Portland, Oregon at the Crossroads 

Brpadway Bridge at night, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

An Anti-fascist Christmas Carol and Tale of Two Cities 

I don’t know about you, but personally my sphincters have gotten way more of a workout this election cycle than seems healthy or advisable. Given the considerable efforts so many of us valiantly exerted over the past few months to keep from messing our collective national trousers [cue national anthem] at the prospect of a red wave, it stands to reason that we might all need a little breathing space, a little “me” time.

In Maryland, where I grew up, a “little me time” for many will soon include firing up very legal spliffs with considerably less trepidation about the long arm of the law walking away with your dime bag. That’s if you’re White. If you’re Black, Native American, or Latinx, the new laws mean having to worry less about a joint being used as a solid pretext to blow your brains out at point blank range – as in the case of Patrick Lyoya – or kneel on your neck for nearly nine minutes–as in the case of George Floyd.

In the era of pandemics, mass eviction, climate collapse, stochastic terrorism, fascist creep, and endless daily death by cop, it seems like not nearly enough has been said about the merits of living in a legal weed state. Mind you, I have no personal stake in the issue. My interest is purely academic. But welcome, Maryland and Missouri, welcome, brothers and sisters, to the fold. I personally look forward to having many more interfaith dialogues with Rastafarians.

One thing I will dearly miss, however, in the wake of the midterm elections, is watching the January 6 hearings. It’s been so refreshing to have the whole country get a chance to see the Proud Boys (PB) and Patriot Prayer (PP) in action. Here in Portland, where I’ve lived for decades, many of us are pretty familiar with what they’re capable of. PP, after all, got its start in Portland–inspired, just as Aryan Nation was in the 70s and 80s, by Oregon’s founding history as a “racist white utopia” with a long history of “removal, exploitation, or exclusion of all people of color.”

I would definitely be more surprised by the specter of cops and active-duty military among the motley gang alternately rubbing shit on the Capitol walls and screaming “Where’s Nancy?” if it weren’t for how they’ve gone after anti-fascist, BIPOC, and queer folks for many years in Portland. Portland Police have made an open secret of their deep sympathies with the far right, having the backs of Joey Gibson’s crew, PP, and their oddball confederacy of Oath Keepers, and Minute Men, et al, when they come to town to knock heads. During the George Floyd Uprising, moreover, the Portland Police worked overtime sowing chaos and lobbing chemical canisters–banned for use in war by the 1993 Geneva Weapons Convention–at overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters. In effect, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) engaged for months in a protracted, highly visible urban war crime. There is, god knows, a long historical link between fascism, petrochemical companies, and state violence against minoritized people and anti-fascists.  (Why is it there never seems to be a good Nuremberg trial when you most need it?)

But locally and nationally, media outlets have demonized, trivialized, and stoked unfounded fear of anti-fascists and Black Lives protesters posing a serious threat to property values in what remains one of the most expensive cities in the country. Never mind that over time, more evidence is likely to emerge that both the Portland Police and Feds served up long-term chemical injury to people – including infants and children– they swore to serve and protect. And never mind the salmon sucking it all down for months. So much for treaty-protected fishing rights.

But the good news is that you simply cannot throw a rock these days in Portland without breaking a weed store window. And there’s plenty of reasons, too, to celebrate the fact that Maryland and Missouri just joined the fold, making a total of 21 weed-friendly states. Now the states just need to follow Biden’s lead in granting amnesty to federal prisoners serving time for simple possession.

Never mind, of course, the overwhelming number of enterprising and overwhelmingly BIPOC prisoners who’ll continue to serve time for hustling a bit of weed on the side while their largely White, heavily capitalized counterparts serve up oodles of giggle smoke from gleaming storefronts helping to drive the gentrification of historically Black and brown neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the surplus Black and brown bodies that used to inhabit those heavily policed spaces are criminalized for the tenacity – and audacity – they demonstrate in continuing to draw breath.

