About Portland: An Interview with Author Jennifer Robin

Photo courtesy: Kimberly Marie Kimble.

Writer Jennifer Robin shares her experiences at the Portland Protests.  One of the most compelling writers in America, Jennifer’s first book, Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon, is a series of vignettes of jarring experiences vividly portraying people struggling in the apocalyptic shadow of America.  She was writing then about the surreal reality we are all experiencing now.

Jennifer’s second book, Earthquakes in Candylandis reminiscent of Stud Terkel’s classic oral history, American Dreams: Lost and Found, but rather than quoting conversations encountered along the way, Jennifer highlights setting and context to illuminate the consequences of life in America. Earthquakes in Candyland is based on decades of travels across the United States. Jennifer provides unique glimpses of the underbelly of a country in crisis, and a cavalcade of vivid statistics illustrated by the beautifully rendered stories she tells.

Jennifer’s reports from the Portland Protests are read by avid admirers on Medium and Facebook. Having a writer of her experience and talent reporting from the ground on such an important confrontation between Americans is a privilege we can all enjoy.

How much of Portland is actually involved in the confrontation between protesters and the federal militarized police?

The largest conflicts with the Feds took place downtown, in front of the Justice Center. Thousands of protestors filled three park blocks and spilled into the surrounding streets—including a man with an “emotional support llama” named Caesar. We’re going on 80 days that people have gathered in parks and outside of police precincts following the murder of George Floyd.

Mainstream media portrays Portland as a city-wide inferno ruled by Mad Max-looking Lost Boys. Activists and indie journalists have tried to get the point across that there is not widespread rioting and looting through the city, but the image of a depraved anarchist with a Molotov cocktail is irresistible, clickbait for a clickbait nation. The word riot sells bullets, soap, “law and order” candidates. It legitimizes military spending and the school-to-prison pipeline. The reality of the city’s protestors is peaceful and multicultural and doesn’t sell nearly as much soap.

If we are going to use the word riot, it must be applied to the police. What are cops doing in response to the murder of George Floyd? They are putting more Black men in chokeholds. Indie journalists are capturing nightly attacks to protestors, the ones the mainstream media won’t show.

Last night (August 10) a live feeder got video of a young Black protestor who was tied up, put in a carotid hold, and sat on by three cops, while older women screamed for his release. When the cops finally got up and dragged him away it was clear that their restraints had damaged and possibly broken his leg. If an independent video journalist hadn’t aimed a camera on them, what state would this young man be in now?

The cops face us like an army, yet we outnumber them. Will the day come that an army of screaming mothers pull their sons from these men? Opening the prisons, surrounding the guards?

Describe the different types of people participating in the protest?

You see several generations of African-American families, thousands of students. White-haired hippies wearing rainbow capes and fishing caps. Ministers, lawyers. Trans activists in mascara and gas masks using dumpster lids as shields against rubber bullets. There are more Black lives than I have ever seen in downtown Portland, a city the census says is 75% white. You don’t need a census to tell you: This is a heavily segregated, gentrified city.

Young Black activists with megaphones give testimonials. Every night they speak with ferocity about losing children, parents, homes, hope. They speak of cops holding guns to their heads in playgrounds, having to give a thousand percent to keep the same job where a white man gives ten.

You see Moms United taking multiple hits of gas with arms locked. You see Veterans for Peace, and the ex-Navy man who stood still while cops shattered his hand. Punky-looking people in helmets hold the front lines because they have defined themselves as antifascist since they were ten and listened to their first Dead Kennedys song.

People of color represent hundreds of non-white communities that live at the edges of a city in a state founded on the genocide of indigenous people and freed slaves. To this day, only 4% of the state’s police force is Black. To stand in Portland, Oregon, and oppose racism is to put yourself at risk.

Some nights the fumes of vape pens and joints and barbecued meat make a haze as thick as the tear gas that comes, like clockwork, around 11 PM, and lasts until 2. Standing among them, you feel the precipice: This is a war zone and a party at the same time. No matter where you turn, dozens hold phones, hungry for footage of what happens next.

For a month, federal troops have occupied the city. The airspace above Portland was declared a no-fly zone. Not Baghdad or Kabul…Portland. Protestors and journalists showed up at the risk of hand, eye, and mind against rubber bullets and rounds of tear gas. The protest front lines used leaf-blowers to send the gas back. Funny how leaf-blowers take on an eerie, almost angelic hum when used to repel poison. What is in the green gas? A handful of people burned plywood and dozens spray-painted the words of George Floyd: “I can’t breathe. Mama, I’m through.”

