We left the UK for Portland expecting a liberal dream. That wasn’t the reality

Candice Pires
·10 min read

It was Labor Day. We were having a barbecue in our back garden when gale-force winds started out of nowhere. As we scrambled to hold down plates and glasses, our neighbour’s horse chestnut trees swayed menacingly, their leaves swirling around us.

Over the next hour, smoke filled the air and the sky changed from bright blue to dirty grey. We moved everything inside and shut up the house. Soon after, the power went. We had no idea what was happening: rumours started online that protestors – some said Antifa, some said Proud Boys – were starting fires on the outskirts of the city.

We soon learned the truth: a “rare wind event” had caused wildfires to spread rapidly across Oregon, including to forests south of Portland. As the week progressed, the fires and smoke intensified and people were evacuated from neighbouring towns. Portlanders now had three reasons to wear a mask: coronavirus, police teargas and deadly smoke.

I refreshed local fire maps every 15 minutes, tracking the flames’ path. My husband and I discussed whether we should plan an escape route but we would have been met by smoke from other wildfires in almost any possible direction. Local government advice was to stay put unless an evacuation warning was issued. We held tight.

Climate change was suddenly tangible, and it made our already small pandemic-lives contract further. Within five days, Portland had the most polluted air in the world, according to the air quality index. Our numbers exceeded the standardised scale. We were told to continue to stay indoors.

For 10 days, the sun and moon disappeared, bins stood full and uncollected; it felt as if even the grass had stopped growing. My friend said her two usually hyper dogs no longer asked for walks. I wanted just the pandemic back: putting on a mask when you’re within two metres of another person is better than putting on a mask to open your front door.

Five years ago, when we dreamed up our relocation from London to Portland, it went something like this: we’d land in the city where my husband’s mother lives, and which we knew to be a liberal, laid-back place, full of quirky, outdoorsy people (the Patagonia sort, not hunting).

Whenever Portland featured on TV, it was mostly being sent up for its progressive earnestness, aided by the long-running comedy series Portlandia, which skewered the city’s hipster tendencies. But if the worst you could say about a city is that the restaurants know the provenance and name of every chicken they serve, it can’t be too bad. Our plan was to get a campervan and drive up and down the west coast under limitless blue skies. Obama was president and Oregon had just legalised cannabis. Where was the hitch?

We moved in August 2015, and some of the city lived up to the stereotypes. There were adverts for yoga with goats and yoga with weed. We went to the popular 24-hour Voodoo Doughnut store and tried flavours with names like Dirt and Pothole. But there was a lot I didn’t know about the city – and living in America, too.

The first surprise was the lack of non-white people. I later discovered that the 2010 census found Portland to be the whitest big city in the US. When our daughter started daycare, she came home and said she didn’t like her brown skin; she wanted to be white like the other kids. She was three. I felt like a fool for moving her out of a city where she would have been surrounded by people who look like her.

Living in Portland was also the first time I felt noticed for being in a mixed-race marriage. In rural Oregon, where you now regularly see Trump signs and bumper stickers, it’s become an unsaid agreement between my husband and I that I get out of the car as little as possible. He goes into the gas stations; he checks us into motels. I was horrified but not surprised when, during the fires, armed vigilantes set up “checkpoints” in small towns – claiming they were worried about “antifa looting”. They stopped drivers and asked them to identify themselves.

I write all of this as a brown person and a recent transplant. Racism for black people in Portland is far more pervasive and damaging. It’s visible in housing policy, police brutality and who gets to work where. In 1859, when Oregon joined the union, it was the only state to explicitly ban all black people living there. That legacy of racism has cast a long shadow. As recently as the 1990s, lenders in the state engaged in redlining (not giving people loans and mortgages because of where they live – which mainly affected the city’s small black population). There continues to be de facto racial segregation in schools. But, until this summer, Portland’s white population didn’t talk about it much.

Then in May, Portland, like many other cities, held nightly Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. Thousands of people gathered in predominantly peaceful protests, but small groups who damaged property grabbed headlines and the president’s attention. In July, federal police were sent in to stop “the riots”, and acting homeland secretary Chad Wolf described Portland as a “city under siege”. Protesters were snatched off the street by unmarked police cars, teargassed and charged with no warning. Trump described Portland as a “beehive of terrorists,” labelling protesters “professional anarchists” and “people that hate our country”.

But from my home, that’s not how it looked. The “riots” were confined to a couple of blocks downtown, and the protesters were not threatening Portlanders. We took our seven-year-old to family friendly protests.

