A City Wrestles

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

While most of America breathed a collective sigh of relief at the historic April 20 verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, Portland Oregon, saw its most inexplicable night yet of chaos.

On the same day as the Chauvin verdict, Portland police shot and killed Robert Delgado, a man experiencing houselessness, within four minutes of arriving to Lents Park, where he had been carrying a toy gun. This added even more chaos to our already Def-Con 9 situation.

The damage to a Boys and Girls club wrought by rioters that night in NE Portland made no sense, even in a city dubbed “Little Beirut” by President George H.W. Bush’s Secret Service, after protesters in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s cemented our national reputation as a protest problem child.

Those protests, while chaotic, were also creative, meant to spur our war consciousness, designed to shock as did the three protesters who vomited up red, white and blue in front of the President’s motorcade in 1990. These current “protests” really need to find another name. They are designed to cause harm to a community already devastated by a year of covid plus epidemic violence.

As our community violence rages on and the death count due to homicides piles up, one young activist told me last week in their neighborhood, machetes are selling for $3. We’ve already had historic gun and ammunition sales, selling an unbelievable 516,000 guns in 2020, now machetes? To what end?

As a psychiatrist, the fact I find the most senseless in the tragic death of Mr. Delgado is that he was terrified of police. Yet another heartbreaking truth is that we have a mental health unit dedicated to assessing situations exactly like these. This unit, the Portland Street Response, was not called because of the presumption that Mr. Delgado had a gun.

See what I mean? Nothing makes sense anymore.

But the final insult in my book was our Mayor’s April 27 press conference, timed at precisely the same time as Mr. Delgado’s family press conference, calling for public citizens to put themselves in harm’s way and “unmask” the black bloc doing damage to our city’s windows.

The lack of human empathy shown to the Delgado family in the timing of the conference, the prioritization of property over human life, not to mention the failure of leadership shown by the City administration over the past year has our city defending itself yet once again.

Our protest community is fighting back. The day prior to the Mayor’s disastrous press conference, black activists wrote the best letter yet, putting our anarchist community on notice. In the words of Layla Saad, a world-famous anti-racist educator, it was a calling out.

Together they wrote, “Revolutionary times call for revolutionary measures, but success requires thoughtful action. Actions that neither increase solidarity nor broadcast purpose while making the lives of local Black communities more difficult are not acceptable.”

While I wish these words had stood on their own in a city, like most in America, in desperate need of anti-racism work, we are showing the world how not to do it, one action at a time.

Thankfully, our federal government is listening, for the first time in four years. The Department of Justice sent a letter of noncompliance to our City for violating the terms of their 2014 settlement over use of force. And just yesterday, the Oregon attorney general and Multnomah County District Attorney announced a joint investigation into the death of Mr. Delgado, and the policing practices that led to it, a welcome sign of civilization.

In my former life as a trained psychoanalyst, I spent a lot of time studying the ways we as humans act, both conscious and unconscious, some actions inexplicable even to ourselves.

What I can tell you about the anarchists is this, if their actions are designed to act out rage against the system of capitalism and to provoke society into self-reflection, it’s not working. They forgot to take into account backfire.

In their minds, smashing the Boys and Girls club—a nonprofit mostly serving brown and black children—makes perfect sense if the intention is to show that nothing is sacred.

As one anonymous Youth Liberation Front member said in the “Beat the Bastards” podcast several months back:

If we have to work inside the system and not just outright destroy it, it basically gives the people in charge, in this case Ted Wheeler, two options. You can go with, in his mind, the violent rioters wanting to destroy everything, or the peaceful ones. He’s always going to take the peaceful marches but they are still out there demanding school resource officers out of school and ending the gang violence unit. I guess if we are working with the system then any progress is good.

In hindsight, this quote explains the Boys and Girls club destruction perfectly. In a movement unhinged, they have decided to work not just outside the system but with intent to destroy society.

What is a public to do with an ideology so extremely destructive? As we wrestle with this as a city, my personal goal is this: to meet destruction with understanding.

I am doing the most radical thing I know how–I am armed only with love. I’d love to talk with the young anarchists face-to-face someday. I doubt they are reading this article; they even blocked me on Twitter. But if they are reading this now, I hear you, I see you.

In a world that is upside down with climate change, income inequality, social injustice, and massive amounts of denial, I understand your frustration. I share it. Our systems must change, on this we agree.

In my heart, I cannot find it in me to give up. If we want to win, we cannot meet hate with more hate. Nonviolence is not an ideology, as much as it is a way of life that can be both confrontational and invitational.

Here is my mantra:

love over hate.


Every day.


Say it again.

Love over hate.