What’s Going on in Portland

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon since 2007. So I have been hearing from more people than usual lately, all asking the same question: what’s going on in Portland?

I find myself struggling to give any kind of an answer to this question. As with any substantive answer to a question, so much depends on how broad an effort we want to make in putting it into a sensible context, in terms of both time and space. So I thought I’d make a little stab at that, for what it’s worth. But to answer the two really simple questions that are, I think, what most people are looking for: is Portland under martial law? I’d say more like a little test run at this point. And is there are a revolution going on there? No, at least not yet, but time speeds up at such historical junctures, so you never know what’s around the corner.

The US is more stratified economically than ever since the Age of the Robber Barons, and that’s well before the pandemic. We have 4% of the world’s population but something like a quarter of the world’s prisoners, most of them people of color, even though the country overall has a white majority. We’re experiencing an out-of-control pandemic with health care systems collapsing under the strain from New York to Louisiana, which is also overwhelmingly impacting people of color. As this is all happening, a veto-proof super-majority made up of both ruling parties has just passed an even bigger military budget than the record military budget of last year, nearly as big as the rest of the world’s military budgets put together. They could agree on that, but whether they can agree on a strategy to prevent the 28 million evictions all the business press is predicting will be coming in the next two or three months is an open question. And most of the country’s cities are too busy spending close to half of a typical budget on their police force, while increasing numbers of their populations move into their cars and tents.

Putting Portland into some relevant, pre-pandemic context: it’s the biggest city in a state with a long history of institutional racism, that was founded as a white homeland. It didn’t develop much of a Black community until the labor shortage during World War 2, around the time so many of the cheap, wooden, now extremely over-priced apartment complexes around town were built. The city of Portland has lost most of its Black population since 2000, according to census data. A recent headline announced that the average Black family in the US could not afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Portland at the market rate, like the one I write from now. Portland is the most rent-burdened city in the US and has a deeply, institutionally racist police department, that has actual bona fide Nazis in it, and this police department has in some years held the national record for killing the most Black people per capita of all police departments in the country. Lining every major road you will find hundreds of people living in tents, their misery in plain view to passersby. Somewhat less visible are the many car-dwellers also lining every major road in the city.

Portland, like Minneapolis, being a majority-white metropolis with a long history of white supremacist organizing, also has a strong history of antifascist resistance as well, which has frequently taken the form of physical confrontations on the streets, in which the police generally act in support of the white supremacists, while attempting to maintain a fig leaf of neutrality to satisfy the press and the liberals.

Despite the dire situation in terms of basic human rights in the United States, with the food banks busier than ever, tens of millions unemployed, the press talking about 1 in 4 children suffering food insecurity, decreasing lifespans, etc., you won’t generally find widespread opposition to this situation expressed in the streets of cities across the country. Lots of people killing themselves and killing each other, and getting involved with political campaigns, but when it comes to large-scale street protest or campaigns of civil disobedience in the US over the past several decades, they have been focused mainly on things other than what we might call “bread and butter” issues. In the most rent-burdened city in the country, you will rarely find a tenants rights protest with more than a few dozen people at it. The ethnic cleansing of the city – losing more than half of the city’s Black population – elicits barely a peep in terms of protests at City Hall or in the state capital. Equality of condition, otherwise known as human rights, is of no consequence, it seems. But, true to the ideals we grow up with in the textbooks, clear-cut examples that someone has been discriminated against in the process of attempting to pursue their basic human rights may give rise to fairly large-scale civil disobedience — for example, when someone is killed just for being Black and on their way home from work, or bombed just for being Iraqi while hiding in a bomb shelter, or killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like for going to a suburban high school or elementary school when a mass murderer decides to pay a visit. Blatant racial discrimination, blatant imperialism of the sort that involves the military, or other forms of “senseless killing,” gets response.

People or entire countries that are perceived to have been given a “fair chance” but who failed to make a go of it elicit less sympathy. If you’ve been priced out of San Francisco and you had to move to Portland, that’s just how things work. If you were involved with the drug trade or burglarizing a suburban home when you were killed, you shouldn’t have gotten involved with crime in the first place. If you were actively resisting the occupying army rather than hiding in a bomb shelter, you’ll find much less solidarity from the progressives of the west.

