Can't Hear #BlackLiesMatter
2020-09-09 04:06:05 UTC
Fred Armisen declared this - in song form - in the opening scene of the
sketch comedy show Portlandia in January 2011. The show satirised the city
on the US West Coast for its "hipster" culture - a city that gave
unicyclists the right of way, where people brewed kombucha before it
became mainstream, and whose slogan was literally "Keep Portland Weird".
Four years later, with the city in the throes of rapid gentrification,
beloved Portland magazine Willamette Week declared to its readers that
this moment in 2011 was officially the day "Old Portland", the one that
was fun, bohemian and "weird", died.
If the "Old Portland" was seen as a liberal utopia, then the "New
Portland", in 2020, is characterised by civil rights protests, violent
clashes between far-right and anti-fascist groups, and images of federal
agents indiscriminately bundling protesters into unmarked vehicles. While
Old Portlanders may have discussed their vegan cheese side-businesses, New
Portlanders bond over how many times they've been tear-gassed.
But this change wasn't as much of a leap as it may seem on the surface.
While the Portlandia stereotype endured for almost a decade, the reality
for Portlanders themselves was very different. In the 2010s, wealthy
outsiders relocated themselves and their businesses to the city in the
hopes of capitalising on its "cool", while East Coast publications
repeated the show's joke about Portland being "a retirement community for
the young". The city's residents were frequently caricatured as the kind
of people who use "cacao" as a safe word.
At the same time, Portlanders struggled to afford rents that were
increasing at one of the fastest rates in the country; beloved local shops
were being pushed out in favour of chains and high-rise apartment blocks;
and the small businesses parodied on Portlandia, such as the feminist
bookshop In Other Words, hit out at the show and everything it
represented. Locals explicitly blamed the show for hastening unwanted
development in the city. By the time the series ended in 2018, few
Portlanders looked back fondly on its influence.
For people of colour in Portland in particular, there was something
egregious about the city's "Portlandia" reputation. The show - and
subsequent portrayals of the city in national media - seemed to whitewash
life in what was already an extremely white city.
"I've never looked to Portlandia or other cultural phenomena for self-
affirmation," said activist Cameron Whitten, who set up the Black
Resilience Fund during this summer's protests. "Much of what Portland is
famous for was not made for me or people who look like me."
Mr Whitten moved to Portland from Northern Virginia in 2009, at the age of
18. His first day in Oregon was marred by racism.
"My first day in the state, my friend and I drove to Albany to stay at
their dad's house," he said. "After the first night there, we were told to
leave because his father was uncomfortable with a black man in his home. I
remember that I laughed, because I was surprised by the absurdity of the
situation But I don't find it funny anymore. I've now lived in Oregon for
more than a decade, and I'm reminded daily that because of my skin colour,
I can be looked at as different, other, and less."
A city 'built on white supremacy'
Portland is often called the whitest big city in the US - about 72% of its
population is non-Latino white, while only about 6.6% of the population is
black (compared to 12.7% of the overall US population). This is something
black history and urban development scholars say is by design, not
happenstance. Prof Shirley Jackson, a Black Studies professor at Portland
State University, said that it was important to remember that Oregon was
founded on the basis of "excluding certain populations, namely African-
Although the provisional government of the territory banned slavery in
1844, it also required all African-Americans to leave Oregon - any black
person who stayed would be publicly flogged every six months until they
left. Five years later, in 1849, another law was passed forbidding free
African-Americans from entering the territory, and in 1857 Oregon adopted
a state constitution banning black people from entering, living or owning
property in the state. In 1859, when Oregon joined the union ahead of the
civil war, it was the only state to explicitly forbid black people from
living within its borders.
Going into the 20th Century, the deadly, white supremacist Ku Klux Klan
had increasing influence in the state. In one particularly telling photo,
published by a local newspaper in 1921 and preserved by the Oregon History
Project, two representatives of the KKK's Oregon chapter, wearing hoods
and robes, posed with some of the state's most powerful officials -
including the police chief and the district attorney.
One moment in particular is seared into the black community's collective
memory - the Vanport disaster.