There is a rumor that the orchestra of the Titanic played music while the ship sank. Portlanders played funk and shaman-drums and flipped hot dogs while being gassed, and held their ground.

Are the protests having an effect on parts of Portland that are not directly involved?

People notice. This happens when the law attempts to scatter larger groups of people…who look, to white America, like Americans. High-school kids. Grandmas. Your nurse. Not only African-Americans. Not only punks in gas masks. You end up with videos of hour-long chases throughout the downtown area, knockdown arrests. You end up with eight hours of low-flying helicopters and sirens, sometimes until sunrise. I saw residents come out of their apartments to give the finger to cops hanging off riot trucks like sausages. The people yelled: “GO HOME!”

One night a group of us were escaping a cloud of tear gas and a security guard let us into the basement of an apartment building, so we would not be picked up. Neighbors led a blinded man to a shower. They offered us granola bars and cocoa and pillows. One turned on a TV for us, but we were too stunned to watch. Sympathetic people are on every block, people who never previously defined as political, yet they are choosing a side. If anyone needed to leave the building, the neighbors and the security guard watched their progress for blocks in the hopes they would be safe.

Once I had a friend who thought he could make a deerskin drum with roadkill. He threw a deer in a garbage can. He was positive that he’d go back later and hose it down and be left with a magical drum skin. After a month he was afraid to open the lid.

Culturally, we have achieved Open Lid. Millions of African-Americans feel that for a rare moment they can be heard and seen in forums previously closed to them. Millions of white people are suddenly aware that the America they thought they lived in, the one where cops are your buddies, where a political party is your buddy, a president is your buddy…is as rotten as a deer left in a garbage can in high New York summer.

But we’ve been here before. Whites forgot Rodney King and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Maybe we won’t forget this time, because we are out of time.

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Marie Kimble.

What were your impressions of the autonomous zone? How did it change? Were you there when the zone was closed down?

There were two areas established as autonomous zones: One in the Northwest, at an address someone identified as Mayor Ted Wheeler’s apartment. I don’t know if it really is. The other was in Lownsdale Square, across from the Federal Building. It was dubbed, ever so briefly, the Chinook Land Autonomous Territory.

Lownsdale Square hosts the medic tents, food tents, and space for musicians to play. It evolved into an Occupy-style encampment, where the homeless could add their numbers to the protest while getting food and donations. This makes it sound like a fun place to be. For several hours of every day, it was…wild and burned out, with a mix of kids and the homeless getting drunk and having trips, some collapsed in each other’s laps. ACLU observers passed through. White men debated ideology with a flourish of academic wonkery, criticizing a “lack of leadership.” Office workers and protestors lined up for hot dogs and burgers: Fun at a cost! The cost was that every night, these medics, cooks and the homeless took mega-doses of tear gas.

The last time I was in Lownsdale Square I was stumbling through a cloud of gas, barely able to keep my eyes open while groups of homeless men on either side of me sipped beer at picnic tables. Their eyes were red and runny and yet they chuckled and kept drinking. Those who camp here have lungs—and perhaps eyeballs—of steel.

When the autonomous zone was raided, three blocks were cleared. I wasn’t there that night. I watched the feeds. Protestors set up barricades in the streets by the Justice Center. Other protestors set them on fire. People were gassed, their belongings thrown aside. Fences were put around the yellowed grass, which lasted a day. The fences were pulled down by protesters, and the tents and musicians and food vendors returned. There is a conceptual point to this:

Live protests are a constantly changing environment. What is erected one day is gone the next; entire statues and encampments disappear. Reputations disappear. In twenty seconds, flutes and warm conversation are replaced by retching. Soldiers with bayonets and grenade-launchers advance. A protest zone (whatever it is named) fosters camaraderie amidst dislocation. Your life may depend on the aid of someone you were previously afraid of, someone you had no interest in knowing. In a protest about color, we see “true colors,” lose truths, find new ones.

Have the behavior and tactics of the federal strike teams differed from local police?

Simply put, the Feds are like the Portland Police, but on bath salts. The police already use CS gas, rubber bullets, pepper balls, buckshot, salt balls, flash bangs, and smoke bombs. The Feds use all of these, but dozens of times an hour rather than 2-3 times a night. They’ve pulled people into unmarked vans. Men in camo with no badges, no license plates, tackling and taking people away. This is not surprising, as many of them are Border Patrol. Bortac were used as a private security force at the WTO protests and the G8 summit.

When the Feds came to town, Portland police adopted more military vocalizations and gestures. It felt like a competition: The little boys wanted to impress the big boys. So much tear gas has been deployed downtown that engineers are trying to figure out how to keep it from contaminating the water supply. Independent journalists have collected an arsenal of expired gas canisters, some dated 2008. Who knows what’s really in those things?

