living in someone else's Portland narrative

In the late ‘80s, a member of the George H.W. Bush administration famously referred to Portland as “Little Beirut,” given the city’s propensity to protest any time the president arrived. In a 2016 collection of the most “memorable” protests from that era, the Willamette Week describes one protest, of then-vice-president Dan Quayle, in which “suit-wearing Reed students swallowed colored food dye and vomited red, white and, unintentionally, green.” (Their stomach acid turned the blue food coloring green). Another man took a literal shit on a photo of the vice-president.

That image of the city has been magnified, lampooned, and commercialized over the years. I remember being told that Reed was where people went to smoke weed and drop out of expensive school. My partner, who grew up on the East Coast, told me that the first time he set foot in Portland, in 2018, he had expected far more hippies, just, like, hanging out, being hippies. In truth, the city itself isn’t all that big — around 650,000 people, making it the 26th biggest city in the nation. But for decades, it has taken up outsize real estate in the American imagination as a site of unfettered liberalism to the point of anarchism.

It’s like a danker, dirtier version of what people used to think of when they thought of San Francisco. In recent years, a lot of those rougher edges have been sanded off: by a massive influx of new residents, by more and more money, especially Nike and Intel’s, metastasizing on the outskirts of town and the bougie corridors of downtown. I love it there. And like a lot of people who love it there, I can also see its problems clearly.

This summer, Portland has been the site of some of the most massive BLM protests in the country. But it also has deeply racist roots, and, as part of a larger state whose constitution originally banned black people, remains one of the whitest cities in the United States. Portland prides itself as a city of tolerance, but it is not, and never has been, an easy place for BIPOC to live. Its police force, which largely draws from people who do not live in the city, has a history of brutality against black citizens and excessive force in general. Protests asking for reform endured after the initial spark of nationwide engagement, and, as in many places, police reaction to those protests has underlined the need for continued action. As of this writing, the main protest — focused on the Justice Center, in Downtown Portland — has been going for more than 90 days.

In this way, Portland — like CHAZ before it — has become the bogeyman of right’s opposition to Black Lives Matter and to liberals/progressives/the left in general. Footage from the protests, overlaid with scare graphics that frame them as war zones, sends a nightly message: This is the future liberals want. Anarchy! Black masks! Organized resistance to illegal use of force! But the protests themselves aren’t the future liberals want. The protests are necessary in order to eventually achieve that future.

Trump evokes this vision of Portland in his tweets. Tucker Carlson does it on Fox News. And Trump supporters in the surrounding area, sold on this notion of “their” city capitulating to the liberal hoard, incorporate that messaging into their existing resentment. They arrive, as they did this past weekend, to literally re-stake their Trump and Thin Blue Line flags on the land.

Portland, as a whole, is not under seige. It is not dangerous, just generally speaking, to be there — unless you’re a Black person who gets arrested, and is far more likely to be subjected to excessive force, or a person experiencing homelessness, or any number of other groups that have been and remain vulnerable to violence in our cities. But whenever a corner of place becomes a synecdoche for the place as a whole, it’s easy to forget that there are thousands of other people in that place, people who often become tasked with talking to others about what they’re actually experiencing. They become de facto educators and media critics and historians. They’re trying to resist flat, national narratives. They’re trying to remember their history. They’re trying to follow or be part of what’s happening but they’re also just trying to get through the day. It’s exhausting work, living within someone else’s narrative. Here are some of their stories.

Conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and length. These are not meant to be representative of the totality of the Portland experience — just a portion. I’ve tried to add contextualizing hyperlinks whenever possible; if you have more suggested reading on what’s happening/has been happening for years in Portland, please link in the comments. And if you appreciate this post, please consider subscribing to Culture Study. You can read the pitch here.

Matthew, North Portland 

When people ask me about what’s going on downtown, I tell them that we often walk around there — with our six month old daughter. We don’t do it as much as we used to, because of COVID, but I do not feel unsafe. It’s usually older relatives who are watching television who are worried. And I tell them, you know, television can be very sensationalized, so don’t believe what you’re seeing there — believe me, a person who actually lives here. I think they do, mostly. 

