A predominantly white city tucked away in the northwest corner of the USA hardly seems the logical spot to emerge as the new flashpoint of the protests against racism and police brutality that have raged across the country for nearly two months.
Then again, both Portland and its home state of Oregon have a troubled past that animates the demonstrations, in their eighth week.
Add to that a president sinking in the polls and eager to rally his base behind a vow to “dominate the streets” in an election year, and suddenly, Portland has been thrust into the national spotlight for something other than quirkiness.
Experts said the unrequested and unwelcome arrival of federal law enforcement agents in recent weeks and their violent confrontations with protesters in the city’s downtown rekindled a movement that had been simmering down.
The Oregonian/OregonLive reported more than 2,000 people, many of them belonging to parent groups, protested the federal intervention Monday night and into Tuesday morning. The officers guarding a federal courthouse responded with gas and less-lethal munitions during a midnight confrontation that lasted nearly an hour, the news outlet said.
Oregon’s governor, U.S. senators and numerous other elected officials demanded the federal agents be withdrawn, deeming their deployment an infringement on the state’s rights and a blatant political maneuver by President Donald Trump.
“I think Trump wants to have this open and showy use of force,’’ said Joe Lowndes, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. “In terms of a flagging presidential campaign, this is the way to fire up his base. It’s not as if they’re doing this on the sly. I think it’s meant as a very public show of – the term he would use is ‘dominance.’ ”
For all the outrage and questions of constitutionality the federal action in Portland evoked, the demonstrations that began in the city shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police May 25 may be more deeply rooted in the state’s racist history than in recent events.
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Oregon’s territorial constitution adopted in November 1857 – less than two years before it became a state – barred people of color from coming within its borders. It wasn’t until 1926 that the provision was repealed. Oregon imposed a tax on people of color in 1862, and racial exclusion laws and bans on interracial marriages were on the books for decades, the latter until 1951.
“That kind of set the template for what, many decades to come afterward, forms the racial exclusion, anti-Black hostility, housing covenants in Portland, Eugene and other cities that make it difficult for Black people to move in and work in Oregon,” Lowndes said. “It’s a white state by design.”
Moms take action: 'Wall of moms' at Portland protest formed to protect demonstrators
According to an estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019, 87% of Oregon’s population of 4.2 million is white and only 2% Black. Portland is not much more diverse: Whites make up 77% of its population of 655,000, and Blacks 5.8%. Latinos account for 9.7% of the total, and their growing presence has evoked some resentment.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, who teaches history at Oregon State University and splits time between the school’s base in Corvallis and Portland, said the long trail of discrimination in Oregon informed the protests in a liberal city long known for its activism.
He said the rallies had tapered down, describing them as “peaceful, benign and boring” – until the feds took action. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown told PBS the actions of “Trump’s troops” were “simply like pouring gasoline on a fire.”
Nichols said a fellow history professor from another college, Maureen Healy, was hit by one of the rounds fired by federal agents Monday night.
“There had been local activists who kept the fire burning, and now with the federal agents coming in, we’ve seen a reignition of the fire,” Nichols said. “I mean that both literally in terms of the unfortunate violence, but also figuratively because people are getting more excited and enthusiastic.”
Nichols pinned much of the blame for the animus from the crowds on heavy-handed tactics by the police department, which he said has a culture influenced by racism even though two of its past three chiefs were Black, as is the current one, Chuck Lovell.
The department drew intense criticism for its use of tear gas, high-decibel alarms and projectiles in handling demonstrations. The department endured a high amount of turnover at the top. In early June, Lovell became its third police chief in less than six months.
Saturday, protesters lit a fire and sprayed graffiti on the building of the police union.
“Most protesters would tell you that the Portland Police Bureau has continued to exacerbate tension, that their escalation has been a big part of why that activism and protests have continued,” Nichols said. “And one more thing that’s really alarming is Portland police are now back doing more of this kind of escalation, almost keeping up with the Joneses of the federal forces in there.”
Nichols said the heated clashes with police and/or federal agents are limited to a small part of downtown, in contrast to statements by Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that Portland is “under siege” by “violent anarchists.”
The city of Portland has been under siege for 47 days straight by a violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city. @DHSgov stands ready to assist to bring this violent activity to an end. https://t.co/TgqY6yqFM1
— Acting Secretary Chad Wolf (@DHS_Wolf) July 16, 2020
He said the demonstrations have broad-based support in Oregon’s largest city, but some said that’s not nearly enough to heal the deep wounds inflicted by decades of discrimination.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center – which provides legal services to people impacted by the criminal justice system – said the state will have to confront its history of injustice to overcome its “original sin” of white supremacy.
That goes beyond anything that’s happening in the streets of Portland.
“It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Trump is to blame,’ ” Singh said. “But unless Oregon engages in self-reflection and actually understands how all these systems have been complicit in sustaining white supremacy … we’re never going to be able to move forward.”
Even though Oregon is led by a Democratic governor and legislature, a white nationalist ideology remains prominent, said Singh, whose organization is involved in litigation against the city of Portland and its police department. The Ku Klux Klan is still active in Oregon, as are far-right groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.
The latter is based in the Portland area, which doesn’t exactly bring to mind the comically progressive ethos depicted in the TV show "Portlandia."
“Oregon is unique in that it’s viewed as being left of center, progressive, but when we really look at all this racial justice stuff, we are as bad as any other state you would stereotype from the South, or that have all these long historic racial justice problems that are better known,” Singh said. “But Oregon has this very dark history the country doesn’t know.”
Now that protests are drawing attention, that history is coming to light.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland protests fueled by Oregon's 'very dark history' of racism