The US military has contaminated Iraqis with spent uranium and keeps children in cages during a pandemic. Why on Earth would we believe that tear gas is just tear gas?

What were your perceptions of the BLM marches in Portland?

The daytime events are family-oriented, feature preachers, politicians, and those offering legal aid. The night-time protests are more playful, chaotic, tense.

Early in the protests, Black voices were the focus, both at live events and in the media. Then media focus shifted to mostly-white protestors having confrontations with the white Portland Police Bureau, and the all-white Feds.

Several Black activists objected to white protestors throwing water bottles and setting plywood on fire. One said, “Look at who is next to you before you throw that bottle. Don’t be idiots! Look and see if there is a person of color next to you! This is not what we want!” White activists voiced loudly that they were putting their bodies on the line so that Black protestors wouldn’t have to be targets of the worst of state and federal weaponry. Is this well-meaning or patronizing? It is Portland.

Black organizers are trying to re-center the protests, re-occupy the spotlight with Black stories, Black emotions. They stress demands over chants, a focus on reform. Many want to channel the momentum of the movement into work with local politicians. To bust the power of police unions. To confront racist policy in housing, education, sentencing, voting, healthcare. To put an end to a system where cops tackle and kill a young Black man who plays his violin at pet shelters.

Elijah McClain was killed for walking down a sidewalk while Black, put in a chokehold and injected with a lethal dose of ketamine. Cops proudly re-enacted his murder, and tear gassed his mother along with other mourners at his memorial. It was a violin vigil. This is America in 2020.

Some activists demand jails and courtrooms be torn down, police abolished. Others are for incremental police reform: End qualified immunity. Demilitarize them. Defund them by at least a quarter of their annual budget.

For these demands to have any power, they must be backed up by continuous support on the street.

This is where cops violently resist. Black men and women have been singled out for arrest. They are getting throat punches, broken bones. It happened at the beginning of the marches, and is still happening after nearly eighty days. This is the cops’ response. They double down. If you are not outraged, you don’t have a pulse.

Mass media lingers on images of last month’s knocked down fence at the Justice Center, on bonfires, and the most recent attempt to invade and burn a police station. Do these actions represent a majority or are they specific to a certain group of protestors?

Dozens of groups have been brought together in the name of Black lives: Those who are anti-cop, anti-prison, anti-capitalism, anti-Trump side by side with a Black population whose focus is legal and cultural equality. At moments they stand side-by-side. At moments they don’t. This past week is an example of how quickly the protest landscape shifts:

The Feds were instructed to lay low for several days. Portlanders rejoiced. There was a solid week of Black activists giving powerful speeches, downtown and across the city. It felt like a week where fences and fires weren’t the focus.

Then the focus shifted to police buildings in the North and Southeast—far from the Justice Center. At the East precinct a fire was set in a bucket at the entrance of the building. Video shows a majority-white crowd, people wearing gas masks close to the fire. Black protestors are visible as well.

Local media ran with it: A city-wide movement of tens of thousands lumped together as “violent Antifa.” National news called the burning bucket a “precinct on fire.” A night after this, protestors set a fire at the entrance to a police building in North Portland.

Some Black activists condemn this. Some don’t. Which tactics work better? Black protestors who engage with whites in vandalism, or those who get into local politics? What about Black protestors in other states who march while holding guns, to remind white militias that they also have the right to self-defense? It’s an individual’s choice—not a white person’s place to judge.

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is African-American, and our new Chief of Police, Chuck Lovell, who is African-American, have given their views to the national media. They couldn’t be more opposed. Hardesty is vocally for protest. She says the parks, streets, and police belong to the people. Chief Lovell states that racist whites dominate the protests. He stands with Mayor Wheeler in condemning the fires as “attempted murder.”

Far-Right and Centrist media dominate the national conversation about what these protests mean. Some websites claim protestors are making “bonfires of bibles.” In national discussions of Portland, Black activists are often erased.

The main place you see coverage of Black organizers leading marches and giving speeches is independent media: Video feeds. Facebook and Youtube. Twitter uploads. How do activists weave their way through a system that will use either their failure or success to derail them?

The situation is constantly developing. This weekend a former Navy Seal and his partner threw pipe bombs into a group of Portland protestors. His day job is training police military tactics.

There’s more: Demetria Hester, who is Black and a leader of Moms United, was just arrested while peacefully leading a group of protesters in the chant, “Don’t shoot.” Three years ago Hester was assaulted by a self-proclaimed Nazi on Portland’s light rail. He harassed two Muslim women, and killed two men who attempted to restrain him. This case was in the national news, one of many examples of racists showing their faces after getting a white supremacist as president.

