Images broadcast worldwide of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler getting tear-gassed alongside protesters made him an overnight standard-bearer for the growing movement against President Donald Trump’s use of federal agents to tamp down violence in U.S. cities.
But for many Portland residents, of which 72% of residents are white, the moment felt ironic and hypocritical.
For while the city has appeared progressive on issues in the past whether it be the environment or wars overseas, when it comes to racism, the issue is far more complicated.
The state of Oregon had some of the most brutal anti-black laws in the nation which was essentially founded on principles of white supremacy.
Portland has been rocked by protests for two months but tensions have risen since federal agents entered the city. The protesters are pictured here on Friday night
In the 19th-century it was legal to whip any black person found in the state while the Ku Klux Klan were dominant in Oregon’s Legislature during the early part of the 20th.
In the current climate, before federal agents arrived in the liberal city, local police repeatedly used tear gas on protesters, and Ted Wheeler – who is also the police commissioner – is increasingly unpopular with those who feel he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, control officers.
Before he was gassed this week, Wheeler fought to be heard over a hostile crowd screaming obscenities and then hecklers surrounded him as he left hours later with chemicals in his eyes.
The failure by the Democrat and sixth-generation Oregon resident to navigate this polarizing moment in his hometown reflects Portland’s simmering internal struggle over its identity.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (above), a Democrat, was among those tear-gassed during another clash on Wednesday after he was mostly jeered by protesters as he tried to rally them
A city that prides itself on having one of the nation’s most progressive resumes is being challenged to move even further left by a growing anti-police constituency that’s elevating black voices during America’s reckoning over racism. Those voices have long gone unheard in Portland, which is less than 6% black.
‘The national imagination of Portland – and even to some extent Portland’s imagination of itself – as a hotbed of progressivism and liberalism has never been matched by the political reality,’ said Chris Shortell, a political science professor at Portland State University.
‘It’s not as liberal and progressive of a city as the national public holds it to be, and that’s particularly true on race.’ Shortell calls it ‘the dark underbelly of Portland.’
‘On the national level, you just see, `Hey, the mayor stepped out there and got tear-gassed!´ But that covers over the reality of the local political situation,’ Shortell said.
‘It’s something I joke about with my friends,’ said chemist Seyi Fasoranti to the New York Times, who has been watching the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland with fascination. ‘There are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than black people.’
But, Fasoranti says he believes the protests ‘feel genuine’.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators gather demanding an end to racism and police brutality
As a state, Oregon is relatively homogenous with three-quarters of the state being white, but the average income level for black families in Portland is nearly half that of white residents.
‘Really there are two Portlands that exist,’ says Walidah Imarisha, a scholar of black history in Oregon to the Times. ‘There’s white Portland and Portland of color.
‘There’s massive racial disparities around wealth, health care, schools and criminal legal systems that white Portlanders just don’t understand.’
Some protesters have admitted that it was Oregon’s racist past and legacy of white supremacy that helped to spur them onto the streets.
‘Bringing that history to light is definitely a motivating factor,’ said veterinary nurse Liza Lopetrone to the Times.
Some speeches and chanting at the protests have referred to the state’s legacy of slavery and the taking of land from Native Americans.
‘Oregon has an extremely racist history. I’m not from here but I take responsibility for it now,’ Lopetrone said.
Women, now known as the wall of moms, link arms to act as a shield for Black Lives Matter protesters outside the courthouse. Just days earlier, federal agents pushed back against the women with footage showing them shoving some of the women in the chest while using tear gas to break up the crowds
In the weeks since George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have filled Portland’s streets. Days of peaceful marches that initially attracted up to 10,000 people devolved into smaller groups of demonstrators who set fires, vandalized buildings and smashed windows. Businesses and others have complained the city hasn’t been able to restore order.
But when Trump sent 114 federal agents to quell the unrest earlier this month, the city once more began to turn out in force against what Wheeler has called an ‘illegal occupation.’
Crowds of several thousand demonstrators show up nightly outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse to square off with federal agents armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Damany Igwé, 43, a black salesman has taken part in dozens of the protests and says that white crowds shielded him from police, all the while yelling ‘Black power!’
‘I feel the most protected that I ever have in my city,’ Igwé said earlier this week to the Times.
‘White people can’t understand what we’ve been through completely, but they are trying to empathize. That’s a beginning.’
But the role of white protesters has some criticism from some in the black community.
Moms link arms in front of protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse during Thursday night’s demonstration
In an op-ed for the Washington Post Mondainé called for a ‘refocusing’ to occur
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post the president of the Portland branch of the NAACP Rev. E.D. Mondainé, said that recent nights of violence has distracted from the original intentions of the protests and that there needs to be an immediate ‘refocusing’.
‘Portland’s protests were supposed to be about black lives. Now, they’re white spectacle,’ reads the headline in the Post.