In Portland, all the hand-wringing media coverage locally and nationally about chaos in the city has been a boon for housing speculation, rental management companies, security companies, and the like who want to turn up the screws even harder on the city’s struggling workers.

The results of this last City Council election, let’s just say, don’t bode well for the city’s working class BIPOC, immigrant, and white communities, who have been pushed to the outskirts of the city by gentrification. And while corporations and some small businesses in Portland have benefited from Trump’s massive $380 million PPP “loan” program, benefits have been scant for people struggling to make rent, let alone for the ballooning ranks of houseless people.

On the cusp of – and following – the lifting of the Covid moratorium on evictions, between January and November, more than 5,000 people were evicted in Multnomah County alone, representing a third of all evictions statewide. People of color, predictably, are over-represented among the houseless, at nearly 40%, while comprising 34.3% of the county’s population. Nearly 24% of the houseless are counted as 55 and older. Wander down among Portland’s houseless encampments and it’s not at all unusual to see people in wheelchairs and on walkers. Old Man Tiny Tim would be SOL here. Your apartment’s gone, now move along. No Christmas goose for you, My Friend.

If you’re not already disabled when you hit the street, there’s a good chance you will be soon.

The life expectancy of a chronically houseless person (who’s been houseless for a year or more and/or repeatedly) in the U.S. is about 50. Small wonder, when our houseless human kin are pushed to the brink by sleep deprivation, sexual and physical assaults, head injuries, sucking down forest fires and tear gas night after night.

But the demonization of houseless people, BLM, and anti-fascists by landlords, big monied interests, local and national mainstream media outlets, and Mayor Ted “Tear Gas” Wheeler helped propel law-and-order candidate Rene Gonzalez to the City Council in a November run-off election. Gonzalez, a former real estate and corporate lawyer, faced off against Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman and woman of color, and only the third Black person to serve on the City Council.  The city’s second woman of color, and first Latinx council member, Carmen Rubio, would be elected two years later in 2020.

Hardesty, a long-time organizer in Portland around police accountability, affordable housing, and climate justice, grew up in Baltimore with a father in the ILWU. She moved to Portland after doing a six-year hitch in the Navy. She served seven years in the Oregon house, before being elected for a term to City Council. As Oregon Public Broadcasting’s (OPB’s) Rebecca Ellis put it in a 2022 segment, “In 2018, Hardesty rode into office promising to help those who had been left behind by City Hall — renters, people of color, low-income Portlanders, and those living east of 82nd Avenue, an area of the city that has long been historically ignored by Portland leaders and which she calls home.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a politician–in Portland anyway–who’d worked as consistently as Hardesty had, and as effectively, to deliver on their campaign promises, Ellis suggested. “Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty did what she promised. Now she might lose her seat,” the headline ran.

In the same interview, Hardesty spoke to the racist abuse she’s routinely received as a commissioner, some of it apparently stemming from national press coverage of the Portland BLM protests. “’There are folks that want to paint me as Antifa or the face of the ‘defund the police movement,’ she said. ‘But it was never my movement. It was the thousands of people that took to the street over a hundred-plus days that demanded the City Council act.’”

Hardesty’s longstanding organizing work around police accountability, and the critical views she routinely voiced on her weekly show “Voices from the Edge” on Portland’s community-supported KBOO Radio, has earned her enemies in the PPB. In her 2018 campaign, Hardesty also took up the issue of the PPB’s long record of lethal violence against people in mental health crises, which drew attention – and oversight -– from the Justice Department. In February 2021, under Hardesty’s leadership, and inspired by recommendations from Street Roots (the local paper “for those who can’t afford free speech”), the City rolled out a new unarmed street response team to assist people in mental health crises, redirecting several million dollars from the PPB to fund the new service.

In March 2021, Brian Hunzeker, the President of the Portland Police Association¬ (PPA) and two other officers leaked a police report in which a White woman accused Hardesty of involvement in a hit and run accident. The accusation was easily disproven – Hardesty’s car hadn’t been driven in months and was inoperable. Hardesty filed a $5 million lawsuit against the PPA, Hunzeker, and another officer involved in the leak, and months later, Mayor Wheeler fired Hunzeker from the PPB.

