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Opinion: Making space for the protests and the issues behind them

Posted by on July 23rd, 2020 at 6:33 pm

At last night’s protest this man shared his story about his grandparents living in Vanport (which he said was “just like Katrina”), growing up in now-gentrified northeast Portland, and how apartments near his old home rent for $2,000 a month.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Hello BikePortlanders.

Mayor Ted Wheeler at the wall in front of the Federal Courthouse last night.

It’s been difficult for me to give my full attention to bicycling and transportation-related news for a while now. To say there are a lot of important things going on is an understatement. And yes, because I bleed bike grease, I can tie almost anything back to cycling if I really want to.

But this is not one of those times.

The racist, unfair, white supremacist policies that underpin nearly every aspect of how most Portlanders live, how our city is run and how it was built, are being examined with a ferocity that has sparked an historic nationwide movement with our city as its epicenter. Many people, myself included, are outraged at the answers to many difficult and necessary questions that should have been asked long before George Floyd was killed. Racial, social, and economic inequality are rife and people are sick and tired of how the system leaves so many people — especially Black and other people of color — behind.

The outrage has grown because our Portland Police Bureau and unaccountable federal troops have brutally and violently lashed out against innocent, non-violent protestors for nearly two months now — and the person in a position to protect us against them, Mayor Ted Wheeler, has not done enough to stop them.

Writer and educator Lilith Sinclair gave an impromptu speech as close to Mayor Wheeler (upper left) as they could, hoping to drown out his interview. Sinclair is an ardent critic of Wheeler and believes in complete abolition of the police (among other things).

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Not only has Mayor Wheeler failed to rein in the police, his disrespectful and tone-deaf attitude about the people who attend these protests set the stage for Donald Trump to send his cronies and mercenaries into our city. As you’ve seen in the news, their plan to “quell” the “violent anarchists” in Portland has failed miserably.

Last night Mayor Wheeler finally returned to the streets to face the protestors and the violence. After 55 days of protests, this was just Wheeler’s second visit. He was taunted and heckled incessantly. The anger that has built up over weeks of being gassed and shot at by Wheeler’s troops boiled over. He spoke to many people and was given the chance to make a speech on the stage in front of thousands. “When they launch the tear gas at you, they launch the tear gas at me!” he proclaimed. He then began to leave before the gassing started. He walked slowly toward City Hall, stopping to answer questions from his constituents, then changed course after he seemed to acquiesce to chanted demands to stand at the wall in front of the U.S. Courthouse.

And there he stood, withstanding a barrage of gas clouds and flash bangs as he continued to talk to reporters and get grilled by activists.

Wheeler coughs and one of his security personnel winces in a cloud of gas.

Wheeler now knows what the gas and Trump-sanctioned violence feels like. That’s new. The stinging criticisms from those of us tired of his incrementalism are not.

Will the dramatic events of last night lead to a shift in his tone and actions around the protests and the issues that sparked them? That remains to be seen. What I do know is I’m not waiting for him and I’ll continue to support these protests and help build community power with or without Wheeler in the mayor’s office.

Whose streets? Our streets!

UPDATE: Wheeler just posted about last night on Twitter. His words are extremely underwhelming.

___

How are you feeling about the protests and your own journey through these confusing, enlightening, inspiring and anxious times? I’d love to hear from you and I’m happy to answer questions about any of my views expressed here in the comments below.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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XAlan 1.0Hello, KittyXEl Biciclero Recent comment authors
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Becky Jo (Columnist)
Member

Thank you for writing about this. As we say in the sewing and knitting worlds, racism is here too. It doesn’t stop when you pick up your fabric/needles/bike, so we must talk about it. I applaud you, with the most power on this site, for opening the door. Racism causes inequities where bike lanes & traffic calming devices are placed and we all know it.

In my house, we don’t shy away from these topics, we donate money, & the only families I’ve offered to “pod” with this fall are single moms who have kids that are of mixed race.

Thank you for taking on this responsibility. I know, you don’t need a pat on the back for doing what you’re supposed to do, but you might like to hear it all the same.

Fred
Guest
Fred

I agree with Becky Jo about the pervasiveness of racism and the need to call it out and work tirelessly to root it out. These efforts are the most important thing going on in Portland right now.

But I’m also struggling to see how the protests, including Mayor Ted’s involvement, are connected to cycling in Portland. You do your best work, JM, when you maintain your focus on cycling, esp the involvement of communities of color in cycling in Portland. How about hiring some correspondents to color to write about, or vlog about, their experiences of cycling in Portland?

Peejay
Subscriber
Peejay

As they say: ALL lives can’t matter until BLACK lives matter. Bike issues can’t be understood without thinking about the lives of people who are present and future users of bikes, or of the people who exist and (try to) breathe in the community in which people who ride bikes live. Just as “Stick to sports” sounds increasingly ridiculous as a response to athletes speaking up on social issues, so too does the idea that Jonathan should “stick to bikes”.

I’d love to hear about a new safe bike lane project getting installed, or an interesting but not-well-known trail in the area, but I honestly can’t think about that while our house is on fire.

Racer X
Guest

Time to update that famous 00s Portland bike top tube sticker: “Bush Pepper Sprayed My Baby”

…will now read: “Trump Teargassed Wheeler, No One Cried”

https://www.portlandmercury.com/news/police-pepper-sprayed-my-baby/Content?oid=27483

Roberta
Guest
Roberta

Article nailed with comment above and now I’m LOL crying!

Dooely
Guest
Dooely

Meanwhile Sarah is probably hiding in Charlie Hales’ bunker.

chris m
Guest
chris m

Good piece, I agree that this is touching every piece of the city right now so this is a good use of your forum and reach.