‘Unfortunately, “spectacle” is now the best way to describe Portland’s protests. Vandalizing government buildings and hurling projectiles at law enforcement draw attention — but how do these actions stop police from killing black people?’ Mondainé asked. ‘What are antifa and other leftist agitators achieving for the cause of black equality?’
‘Are they really furthering the cause of justice, or is this another example of white co-optation?’ he wrote.
‘I am not suggesting retreat. Instead, I am proposing that we take the cause of Black Lives Matter into those places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us, and where there is less risk of spectacle distracting from our true aims.
‘In boardrooms, in schools, in city councils, in the halls of justice, in the smoky backrooms of a duplicitous government — that is where we will finally dismantle the gears of the brutal, racist machine that has been terrorizing black Americans and hollowing out the moral character of this nation since its inception,’ Mondainé wrote.
The NAACP held a rally in an effort to ‘refocus’ the cause of the protests on the BLM movement
Jo Ann Hardesty, Mondainé’s predecessor at the NAACP and who is now he first African American woman on the Portland City Council believes such criticism is unwarranted.
‘There’s a lot of new, aware folks who have joined into the battle for black lives,’ she said at a news conference on Thursday.
‘Both protest goals are important and one is not is more important than the other,’ she said referring to protests over racial injustice and the presence of federal agents in the city.
While the city’s anger is channeled against Trump and his federal forces, beneath every protest lies tension about what Portland is, what it should be and how it will get there.
It built its progressive reputation carefully over decades by breaking ground on issues like environmentalism, public transportation and urban planning. But on other progressive issues – racial politics and police reform key among them – Portland has fallen far short and to some, is proving slow to recognize that blind spot.
In a city that is 72% white, Black Lives Matter protesters are often white and outnumber their black counterparts
‘We have this identity nationally as a city that is weird and progressive – you know, Portlandia,’ said Gregory McKelvey, a Portland activist and police critic. ‘But we really earned this liberal reputation at a time where having a mayor that said, “Yeah, I think two gay people should be able to get married” was seen as … radically progressive. The rest of the country has caught up with us and our elected officials are still at that level of progressive.’
The city’s overwhelming whiteness also informs the black community’s impatience with reform. For years, Portland was an important base for neo-Nazi groups. Even now, right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer frequently hold rallies in the city.
‘Portland in many respects is … where you could assume consensus existed because some voices simply weren’t heard, and that made it easier to govern and it made it easier to tell a story about what Portland is,’ Shortell said of black residents. ‘But now those groups have gained a voice.’
Some want to end all funding for police, others want to cut $50 million from their budget and still others want oversight reforms, such as an independent review board.
The Wall of Moms came out in force again Friday night linking arms in their yellow t-shirts
‘Defunding the police is really a racial justice concern. It’s racial justice concern No. 1,’ said Mac Smiff, a black Portland resident who asked Wheeler pointed questions before the mayor was tear-gassed. ‘The only reason we’re doing graffiti and protesting is because you will not come to the table for what we ask for.’
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first black woman elected to that position, demanded last week that Wheeler cede control of police to her. He declined.
‘The city needs stability and leadership right now,’ Wheeler’s staff said in an emailed response to questions.
Federal agents in Portland, Oregon, have detained protesters in unmarked vans, teargassed crowds and beaten reporters in recent days, as Black Lives Matter rallies in the city near the end of their eighth consecutive week
‘The community called for the mayor to join and listen, and hear their frustrations with him, the police bureau, and the city,’ the statement said of Wheeler attending Wednesday’s protest. ‘Despite knowing that he would be subject to anger and harassment, the mayor felt it was important to go and stay.’
The statement said the mayor was working to hold the Portland Police Bureau accountable and defended what it called the city’s ‘historic, unprecedented reform’ of the agency.
That includes a vote last month to divert nearly $16 million from the police budget to programs that support people of color. It eliminates school resource officers, a high-profile gun violence reduction team and transit officers. The police chief, a white woman, also stepped down in favor of a black man.
Wheeler is a ‘decent man’ but he is also ‘a privileged white man who grew up among wealth and privilege,’ Hardesty told The Associated Press. ‘And so I don’t know if he has what we need at this time. I can tell you that I have what we need to fundamentally change how policing happens in Portland – and I would be fearless about changing it.’
Hardesty wants to get a measure on the November ballot that would establish an independent police oversight system. She’s been fighting to reform the Police Bureau for three decades and blasted those who said she settled by accepting less than a $50 million cut from its budget – a sign of the divisions even among those seeking change.
‘I suspect there’s a lot of progressive Portlanders who thought, `OK, they took $16 million out of the police budget, and that’s a really good step.´ And for the people who are really on the emotional edge of this issue, that’s not enough,’ said Carl Abbott, a Portland State University professor emeritus of urban studies and planning.
‘What does a good, well-meaning, progressive white protester do? They go out and march in the peaceful protests, they put Black Lives Matter signs in their windows and read books on how to be a better ally and then try to do it,’ he said. ‘But none of those actions penetrate the culture of the police force, and that is the nub.’