Intolerance, Portland-Style

Portland, Oregon, has a reputation as being deep “blue,” a liberal bastion where Republicans get no traction. And it’s true. Hillary got 3/4 of the vote in Multnomah County, which is dominated by the Portland metro. But it has been breeding its own forms of intolerance that, though they are being produced by people ostensibly in opposition to Trump, are part and parcel of the same race to the bottom.

I lived in Portland full-time from 2001-2010, on-and-off through 2013, and was a regular visitor up ’til the present. I watched it change over that time. It started as a place George H.W. Bush’s advisors nicknamed “Little Beirut” because of the raucous protests that greeted Poppy but became “Portlandia,” an amusement park for moneyed hipsters. Gentrification ran rampant, driving rents up 15% in a single year recently. Most of the “weird” there got priced out. The spirit that originally drew me to “Stumptown” seems almost entirely extinguished at this point.

This sobering truth was made starkly clear to me yesterday at a natural food co-op in Southeast.

The co-op was founded by hippies in the early 1970’s and was not popular with its original neighbors, many of whom were conservative Italian immigrants. Eggs were thrown at the building in those early days. But as time went on, the district changed, the hippies took over, and by the 80’s, only the fig trees remained of the Mediterraneans.

That was the neighborhood where I moved when I landed in Portland, and I loved it. It was definitely a groovy place. Earth First!ers rented a storefront across the street as an HQ for their tree-sits. Numerous communal houses populated the area, with low rents, deep porches and big gardens. You could rent a room in one of these ramshackle places for as little as $200 in those days, which made it easy to be an activist, an artist or just a slacker. It felt like a place where a decent amount of people were taking Simon & Garfunkel’s advice: “Slow down, you move too fast / You got to make the morning last.”

It didn’t last. In fact, that neighborhood was already gentrifying in 2001 and I got kicked out of my first place there after less than a year so the landlord could renovate and raise the rent. The writing was on the wall in 2005, when Starbucks invaded, followed by a corporate natural food store. By 2011 — just a decade after I arrived — it was over. The rents had skyrocketed, the hippie houses were gone, and “landscaping” replaced veggies.

Fast forward to the present. The co-op still occupies the same corner, but no longer the same niche, culturally or economically. Not all the change was external. I had worked there from 2003-2006, which happened to coincide with a major shift in tone, from the down-home to the corporate. Like a long-hair going to the barber to get a “real job,” the store “cleaned up.” The more radical employees found themselves marginalized, or sometimes, as in my case, fired. In retrospect, I saw that this phenomena was national in scope. Many other co-ops “modernized” themselves at this time, dropping discounts in favor of dividends, and shedding their scruffiness for a shinier veneer. In the greater context of US culture, it was one more piece of authenticity selling out.

Still, I continued to shop there when I visited town, not only because they carried a few things you couldn’t find anywhere else (like giant slabs of tempeh from a local producer at a great price), but because something of the “old Portland” still held on there among a portion of the customer base. Especially on Wednesdays, when the store closes down the street for a farmers market every week. Farmers are, of course, earthier than city folk, and their very presence helps to “keep it real.” (Sometimes this is in spite of the best efforts of farmers market managers, whose urges to “curate” are often smothering, but that’s a story for another day.)

So, yesterday was Wednesday and I went to the co-op for fresh produce with a friend. It’s the only farmers market that runs all year, so that’s where I would be able to find the very best veggies in town. I used to be a farmer myself, so my standards are high, and most store-bought produce, even organic, just doesn’t measure up. Plus, I personally know some of the farmers at this market, and know I can trust them.

I was pleased by the food I found and was happy to hang out, catching up with folks I had known for years but hadn’t seen lately. I even ran into an ex-boyfriend whose hug gave me a little zing that reminded me why I had enjoyed his company, at least physically. (But that, too, is a story for another day.)

I also had a short list of things to pick up inside the store so I went in. There I found the friend I was shopping with and checked to see what she had already picked up. While we were standing there, we were greeted by an old friend, someone I had known from my early days in Portland. His name isn’t important so we’ll just call him, “Rocky.”

Rocky is a well-known character in southeast Portland, and has been for years. The first thing you’re likely to notice about him is his fashion sense. That day, he was wearing super tight Capri pants in a cartoon character print, bright orange vest, and wool socks tucked into Crocs. His head of thick frizzy hair was laying down, but only in the way that one of those troll doll does, and it was easy to imagine sculpting it into a sharp point. His full beard was the only part of him that betrayed his age, as it was flecked with grey. His eyes were bright and mischievous like a chipmunk’s. On a summer day, he might sport tiny short-shorts that expose his muscular legs (toned from years of bike-riding), a feather boa and — little else.

Rocky has always devoted much of his energy to the community, such as helping out with Food Not Bombs. Not content to imagine a better world, he has tried to live it, as long as I have known him. A common sight year round is Rocky hauling a bike trailer full of scavenged goodies, rescued from the refuse pile and bound for a project somewhere.

The “Keep Portland Weird” stickers are not sincere, but if they were, Rocky’s face would be featured on some of them. As Portland has gentrified, there’s been less space for such efforts as his, sadly. And as I found out on Wednesday, even the co-op is pushing him away nowadays.