Because of Hester’s connection to a very public murder case, her arrest and her words are getting coverage in national papers.

Protests originally focused on police reform have grown into a greater entity: They are a response to fascism, a response to a civil war the administration wants. To a country crashing into depression with no aid in sight. To poisoned land and poisoned minds. It all intersects. Organizers are reaching out to each other across a divided Portland, across personal divisions. It is now or never.

This week two national Black Lives Matter organizers visited the city and gave speeches. They said Portland’s resistance has been powerful, and must continue: “Justice has never been given. It’s been won.”

Is the pandemic a constant concern at the protests or on the back burner?

At first it was 50-50 with the masks; now the masked are the majority. There’s a sense that any risk incurred by being present is worth speaking to power. What is the greater risk? Dying from plague under a tyranny that profits from your illness? Or dying from plague while confronting the aforementioned tyranny? The odds are against your safety either way.

What are some of the funniest things you’ve seen at the protests?

I was sitting under the Elk statue. There was a twenty-something guy who looked like a cross between Steven Tyler and Kid Rock who kept climbing on the Elk and drunkenly lolling on its back as if he was on a merry-go-round. He slid down and passed out Corona beers, trying repeatedly to introduce his Russian friend Ivan, who said: “The Americans have made a change. The protest already worked.” This was the third week after George Floyd’s death. I slurred: “I’m not sure. Those cops are still aiming guns at us.” Kid Tyler wore mirrored sunglasses at night and a paisley kerchief over his incredibly glossy hair. His entire being was airbrushed onto night.

Then there is Trumpet Man. Trumpet Man is to tear gas what Keith Richards is to heroin. He’s a surfer-looking guy somewhere in his thirties with long blond hair. Every night he plays trumpet barefoot and shirtless. He darts around each volley of gas like a belligerent gazelle. He rises again and again, taunting the cops and leading on the charge of the resistance. Anyone outside of Portland who feels inclined can watch him on the feeds. Perhaps he is a professor, or a construction worker, or a father. Perhaps he spends twelve hours a day playing video games on a houseboat. Who knows what he is when he is not Trumpet Man.

What are some of the most profound things you’ve seen at the protests?

Black speakers echoing over whiteheads, thousands hushed, listening. Lovers holding hands, listening. The dedication of medics. A team of young people comforting a vet with an attack of PTSD. Women in their sixties, in tie-dye and khaki pants, having their eyes washed out by younger women in motorcycle helmets and vests of homemade chain mail. Hundreds of people offering newcomers water and goggles, lifting the incapacitated out of the worst-gassed corners. Dancing while flags burn. People in wheelchairs, on SSI, people so many of us turn away from showing up to serve soup and rattle the fence and form a human shield.

One night, as the protest was winding down to the last meager clusters of girls in goth makeup, I spotted a twitchy woman dressed in librarian clothes from ninety fifty-three, nude stockings…where does one even buy those anymore? Kitten heels, a ratchet-face, brown hair in a bun, a long plaid skirt….she approached a group of teens and screamed about how they were spreading the virus and about her son being dead.

The boy of the group tried to comfort her and she called him a “wetback.” Because I was watching, the teens turned to me and asked, “Is she yours?” I rapidly nodded my head and said “No!”

The teens called the woman a “meth freak” and moved away from her. She jerked on her heels and hobbled away with the gait of Frankenstein. I could still hear her for several blocks, bellowing: “STAY HOME, LOSERS! SAVE LIVES! The Corona’s going to get you, and you don’t have your heads screwed on! DUMMIES!!!!”

The boy confided to the girls: “Normally I would be angry, but it is not my night to be angry. This is a night for Black voices. I am here for them. My brown voice will have other nights to fight.”

What are some of the most tragic things you’ve seen at the protests?

People show up with photos of family members murdered by cops ten to twenty years ago. What remains are these cardboard signs and flyers they’ve made. The ones in these photos, the dead, never knew when smiling for these pictures that their images, like those of George Floyd, would be kept alive for this fight.

Then there are the older protestors, pushed to the ground and gassed by cops whose logo is to “serve and protect.” Some of them may have felt they would be protected by their age, or their gender, or color. They are not.

Portland demonstrators have suffered contusions and skull fractures from the use of rubber bullets, which are metal with a rubber coating. Legally, “impact munitions” are supposed to be aimed at the ground in front of protestors, and bounce up to disperse crowds. Video and medical diagnosis show that cops and federal troops aimed bullets directly at foreheads, chests and groins.

How have news reports differed from what you’ve seen?