Hardesty won a raft of endorsements for her reelection campaign – from Oregon’s Democratic congressional reps, along with unions and progressive organizations, including the ILWU, SEIU, the Portland Association of Teachers, the Oregon Working Families Party, the Coalition of Communities of Color, the multi-racial justice coalition Unite Oregon Action, tenants’ unions, and on and on.

Hardesty has also drawn consistent support from an array of climate organizations who know her as a trusted ally in the struggle to hold “The Thin Green Line” in the Pacific Northwest against fossil fuel companies bent on “transform[ing] the region into a toxic fossil fuel transport corridor.” From the Alberta Tar Sands to the Bakken in North Dakota and the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, fossil fuel companies are looking to West Coast ports to move dirty, planet-scorching energy to refineries and overseas.

Hardesty was integrally involved in developing the BIPOC-led Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) ballot initiative, which passed in 2018, thanks to a broad-based coalition including environmental groups, labor, small business owners, and communities of color.  PCEF raised the business income fee by 1% for major corporations doing business in Portland. The estimated $44-61 million in annual funds will support home weatherization and living wage renewable energy jobs for frontline low-income communities of color–and low-income people–most impacted by the climate crisis.

Hardesty has consistently stood with the city’s multi-racial climate justice coalition in support of a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and to deny a new permit to Zenith Energy, Ltd., a Canadian-based multinational that currently “transports hundreds of millions of gallons [of oil] per year at its facility in Northwest Portland.” Amid overwhelming public concerns, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the City’s decision to withhold a permit in October 2021.

Zenith’s terminal is located in a massive six mile long petrochemical “tank farm”– Oregon’s Critical Energy Hub (CEI), which “stores more than 90% of all liquid fuel in Oregon.”  Perched on the sandy banks of the Willamette River, and close by its confluence with the Columbia, known in Sahaptin as “Nch’i-Wana,” “the Big River” empties into the Pacific at Astoria. The Big River is for millions the cultural/spiritual, ecological, and economic life’s blood of the Pacific Northwest. The CEI is located across the street from Forest Park, which at 5200 acres is six times the size of Central Park, though the two parks share a designer in Frederick Law Olmsted.

If you thrive on being shit-scared, you might give a listen to an interview about what’s likely to happen to the tank farm – and Forest Park – when the long-overdue “Big One” hits what’s known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone. In an interview with Barbara Bernstein, documentary filmmaker and host of KBOO Radio’s Locus Focus, Jay Wilson, Resilience Coordinator for Clackamas County Emergency Management, calmly walks through a variety of scenarios. Built mainly between the 1930s and 70s before earthquake codes kicked in, any way you look at it those tanks are headed into the drink. And along with them, as a 2022 studynow estimates, nearly 200 million gallons of toxic petrochemical soup, with the resulting spill vying in scale with the BP Deep Water Horizon spill, the country’s largest oil spill to date. The resulting fires – and explosions – are likely to do to Forest Park and a large swathe of Portland what Mrs. O’Leary’s cow purportedly did to Chicago in 1871. And, shades of Don Delillo’s now seemingly realist eco-disaster novel White Noise, Portland could be looking at its very own “airborne toxic event,” with a chemical cloud hitting neighborhoods downwind of the farm.

What we have here, as Wilson puts it, “is a ticking bomb for a major environmental catastrophe.” The costs of catastrophes, and the attending displacement, of course, are inevitably socialized, borne by local and federal taxpayers, while oil companies walk away with the house. “Accumulation through dispossession” is how Marxist geographer David Harvey describes the basic law of capitalism. When it comes to “Burn, Baby, Burn,” petrochemical companies really know how to do it up.