Rocky bounced up to my friend and me by the tempeh cooler and greeted us enthusiastically. “Two of my favorite people!” he announced to everyone in earshot. “I just want to be squeezed right between the two of you!” With that, he pulled us both close to himself, and we were happy to oblige the requested squeezing.

Then he was off, speaking a mile-a-minute about the local goings on, but specifically about the co-op itself, and its drama and politics, and it wasn’t a happy story. It seems the place is continuing its decline into the uptight. In this case, this was taking a form of obsession with a particular brand of identity politics that focuses on labels to the exclusion of all else, and that quickly loses itself in its own maze of constantly refining purity tests.

I couldn’t follow all the details because I’ve been gone too long, but I was definitely catching the general gist, and I got the impression that Rocky was being somewhat of a thorn in the co-op’s side, mostly by trying to hold it accountable to its own charter. As a member of the co-op, this was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do, of course. In my own inside experience, I had seen how this co-op was vulnerable to being hijacked by a small group of people with their own agenda. That it was a different group now, with a different agenda, was not much difference. Still, I was interested to hear his story. I appreciated his efforts and his perspective. For me, it was all of a piece with the general, ongoing decline in Portland’s quality of life.

Then, out of nowhere, a co-op employee I had never seen before interrupted our conversation. Addressing me and my friend (and pointedly not Rocky), she asked, “Do you want to be in this conversation?”

I was flabbergasted. First, could she not tell from simple body language, tone of voices, etc., that this was three people being friendly with one another? Secondly, was I not obviously an adult, who would break off a conversation myself if I didn’t want to have it?

But of course, I immediately recognized what was really going on: She didn’t like Rocky personally and was hoping we would take her side against him. She was playing the part of the nicey-nice liberal, offering to rescue another nicey-nice liberal from the scary radical. Needless to say, I didn’t give her what she was hoping for,

“Oh yes,” I said, and not quietly. “We are old friends, happy to see each other and we’re catching up. He’s one of my favorite people in Portland.”

“No I’m not!” he said.

“Yes, you are,” I insisted.

“Really?” he asked.

“Yes!” I confirmed, and tears welled up in his eyes, he was so touched.

I looked the co-op employee right in the eye. “And,” I said, firmly, but with a big disarming smile on my lips, “I used to work here but was I fired. So you should be suspicious of me, too.”

She was clearly taken aback. This was not what she had been counting on. She changed tack.

I don’t want to be in this conversation,” she said, with some shrillness. “But I’m at the register so I can’t help it.” There the truth came out. She didn’t like overhearing what he had to say and wanted him to shut up. She and Rocky went back and forth for a minute or two, he politely refused to budge, and she gave up and went away.

This was a disturbing incident for what it shows not just about this co-op and about Portland, but about the USA as a whole right now. It was another symptom of what we might as well call Trumpism, for want of a better term.

What do I mean by Trumpism? It’s the current flavor of what, in the 80’s, started out under Reagan as “creeping fascism,” but which is now what we might call “leaping fascism.” Though I just mentioned two Republicans, it’s actually bipartisan in nature, or, considering the number of US Americans who are aligned with neither major party, non-partisan. Clinton and Obama had as much to do with bringing about the current cultural climate, which is one of fear and repression. The walls have been systematically closing in, the noose gradually tightening, the boot steadily increasing its force on our face. No relief whatsoever has been offered from above. Worse yet, the peer pressure has intensified. Our attacks on each other have escalated.

A place like the co-op, with its history of dissidence (mild, but legitimate), should be a center of real resistance to Trumpism. Instead, it ends up expressing it in its own way, on its own terms. As Trumpism seeks to narrow the range of the acceptable, what we need to do is to widen the scope of discussion. If the collective mind is closing, we must step into the breach and wrench it back open. As the society tries to smother us, we should struggle, throw it off, and do what we need to do to breathe free.

Liberation is not gained through limitation. Quite the opposite. Yet, what we are seeing in places like the co-op, in cities like Portland — in the “blue” places, in other words — is a tightening of the screws. Rules that are supposed to protect are instead inventing an exclusivity. Rather than throwing the doors open and inviting all comers to shake off the yoke and fight the power, we are getting clubs: members-only spaces with requirements that continually grow more specific. The range of the acceptable is shrinking at an alarming rate. That’s Trumpism. It’s not just top-down, it’s also bottom-up and side-to-side and every other way it can go.

Rocky is a piece of “old Portland,” before Portlandia, before gentrification. But what this interaction at the co-op showed is that gentrification isn’t just about Californians moving in and driving up the rents or traffic getting worse or greedy developers erecting condos that people think are ugly (as if that’s the problem, but that’s a story I already wrote). Gentrification also plays out on more personal levels. When the co-op employee tried to draft me to push out Rocky, that too was gentrification. I am very happy that I rejected her effort and stood with him instead.

As the three of us stood there talking for a few more minutes, I was wondering if the employee would return with a posse or send someone else over. I was fully prepared to stand my ground, ethically speaking, and get 86’d if need be. As it turns out, no more drama unfolded that day, but I know it won’t end there. I am just visiting Portland for a few days, and who knows if I’ll ever return, but Rocky will remain, and the struggle is not over for him. I wish him the best with his fight against Trumpism, in all the forms it takes. I wish all of us the best. We’re going to need it.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press