Meanwhile, the police were threatening. They shot my husband’s friend in the face with a rubber bullet while he was wearing a press vest. Four mothers I know were gassed on different nights. A neighbour was pulled out of his car and had his leg hit with a baton. The militarisation and lack of accountability – when our taxes support the police to protect us – does not make this a city I feel safe in.

I was also terrified by the “counter-protesters”. The Proud Boys, a violent, neo-fascist group, held an armed rally 10 minutes from our house a few Saturdays ago. I incessantly checked Twitter to monitor their movements. In the end, they had a turnout of just a thousand compared to their projected 10,000. Still, I’d be more encouraged by the rally’s failure if the president hadn’t subsequently told them to “stand by” during the first presidential debate.

Portland came up numerous times in that debate, never for its artsy quaintness. The moderator quizzed Joe Biden on how he would handle the city’s “riots”. President Trump pointed to it as an example of a radical left-run city in need of “law and order”.

***

When Trump first came to power, I naively hoped he’d be too lazy, too narcissistic to put into effect policies that would really dismantle the country. But the assaults on immigration and healthcare were swift. Then, in 2018, our daughter’s first year in school, a student at a Florida school shot and killed 17 of his classmates. The scale of the massacre and the president’s further embrace of the National Rifle Association were impossible to understand. On a personal level, having our five-year-old come home and tell us she hid in a cupboard during an active shooter drill was a punch to the gut.

Another day she came home and said, “This kid said that the president puts kids in cages but that’s not true, right?” A feeling was growing inside of me that, yes, it was our choice to be here – but did we have to stay? When Trump talked on the TV or radio, she started asking to turn it off. The hidden anxieties of living in the US were mounting.

Because my husband and I were both freelance, we had to take out a health insurance policy. Through Obamacare, we paid $750 a month. This covered seeing our GP, but not emergency room visits; policy coverage differs wildly and is dizzying to navigate.

One Saturday evening, our daughter came up in hives. At the hospital, they took our insurance details, recorded her vitals, gave her some antihistamine and a remote control, and she lay in bed and watched Frozen. She was fine and we were relieved. As we were leaving, the doctor brought out paperwork and I asked how much it would cost; she blinked and said our insurance company would be in touch. A week later, we got a bill for $600. I had to reprogramme my British mindset; we learned to avoid the emergency room.

In May, I looked on in envy as the UK expressed outrage at Dominic Cummings’ covert Durham trip, while the US government had failed to muster any kind of national response. Politicians didn’t have to hide cross-country trips. Trump was proudly appearing on TV to reject the science. I watched the UK’s first curve drop as the US’s continued to rise. The question grew bigger: do we still need to be here?

Portland’s local government took matters into its own hands and locked down with little resistance. Rates of Covid-19 infection have remained relatively low. The city’s lack of density, too, has felt comforting. Yet the sadness mounts when you’re watching a preventable nationwide death toll rise beyond 200,000, with millions losing their jobs.

It was after a postcard-perfect, reception-free camping trip this August that my husband and I started to talk in earnest about returning to London. Driving back from Oregon’s fir-lined lakes and mountains with a kayak strapped to our roof, I became consumed by the anxiety of living in a US city in 2020.

On a micro scale, we’ve made a happy life. What I love most about living in America is the feeling of possibility. Get in your car and you can drive for days through deserts, ghost towns, canyons, glaciers. We’ve spotted brown bears and bald eagles, driven around tornadoes, spent eight straight hours gripped to the wheel on icy snow. And in general, I find people less judgmental and cynical than in the UK.

But as we emerged back into phone reception, I saw my best friend Maggie had posted a selfie in a helmet, goggles and mask. She’d been at a Black Lives Matter protest when, without warning, the police had teargassed her and other protesters. “I couldn’t breathe, it felt like glass entering my lungs, I vomited,” she wrote. On the rest of the drive home, my husband and I talked through what it would mean to pack up and start life again in London.

I know how lucky we are to have options: everyone I know wants an escape plan. But I feel sad thinking about it. I feel cowardly not to stay and fight. Many Portlanders are organising furiously for change, and the city’s demographics also seem to be shifting.

I decided I needed to leave over the election period. The paralysing fear of the unknown outcome became too much, in a country I can’t even vote in. I am in London now, quarantining in my old bedroom in my parents’ attic. I usually regress to teenage ways when I stay here, but this time I feel I am unfurling. We’re spending our days doing online school, and for the first time since the pandemic began, I’m able to give over enough of my brain to help my daughter learn.

Of course, the UK has its own problems, too. But I am physically and mentally relieved to be distanced from white supremacists carrying guns on the streets, the threat of pandemic-related medical debt, and the specific cruelty of the Trump administration. We have a return ticket booked; we just have to decide if we’ll use it.