The most unsafe I’ve felt is when the Trump Caravan — led by Joey Gibson and the Patriot Prayer people — came through this weekend. But this is not new. These right wing agitators like Gibson have been coming in from outside of Portland for years. You walk around my neighborhood, and you see Black Lives Matter signs everywhere, and those IN OUR AMERICA signs, it’s very much a city like that. And we’re surrounded by rural areas that are less like that. It’s easy to say, we need to go in there and set them straight, or just come in and piss off the libs. That’s what Patriot Prayer and these other groups have been doing — and now that’s what Trump is doing, too.

Megan, Johns Landing 

My brother lives six blocks from the Justice Center, and when all of this started, I sent him a couple of texts just saying: are you experiencing anything as the result of this? There was an article, about a month into the protests, where residents very close to the center were experiencing the effects of tear gas. And he was like, no, I’m not getting anything. That really drove home how compartmentalized this is.

The area where the protests are happening, there are two courthouses, and the Pioneer Place Mall which is mostly shut down, and restaurants that cater to people who work downtown when there’s not a pandemic. There are some apartments, but it’s not, like, a residential area. 

Still, between the pandemic and the protests, it’s easy to paint this picture as all of downtown being besieged by roving bands of protesters. But there’s been a lot of misinformation. The Oregonian did a piece about Standard Insurance moving out of their building, which is six or seven blocks away, and made it seem like they were leaving the building as a result of the protesters. But the pandemic just made everyone work from home!

I’ve always considered my mom, who lives in the suburbs, to be a Democrat. She voted for Obama, and she voted for Clinton. But her only source of news is the Wall Street Journal, and I think it’s had a profound effect — she’s reading all of the opinion pages, and that’s where she’s primarily getting her news. 

She drove through downtown with us one time. I thought she was going to say, oh, this was much smaller than I thought it was going to be. But she was extremely bothered by the plywood fencing around the buildings. She was just incensed that fencing would need to go up. When we talk about what’s happening, I try to correct points that aren’t factual, but some of this is harder to address. I just realize that there’s some stuff that’s harder to correct — like, the whole “I don’t know how to make you care about other people” aspect. She lives so close to downtown Portland, but she has has such a profoundly incorrect view of what’s happening. 

Lynn, NE Portland 

I’m on the side of thinking the cops are out of control in the way they’re treating the protesters, and it’s definitely not a war zone here. But it’s important to note that protest itself is nothing new in Portland. I worked at Powell’s in the ‘90s when it unionized. Management didn’t just roll over. We did walk-outs, strikes, protests. On May Day in 2000, over 1000 longshoremen from the ILWU surrounded Powell’s and shut it down. I gave a speech from the back of a pick-up truck; I was only 20 and shaking like a leaf. [An officer on the scene fired beanbags filled with lead pellets at retreating protesters; at least 20 protesters were injured. The police chief at the time told reporters to “get accustomed to” the new police strategy.]

And right wingers trying to foment civil war is also nothing new here. I have a friend who was arrested at a protest last year on felony assault charges, when he yanked away the hammer some Proud Boy was using to attack him, then threw it back in the guy’s vehicle. 

Most people here just live their lives. The protests are easy to avoid, unless you live near the federal building or the police station in North Portland. I think we all feel obligated to have an opinion on what’s happening, but little of it is based on direct experience. 

Ruby, Eugene / Mount Tabor  

I grew up in Portland. Now I live in Eugene, but come back regularly to care for my aging parents. I was part of the great exodus out of Portland when the overcrowding started, at the beginning of the Portlandia era.

In the last ten years, Portland has become a fictionalization of itself. There was this huge influx of humanity into the city. And with that, that came massive cultural change. The Portland that most of us know is hidden underneath it. That Portland had a massive libertarian views that lean liberal. We’re into the right to die, we’re into legalizing cannabis, we’re into state rights. We have more strip clubs per capita than any other city. We have more independent bookstores. And it drew all these people.

It’s very American, really: move West, build a new life, in a place that’s perceived as having radicalized freedom and opportunity and abundant resources.