Property destruction is overrated. Officers “violated” by water bottles thrown over a fence? How much can a water bottle hurt a man in combat-grade cockroach gear? Does a man gassing unarmed civilians deserve to have his well-being considered in this equation?

We have a government allowing millions to be evicted and unemployment benefits halved, while it approves a 700 billion-dollar military budget and spares no expense to invade its own cities. Some American dream!

Mainstream media tells us to fear riots, what the people are. We are facing is the collapse of American society because of what our government is.

In your book, Earthquakes in Candyland, you write: “I think of American arts and culture over the past 300 years and how so much of it can be analyzed as the behavior of a young god who has slain his mother.” That’s profound. Please elaborate a little for our readers.

Every nation has an organizing principle or spirit. In America, this underlying spirit is Manifest Destiny. It exists as an undercurrent in even the smallest of social encounters: Kill or be killed. Our streets are crowded with tent villages. To even step inside a hospital can set you back thousands. Our nation celebrates the art of the heist: If you can get away with it, it’s not a crime.

In my travels outside of the country I’ve met those who view America as a Wild West—a place with too many guns and no traditions. From a distance, this can appear romantic, that at any moment you can reinvent yourself, escape your class, your family, or state—escape your weather, even your face, if you have enough money.

If nothing is sacred to an American, there is no telling what the American will destroy for personal gain.

Truth is flexible. Science is fake. There is no ultimate proof, no ultimate knowledge. All expression can be edited or denied. We have slain the constants of water and soil, day and night. We’ve slain indigenous tribes, then our ancestors, and every memory of their myths. What constant is left? Self-awareness. We must kill ourselves! We become virtual objects. We’ve passed the post-modern. We are metafictional. Our economy is crashing, a game show host is president, theocracy is on the rise, and the November election may not even happen.

Many writers can’t resist the urge to moralize about the characters they observe, whereas your writing presents people in a sort of x-rayed dissection of personal characteristics that leave us to make up our own minds. Do you fight the urge to moralize or is this natural for you?

I live in a soap bubble. It’s about to pop any second. It used to be that when I saw other people, I thought of them as better than me by default. Homeless people and baristas emerged around every corner as gods. In the past I gravitated to visibly broken people, because I felt that what they reveal in their brokenness is more honest than what is said by those with reputations to maintain. Now…I’m less convinced. Perhaps I’ve been burned too many times in my quest to find insight in decay.

As for morals, I’m turned off by art that ties life into packages of loss and redemption. I love fantasy, but prefer books without plot arcs, lasting epiphanies, or an action-filled climax. The best stories to me are made of neglected details: the ways sleeves are wrinkled, curtains move, a poem made by garbage on a train. Isn’t reality enough message, enough poem, without us having to claim it, or steer how others look at it?

And yet…this interview is predicated on my wish for a healthy society, and the death of capitalism! We are living contradictions.

Please tell us about the novel you’re currently writing.

Thank you for asking. The past three books I’ve written have been based on publisher’s pitches. One liked my blogs about street encounters. I organized a book based on this request, Death Confetti. Another asked for my political rants and non-fiction stories about America, which became Earthquakes in Candyland. The book I’m working on now is a novel. I won’t know the title until I’m done, though I like the phrase Icons Falter. The publisher wanted to see my voice in a surreal landscape, and suggested I write about a person who experiences a drug-like high near death. Her hunger grows insatiable. I was in a mood. I liked the idea and said yes.

I invented a main character who is a monster. Her hunger is psychic. She does not drink blood, or actively kill. Because of her nature she is constantly running from the consequences of her lies. I’ve populated her life with people I’ve known and places I’ve traveled to. The book is about occult fame, internet fame, and the ways addiction makes us betray our friends, because…I can never just follow a pitch.

After this, I have two collections of short stories to release: the weirder ones that didn’t make it into Earthquakes will be in Soul Gamblers. The Relationship Book is about sex, the weight of inanimate objects, and my mother.

That was a long answer. The stories made me tell you! They seethe in my head at any given hour. If I don’t finish them, they will finish me.

Speaking of the Titanic, in Earthquakes, you wrote: “I’m not so much the one who plays fiddle on the deck of the Titanic as the one who decides to interior decorate the side that has yet to submerge and offer counseling services to the anarchist bellboys and wanton devotees of Madame Blavatsky trapped in steerage.” How’s that going?

I was too lazy and broke to leave the country, and now the borders have closed. I’m here, still counseling anarchist bell-beings, and hanging lace on walls, because that is what humans do.

Tamra Lucid co-produced a documentary about Los Aldeanos, Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War, and Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People about Zona Norte in Tijuana. She was a digital archivist for 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film.