And yet locally and nationally, the existential threat that the tank farm, Zenith Energy, and Big Oil, Coal, and petrochemicals pose to the Big River barely registers in the media in comparison to the continual scapegoating of our friends on the street–whether they’re houseless, agitating and organizing for racial justice, or your garden variety anti-fascist. Pay no attention to the (rich) man behind the curtain.

If responses to Covid are any measure, Hardesty’s opponent for the City Council position, businessman Rene Gonzalez, who grew up in Anchorage with a father who was a public prosecutor and later a judge, doesn’t seem particularly enamored of the precautionary principle. Gonzalez rose to visibility during the pandemic, helping to organize parents to push for early school reopening during the pandemic “before vaccines were widely available,”  against public health and union recommendations. Gonzalez, who was endorsed by the PPA, Portland Business Alliance, Homebuilders Association, the Commercial Real Estate Association, and other financial interests, massively outspent Hardesty in the campaign.

With Gonzalez casting her as soft on crime and homelessness, Hardesty hit back at Gonzalez with ads pointing out that Gonzalez paid more than $100k to Republican consulting firms, supported Republican PACs, and “’union-free school board candidates,’ and endorsed 17 candidates with links to (or support from) far-right organizations.’” As reported in the Portland Tribune, candidates endorsed by Gonzalez’s PAC ED300 were also endorsed by groups like Oregon Right to Life, and Parents Rights in Education, which “opposes Oregon’s inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in comprehensive sexual health education and advocates for censoring history in school curriculum.” At an October rally outside City Hall, Marcus Mundy, past president of Portland’s Urban League, observed, “’The bottom line is, when given the chance, Rene Gonzalez …chose his own narrow, political agenda over LGBTQ kids, over kids of color and all kids who deserve to know about our history of race and LGBTQ rights in our country, particularly in Portland.’”

The Oregonian unapologetically heralded Gonzalez for “his goal to decrease unsanctioned camping and help restore the quality of life that Portland used to be known for.” Never mind the role that developers and housing speculators have played in immiserating the lives of so many workers who can’t keep pace with rising rents, given intensifying housing speculation coupled with the defunding of public housing. Willamette Week (WW) put an even more cynical  Dickensian spin on the race. Gonzalez, WW claimed, in racially coded language “would return Portland to a simpler time,” “restore balance” to a city that has “lost its way,” a city in “despair,” one that has succumbed to the delusion that “our government is at its most compassionate when it accepts misery and violence as collateral damage in the march of social progress.”

Never mind that the misery that most seems to concern both newspapers is the sort that Mr. Potter experiences when he can’t monetize Bedford Falls, evict the Martinis, and consign Violet to curb crawling. WW, like The Oregonian, and so much of the corporate media in the U.S., is fundamentally disengaged from the misery of the city’s elderly and people with disabilities trying to survive on fixed incomes; and from people forced to work multiple jobs to try to keep pace with the rising cost of housing, their health taking hit after hit along the way.

This year, the Portland City Council, headed up by Ted “Are-There-No-Workhouses” Wheeler, ushered in the holiday season by approving a plan to spend $27 million to build and operate a total of six massive guarded [read “militarized”] camps that will each hold 250 people. (The original proposal called for three camps of 500 each.) Never mind that the Pacific Northwest is choc-o-bloc with models of tent cities and tiny house communities that are democratically run, generally with elected councils: Dignity Village, Right 2 Dream 2, SHARE-WHEEL, etc. None of them is perfect, but they are safer and infinitely more empowering, humane, healing, and effective, and less likely to violate the Geneva Conventions than what Wheeler & Co. have in mind.

Once the mega camps are in place, anyone found sleeping outside the designate camps would be subject to criminal prosecution, though there are promises of a “diversion” program. All in all, Mayor Wheeler, the descendant of 19th century colonial timber barons, seems bent on repeating his family’s long history of accumulating wealth by dispossessing and displacing people. With election day less than a week away, Hardesty cast the lone No vote. In October 2022, Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, headed by City Commissioner Dan Ryan, issued a permit to Zenith Energy to allow it to continue to operate in the City while it ostensibly embarks on a 5-year plan to shift from crude oil to “renewable fuels.”