And you have the resultant problems. Money and drugs run downhill from the West Hills. We have a massive opioid problem, some of the highest per capita homeless rates. There’s been displacement and re-displacement of the black population, gentrification and re-gentrification. And when we’re talking about the protest area, where this is taking place, it’s the county courthouse — which is one of the desperate and underfunded places I’ve ever set foot in — and in the only Saks Fifth Avenue in the entire state. So you’ve got the city jail, the courthouse, Saks, and one of our precious city parks, all in that one area. It’s iconic of what’s really happening, the larger problem, of the United States. 

There’s also this long history in Oregon of people testing boundaries on both sides of the political spectrum. You have the Bundys at Malheur and you have the Earth Liberation Front. In the ‘90s, the environmentalists weren’t framed as terrorists. It wasn’t until 9/11 that we started making that association, and a bunch of protesters were charged with terrorism. That characterization is important in setting the stage for what’s happening now: we got used to calling liberal activists, especially those participating in direct action, terrorists — particularly in the Pacific Northwest. But of course the Bundys [who occupied a wildlife refuge in Eastern Oregon] weren’t called terrorists, or charged as terrorists.

But you know, the same city that’s supposedly ripping itself apart is the city that’s preserved its open parks. It’s the city that sides with bicycles in the constant battle between them and vehicles. It’s a city that cares about the water quality of its river, which is really endangered. And it’s a city where people do care deeply about fixing the historical problems of racism and inequality. Voting by mail, which everyone does in Oregon, is a testament to how deeply Oregonians believe in Democracy. We’re the only state where all of the beaches are public, which is a form of radicalized Democracy: we believe that some things really are for all of us, and that as a state we are capable of sharing. 

And that’s a bigger story — of Portland in particular and of Oregon in general — than anything that’s been shown on the daily news. 

Andrea, Inner SE

Of course we dislike seeing Portland being portrayed on the news with a burning dumpster graphic and clouds of tear gas. On the other hand, if it keeps the riffraff out then so be it! My street has trees, dogs, cats, a guy playing John Hartford on his front porch, lots of bicycles, a walnut tree dropping walnuts on cars, tut tut what a mess. I want Black people to feel safe on our streets and in our country. It's stupid that it's taken this long and a summer of inconvenience and noise is not the end of the world. We pretty much expect the ruckus to die down when it starts raining every single day so we just have to hold on until November. Maybe November 3rd.

Monica, Eastmoreland

I’ve been talking to my friends for months, asking me if it’s a war zone or whatever. We have a farm in Kentucky, and I’ll see my friends there buying it completely. There’s no upside in trying to talk them out of it, when they tell me oh, you’re living in this horrible place. I tell them it’s so overblown, it’s ridiculous, and now people aren’t even asking anymore because I’ve made it clear that it’s bullshit. I drive to the zoo or whatever, with my daughter, and I’ll go through downtown. The Justice Center looks graffiti’ed, but oh my god, who cares? It doesn’t matter. One building has graffiti, which it deserves. Wash it off, big fucking deal. 

You know, I’m not into kids doing things that play into what Trump is trying to sell. But it’s also not for me to judge how someone else protests. That’s what I try to put out to people, too. Unless you’re going to get out there and try to make a difference, you don’t get to say.

The worst violence I’ve seen, it comes from cops. But this weekend I was scared for the first time. I was driving and we encountered the front of the convey of Trump protesters. I saw the flags, and the line of cars just went on and on. I gave them finger. But you know, I’ve never, ever thought of the [Black Lives Matter] protesters as “terrorizing” our neighborhood. Not at all. But this was terrorizing. We’re a state that was established to be a white utopia and people are getting really aggressive trying to hold onto it. 

Elena, NE Portland

I had a conversation with one of my good friend’s parents, who’s from Birmingham, about what was happening here. He was like, you need to open your eyes. And I said, you know, I live here every day. I walk through these protests. Nobody’s violent, nobody’s rioting. The people who are committing these acts of vandalism? It’s very, very few. The people outside of Mayor Wheeler’s condo? It’s a bunch of people yelling. They’re not, like, grabbing people off the street and punching them in the face. 

But the shooting last weekend was alarming. Until then, there hadn’t been any (major) violence other than that committed by the police or the feds. Of course, Patriot Prayer has had all of these protests long before this most recent one — there was one in a park in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland, several years ago, where they just gathered with their giant rifles and waved them around. The fact that they open carry is very disconcerting to me, especially since there are these alliances between them and the Portland police.