Some exceptions to the theme in recent decades in terms of large-scale civil disobedience have included the uprising in Indian country in 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the global justice movement (known by some as the anti-globalization movement) of the late 1990’s – though the main emphasis of that movement was about global trade being fair for everyone, especially in the Global South, with the quality of life of the struggling working class in the north often seeming like an afterthought.

In my more hopeful moments, I think that what sometimes appears to be getting off the ground now is a movement that is – under the pressure of all the fissures exposed by the pandemic and the government’s inadequate response to it, both in terms of the public health emergency and the economic crisis it presents — really trying to come face to face with the basic inability of our long-standing capitalist system to ever be the framework within which we might solve any of these basic problems – police brutality, institutional racism, war, society-wide health care, or pretty much anything else good. The “bad apples” theory of reality is officially out the window, the structural problems too big to wrap up in a flag. This was particularly true in first several weeks following the murder of George Floyd, and then once again, at least here in Portland, since Oregon Public Broadcasting officially broke the story that it’s not just local cops tear-gassing everyone, but also federal agents, and they’re randomly abducting people from the sidewalks in the middle of the night as well.

When I look around me over the past two months, especially on a good day, what I see is all the energy and all the numbers that we ever had on the streets under the banners of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, protests against ICE’s child abductions, and the youth climate and anti-massacre movements of recent years, put together. And probably most of the people who actually participated in those movements, from the looks of the crowds, with a particular emphasis on Black Lives Matter. And lots of these people, along with much of the press and many mainstream politicians, are openly questioning the bad apple theory, and looking at racism the way Black Lives Matter does, as a deeply institutional, fundamental, foundational question in the US. This then leads sensible people to ask the same questions others have been asking for so long – if Black lives matter, then what about affordable housing, given that the lack of it affects Black people so disproportionately. If Black lives matter, then what about the minimum wage, which so many Black workers are perpetually stuck at. What about state funding of education for state schools, rather than funding them with local taxes, thus ensuring apartheid in education? So many questions are being asked more loudly than they have been in a very long time.

Of course, as all of this is happening, so is Trump and his march to fascism, with all his popular support and all the specially-appointed, acting heads of his departments, accountable to no one but him, such as the the Homeland Security guy in charge of the surge of federal agents across the country occurring now. And as impressive as it is to see many thousands of Portlanders pouring out into the streets day after day lately, when I think of the sorts of mass movements that have managed to topple dictators, even relatively unpopular dictators, they have involved sustained crowds of hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the streets, not for a day or a few days, but for months. And even then, victory is far from guaranteed. But these were the kinds of crowds that led to Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia and Mubarak fleeing Egypt. This is the kind of crowd that saw the overturning of the coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.

This sort of movement may be right around the corner, I’m not making any predictions. The last time this country has seen any kind of sustained movement on that kind of scale, with that kind of militancy, was in the 1930’s. We’ll know it’s here when there are so many people marching in Portland that we shut down all the bridges and all the highways at the same time, not just one or two – and we do that day after day, and the same thing is happening in all the other major cities across the country. When the police are quitting their jobs, some of them are joining us, and their departments are being disbanded anyway. When armies of citizens are taking control of the fancy hotels, filling them with people in need of housing, and staffing them with people who can provide for their needs and help them recover from the trauma of the lives they had to live under capitalism.

What a more likely future could involve is the outpouring of opposition to the presence of federal agents that is coming from more liberal quarters waters down the more radical voices that had been coming to the fore, and this whole thing somehow gets turned into another tool for use by both the Democratic and Republican party elites. As righteous and altogether good is the idea of kicking the police out of the police stations and taking them over, as was done for a time in Minneapolis and Seattle, the ongoing street battles night after night to that aim in the center of Portland are causing massive, long-lasting trauma to a whole lot of people, and can easily play into Trump’s fascist takeover agenda, amplified by Fox and Friends. On the other hand, actually having the kind of movement that might cause the emptying out of the police stations to occur could also put a big damper on the fascist takeover plans, as well, if it were to succeed and spread.

It’s a precipice, the stakes are very high, and as exhilarating as the current moment is, I’m not feeling especially optimistic. But you don’t win if you don’t try.

David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is davidrovics.com.