But there’s still a bit of good news to celebrate in Portlandia this holiday season: while the city’s monied interests lined up against a referendum – Measure 26-228 – calling for a new city charter, the measure passed with a resounding 58% vote. Portland is now embarking on a two-year transition plan, hiring its first city manager, implementing ranked choice voting, expanding the city council from 5 to 12 seats, instituting district-specific voting, with three representatives in each of four voting districts. Together these moves provide a long overdue shot of meaningful representation for struggling low-income BIPOC, White, and immigrant families.

Ironically, however, Hardesty will not be in a position – on the inside, anyway – to facilitate the transition to a new markedly different form of city government. Instead, the charter will be implemented by a Council in which four out of five members– along with most major finance, real estate, and business interest in the City – were vocal critics of the shift. If Hardesty decides to run again under the new charter, there’s a good chance she could be back in City Hall in two years.

In the meantime, dozens of organizations are pushing back against the Zenith deal. And given the global climate justice stakes in the Pacific Northwest, this election should have been high on the national radar. Whatever the case this round, we need to be brace ourselves for decades of struggle – and outside money infusing Portland elections – because Big Oil is going to want to invest heavily in candidates who are willing to take a wrecking ball to the Thin Green Line.

In a November 18 segment, OPB’s Dave Miller asked Hardesty about the no vote she cast on Wheeler’s massive, militarized $27 million camps for houseless people, Hardesty said, “I am terrified of what that means for people struggling on our street today. “Imagine,” Hardesty says – sounding more than a little bit like George Bailey of Bailey Bros. Building & Loan – “what we would do if we could take that $27 million and put people in housing….”

National Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day is coming up on December 21.  In 2020, 126 people died houseless on streets, doorways, and sidewalks in Multnomah County. Nearly two thousand (1988) people died in alleys, and underpasses, in Los Angeles County in 2020. In most cities the dead go uncounted. The data isn’t even collected.

We know what the answer is to houselessness, and it’s not militarized camps. It’s housing. The  motto of houseless and formerly houseless activists with SHARE/WHEEL–“Without shelter people die”–is a simple truth. Houselessness has cut short by decades the lives of some of my closest friends. Rebuilding and restoring HUD, investing in public housing locally and nationally. is one of the single best things we can do for workers in this country. Public housing gives workers a position of strength to negotiate from. The 1% knows this but they also know that houselessness is useful. It’s a stick they beat us with, a threat they use to keep us awake at night, to make us work harder, to make us knuckle under to the boss.

As “Marlowe,” who was 47, suffering sickle cell flare as she lugged her remaining worldly possessions up and down the hills of Seattle’s original Skid Road, once asked me: “If they can give billions of dollars to make a freaking weapon, why can’t they take care of people?“

To get a sense of what the 2021 U.S. Military budget directed domestically could have paid for in the way of public housing, health care, VA benefits, Head Start, K-12, higher education, and living wage clean energy jobs, check out–the National Priorities Project.  It’s a great organizing tool. Let’s start using – and teaching – it!

This holiday season, let’s recommit ourselves to struggling against the Potters, Scrooges, and Grinches of the World and their endless subsidy-sucking political proxies. We will not let them jam Christmas trees up our chimneys and tell us they’re fixing something. We will say no to their legislative strike breaking, their camps and border fences, their chemicals, their endless money for cops, prisons, weapons, and wars that shred bodies and lives.

We will not let them–out of their own deep personal pathologies–hoard all the money and resources or pit us against each other. We will not let them boil our Precious-One-and-Only-Holy–Irreplaceable-Mother-Loving-Dust-Speck. WE ARE HERE.

Desiree Hellegers’ serialized solo play How I Learned to Breathe Through the Apocalypse” is airing on cable via Portland’s Open Signal studios.  Their website isdesiree.hellegers.com