During World War Two, black people were recruited from across the US to
work at a shipyard on the Columbia River, about five miles north of
Portland. They were housed in a new development called Vanport, which was
built in 110 days. At its height, Prof Jackson said, about 40,000 people
lived there. But it was always intended to be a temporary housing project.
"After the war ended, many white Portlanders had hoped that the black
people who came to work at the shipyards would return to the states from
which they had originally come. Although some did, at least one-third of
the 18,500 residents who remained in Vanport were black," she explained.
"On 30 May 1948, Memorial Day, the waters of the Columbia River flooded
Vanport and after six years of existence, it disappeared. For the 6,000
Black people who found themselves without housing, it was especially
At least 15 people died - although some at the time believed the housing
authority had quietly destroyed hundreds more bodies to cover up its slow
response to the disaster. Surviving residents, who had been assured that
the housing was safe, now had to try and find new homes in Portland. The
Red Cross tried to help, but struggled because of deep-seated racism in
the city. Housing was also limited "due to racial covenants that
restricted whites from selling their homes to blacks", said Prof Jackson.
"Many ended up in north and north-east Portland," she said. "It is ironic
that gentrification has [now] added to the movement of blacks out of the
very areas that they were confined to. Today, these areas are populated in
large part by white people, as black people have moved to the surrounding
cities of Gresham, Beaverton, and Hillsboro."
Entrenched inequality to the present day
Racism has persisted in Portland. A housing audit in 2011 found that
landlords in the city discriminated against black and Latino tenants 64%
of the time, by charging them extra fees, higher rents or demanding larger
deposits, while black school pupils are four to five times more likely
than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled.
Another report on racism from Portland State University and the Coalition
of Communities of Color, published in 2014, found that black people were
still disadvantaged in employment, health and high school graduation
rates, compared to both white Portlanders and black families in the rest
of the US. Average incomes and rates of home ownership are also
significantly lower for black Portlanders than for their white neighbours
and black Americans generally.
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Trump's crackdown on Portland protests explained
Activist Gregory McKelvey has been heavily involved in this summer's
protests. The city, he says, has only been able to see itself as a
"liberal utopia" by adopting a colour-blind approach to racism - which for
him means ignoring it.
"Portland is allowed to have a reputation as a progressive or edgy city
because it does not have to reckon with its racist past, policing or
segregation due to the demographics of the city," he said. "Portland is
certainly a lovely city and is a beautiful place to live - but part of
what it is built upon is colonialism, white supremacy and segregation.
Many people say Portland is a place that pushes black people out of
neighbourhoods and replaces them with 'Black Lives Matter' signs."
A moment of reckoning
But could this year's protests change how Portland reflects on its present
- and its past? The protests - which have now gone on for nearly 100
consecutive days - were sparked by the killing of George Floyd in
Minneapolis in May, and at least initially were explicitly held in support
of Black Lives Matter. When protesters established an autonomous zone in
the city in June, they named it after a black man who was killed by
Portland police in 2018. They made global headlines in July, when federal
agents were deployed to the city.
Mr Whitten said he didn't know what impact the ongoing protests would have
on racial inequality in the city. But he said he was feeling hopeful.
"Frederick Douglass once said, 'power concedes nothing without a demand'.
I hope that these protests fuel powerful demands that lead to the
transformation we've been longing for."
Prof Jackson is less optimistic. She said it was "ironic" that the
protests had, in her opinion, "taken attention away from Black Lives
Matter, and have become something completely different - we have come to a
point where the Black Lives Matter movement is being hijacked for anti-
Gregory McKelvey, meanwhile, doesn't believe these protests alone will
trigger a reckoning. It was "frustrating", he said, that the movement was
being framed by politicians as an issue of Democrats v Republicans,
diverting the focus away from the local issues.
"Portland Police is the target of most of the protests, not Donald Trump.
Our (local) elected officials want to deflect the issue to Trump and many
national audiences allow that to happen because they care more about what
is happening at the federal level than in our small city.
"For Portlanders, this has always been about Portland and nothing will