Continue, Leaders In Portland Confront Crowds And Oregon’s Racist History

cop-protester LevinsonOPB.jpg
Jonathan Levinson/OPB
Linton McCallister embracing an officer at a protest prompted by the death of George Floyd outside of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office on May 31, 2020.

Protests rolled through Portland for a third night Sunday as civic leaders and elected officials grappled with how to respond to both increasingly large demonstrations and Oregon’s legacy of institutional racism.

A weekend of rallies, vandalism and pleas for change ended with a day of large demonstrations both downtown and on Portland’s east side. Thousands of people took to the streets. The vast majority engaged in peaceful protest, though another wave of vandalism broke out late in the evening.

At one point downtown Sunday afternoon, officers joined with the crowd when they called on police to kneel with them in honor of George Floyd, the black man killed last week in Minneapolis when an officer knelt on his neck for nine minutes. Later, at a protest on the east side, several police liaison officers agreed to march with one group, prompting a chant of “We Are One.”

The night grew tenser. Several times, police responded to people throwing glass bottles and other projectiles with tear gas and flash bang canisters. Just before 11 p.m., Portland Police tweeted that someone had broken windows at the downtown federal courthouse. Officers fired more tear gas and flash bang devices after that in an attempt to force the crowd to disperse.

Protesters returned but scattered again after someone shot fireworks and officers responded with more tear gas, rubber bullets and a warning that anyone who stayed in the area would be subject to police use of force. That prompted more vandalism, including broken windows, graffiti and several small fires. The damage occurred even as the police bureau was tweeting a photo of Chief Jami Resch with several men the bureau said were organizing the rally and urging people to leave.

City leaders have struggled to find the best approach for allowing political protest but containing violence and damage to property. Business owners estimate damage from vandalism and looting that occurred over the weekend will total millions of dollars.

“It no longer feels like sincere mourning for the death of George Floyd and many other black men and women in this country,” the mayor said at the first of two press conferences he held Sunday. “This behavior we’ve seen for the second night is blatant lawlessness and selfish violence.”

Later in the day, Wheeler met with black leaders in what the mayor’s office billed as a chance to address “the impact of the demonstrations in our black communities.”

At that event, he said white leaders need to listen to understand what’s driving the protests: “Those of us here, who look like me, we have not been the best allies. … We have been too quiet. We have said the right words, but we haven’t followed through with the right actions.”

Black leaders who spoke at the afternoon event asked that the focus be on the injustices that propelled protesters onto the streets.

“Today what doesn’t sit well with me — what’s not sitting well in my heart — is that in the face of staggering persistent and inhumane justice, the focus of the public story has been diverted to miscreants and disorder,” said Rukaiyah Adams, co-founder and chair of the Albina Vision Trust. (Editor’s note: Adams is on the board of directors of Oregon Public Broadcasting.)

“Expressions of rage and pain — they may be visible, but they are not our whole truth. More than expressions of rage, what has happened since Mr. Floyd’s murder is a deep expression of love.”

Other speakers said they understood the fury that had led to destruction in Portland and elsewhere; they were feeling that same rage.

“I know that, for me, it personifies how I feel inside,” said Kali Ladd, the executive director of KairosPDX. “As wrong as it may be, it is a symbol of our shattering, our devastation, our internal beating every time we see a life lost like George Floyd.”

Joe McFerrin, president of the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School, emphasized the root causes that have brought Portlanders onto the street: disparities in the way black and white Oregonians are treated.

These disparities, he warned, will only be heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Multnomah County, people of color represent 40% of COVID-19 cases, despite comprising only 30% of residents, according to the county’s health authority.

Racism and wide disparities between white people and people of color are frequent themes in Oregon history, from laws blocking people of color from owning property in the 19th and early 20th centuries to urban renewal projects that razed predominately black neighborhoods in the 1960s and ‘70s to recent studies that show police routinely stop black residents far more often than whites.

Civic leaders say the protests that have swept through Portland are a culmination of generations of frustration.

The Rev. Lenny Duncan, a pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington, helped lead the crowd through chants as he spoke against anti-black rhetoric: “I am tired of people talking about riots, and not talking about black lives,” he said. “Your Apple stores are not worth more than my family.

“You can be outraged and talk to me about peace, but I refuse to accept a passive peace, which means that I see no justice in a few weeks when all this is over — when you’re able to go back to your job, and make it to a restaurant, and not care about me like you did last week.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.
Jonathan Levinson is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He’s the Audion Fellow covering Guns & America.
Rebecca Ellis is a reporter with Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before joining OPB, she was a Kroc Fellow at NPR, filing stories for the National Desk in Washington D.C. and reporting from Salt Lake City.
Donald Orr is a reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He was a news production assistant for OPB through the Emerging Northwest Journalists Internship created by AAJA-Portland and the Society for Professional Journalists Oregon. He is an alum of NPR’s Next Generation Radio.