That’s obviously not a Portland specific issue — look at what happened in Kenosha. They condemn the protesters with umbrellas attached to lacrosse sticks to protect themselves from tear gas, and then support the guys with massive guns

Laura, Laurelhurst Neighborhood

I fear a lot of people are writing you to say "no no no, everything is normal.”

And they wouldn't be wrong….exactly. Driving around town, it looks like Portland always does, with a super fun Covid twist. But that in itself is an inherently Portland trait: we are a city of surface-level peace, of surface-level liberalism, of surface-level safety. But you don't have to dig that hard to expose the under-layer: this is a state founded on white supremacy, and it shows. Our population is mainly white, and it's extremely segregated. I live in Laurelhurst, an area that originally did not allow Black people, and is extremely red-lined to this day. I passed the 1910s Laurelhurst stone arches on Cesar Chavez today and noticed someone had tagged "Covenanthurst" all down the fronts. Whoever did that is spot on. 

White Portlanders feel like this is a safe, progressive city. But many of my BIPOC friends have extremely different experiences here. Most white people here are racist as fuck, but don't even realize it because they aren't friends with any people of color. My neighborhood is very white and upper class — even though I’m not well off myself — and I live right next door to a police station. I have seen white folks with Black Lives Matter signs come out on their lawns with baseball bats to defend their private property from protestors..... as protesters are being charged by cops, getting beaten in the street, and begging them for help and shelter. It's the purest embodiment of white Portland residents I've ever seen.

But I want people to know what the protests are actually like. I don't mean the peaceful marches, I mean the nightly ones. We've been going for 90+ days, and it's rough.  

The protests have had a weird arc: at first it was lots of big marches, with all the performative folks showing up to take Insta pics. Those died down quickly, and the numbers were scary for those of us still out there. It's a mix of BLM and antifa, obviously the latter being there to prop up the former. The Portland Police has been brutally tear gassing us, hitting us with "less lethal" munitions, beating us with clubs, pepper spraying us, arresting us, harassing press, slashing our tires..... on and on and on. 

Then the Feds came, and the protest numbers became in the thousands again. Thousands of people willing to get tear gassed, arrested, hit with munitions to stand up. Then the feds left, and it's back down to 100-200ish a night. And nothing has changed. Mayor Wheeler is busy looking like a cool-guy mocking Trump, and telling feds to get out, but he isn't lifting a finger to stop his racist police force from attacking his citizens every single night. There hasn't even been "reform" let alone a single step towards the actual demands of defunding. Instead, it's just an acceleration of aggression

Portland cops are 100% some of the most racist and violent cops I have ever witnessed, and I have lived in much bigger cities. The majority do not live here, they live in the surrounding conservative cities. They drive here to work, and resent us all. They are here to keep us in line, they are not here to help the community. I could list off examples from friends for days and days. Any proof of collusion between the PPD and white supremacist groups has been ignored. (And you can definitely see this in how the far-right comes into town and is protected, while the people who actually live here are attacked.) 

So every night we show up, because we are sick of being treated like this. We are sick of being targets for being disenfranchised. We are fucking pissed, but generally peaceful. In my head, I wish I could see all it burn to the ground, and I do believe that is a shared sentiment in that crowd. But the most violence I have seen from the left is like...... water bottles thrown? Water balloons with paint? Very tiny fires? [A small fire was set at entrance to the police union headquarters in North Portland] Throwing a tear gas canister back? We show up, we chant, we play music, we mock them. There is graffiti, but you can't be violent towards an inanimate object. 

Every night, they decide it's an unlawful assembly at some point or another, then eventually it's declared a riot. They then beat the shit out of everyone. I've had two concussions at this point, been tear gassed so many times I stopped counting, been arrested once. Every night I wonder if they are going to finally kill one of us. 

So no — it's not okay here. It's terrifying, and they are out for blood. But the majority of Portlanders don't know this is happening, and will never experience it firsthand. Unless they are a minority, then they don't have to go to a protest. They just have to live here. 

I’m going to go have a picnic in the sunshine, and try to feel "normal" for a few hours .... before going out tonight and remembering nothing is fine. 

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