Only thing I take issue with (and this is pretty common across everything I read) is the characterization that Wheeler is actually in control of the officers on the beat. It’s been a pretty disturbing pattern across the country that political leaders are afraid to cross police unions because they are nervous about a coup. This seems to be the case in Minneapolis, where Bob Kroll from the union is basically running things, and also in NYC where De Blasio is terrified of the PBA and SBA. From everything I can tell, it’s also the case here: Wheeler is not advocating constant use of tear gas but he has no control of the department.

This isn’t meant to be a defense of Wheeler, he is clearly in over his head, and also seems to be trying to take a “middle ground” position where there isn’t one. He is also using the Feds as an “escape route” to find common ground with the protestors even though he has real power to do something.

The reason I want to caution about the claiming the Mayor is in control of the situation is that even if Wheeler changes or is defeated, the work of gutting the police union and re-gaining control of the department will be brutally difficult work for the Commissioner (whoever that is). There is a good chance it will fail. Civilian leadership has to be prepared for how to handle a protracted semi-strike that could cause crime to go up when they go after the union. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/magazine/baltimore-tragedy-crime.html

X
Guest
X

This is far too generous and not telling the whole story. That “Trump continued what Wheeler started” sign could only be more true if it said “Trump and Wheeler continued what Wheeler started”. Ted Wheeler is the head of PPB. He has been overseeing an unaccountable, racist police force for his entire term. When the protests started, he was eager to bring all of this upon us, and didn’t listen for shit for 40 days before Trump showed up. But now, when it’s far too late, he shows up for an absolute publicity stunt. PPB is colluding and participating in this violence. I don’t consider myself “in the know” about all of PPB’s BS that Wheeler is directly responsible for, but even I can immediately recognize the incompleteness and lack of teeth to this story.

Sidenote: Ted Wheeler is the goddamn worst. If white Portland really wanted to take the anti-racist path forward, they would have supported Teressa Raiford for mayor when they had the chance. If Sarah Iannarone were really the “justice candidate”, she should have dropped out and thrown her entire apparatus behind Raiford.

I appreciate that you’re covering this stuff now, but maybe you should offer more space to voices who might cover it more completely (and compensate them well). A shift in tone from gentle disappointment in Wheeler to actively naming the racist impacts of his actions (and inaction) would be great. You may or may not have the analysis to do that, so bring in some new voices if need be.

Adam
Guest
Adam

I was there too. It is misleading to call this a nonviolent protest. As you say often, word choice matters. People are doing what they feel is needed to get their voices heard. For some it involves the largest fireworks they can find, starting sizeable fires, and damaging building unrelated to the protest. Some of the people I talked to said they would burn the federal building to the ground if they only got the chance. One of the people up front with the megaphone made the statement, “If someone is throwing bricks, let them. Stay Unified.” This protest is many things and many of those are good. However, it is not nonviolent.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

It’s up to the good apples to get rid of the bad apples. Or we can just abolish protesting since the violence seems to systemically occur.

Peejay
Subscriber
Peejay

Yes, of course we can. Once the Police get rid of their bad apples.

Also, let’s make a distinction between violence and property crime. One group is painting and breaking things. One group is breaking and taking bodies. When you equate the two, you devalue human life.

Peejay
Subscriber
Peejay

I want to be clear that I meant the first sentence of my last post in jest. Abolishing protesting is kind of against the constitution. Actually, it’s definitely against the constitution.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Is it possible to condemn both violence and property crime while at the same time acknowledging they are different things? Or to condemn police violence and without justifying property crime against people who have no connection to the police?

Do we have to pick one group to be “right” and another to be “wrong”, or can we acknowledge that there is considerable ambiguity and that no party as a monopoly on any particular moral claim?

X
Guest
X

You can find “good apples” in the crowd any night. Protest is one of our earliest traditions and the primary burden of our founding documents. If the federal courthouse is ever restored to its former blanditude we’ll be able to see again the quotation from Thomas Jefferson: “…the boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave…”

Waves, indeed.

I’ve seen that carving on the wall many times but just today discovered its true irony. It’s taken from his explanation in a letter to Lafayette about how human happiness would in fact be increased if chattel slavery of human beings were to be allowed in additional states newly admitted to the union. That’s a hell of a thing to put on a US courthouse in the late 20th century.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

And if you read even more of the letter, you’d see that Jefferson referred to slavery as “evil” and saw permitting it in western states was a way of diluting the power of slaveholders and thus a means to ending the practice. The happiness he referred to was that of the enslaved.

Whether his analysis was correct or not is something for historians to argue about, but his was not a “pro-slavery” letter.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

Valid point about the quote, but his respected contemporary Lafayette even told him, “WTF, dude?!

X
Guest
X

Yes he did, and then he thought about it a while and wrote another letter which said ‘and furthermore, WTFingF?’

X
Guest
X

Jefferson had a peculiar way of addressing the issue of slavery. In discussion he was kind of against it. IRL it was awkward for him to be anti-slavery because his slaves made him rich and he liked beimg rich. That bit about slaves feeling better if they were dispersed into the territory where there were not so many other people in their condition of being compelled to work by force, whipping, manacles, immediate threat to their lives, seeing their families sent or sold away, rape…really?

Are you defending TJ here? My point is, whoever picked those words to put on a federal courthouse made a serious mistake, or anyway I hope it was a mistake. Knowing what we know about Jefferson, the context is damning.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

At the risk of being too general and also of exaggerating, this moment feels like America’s “tear down that wall!” decision time. There is no literal wall, only the wall of past and current policies and power structures that stand in the way of true justice for all Americans. Without a literal wall, and without two distinct governments to unify, how will we know when the “wall” is down?

Keeping with my perhaps overstated analogy, it won’t be enough to allow privileged representatives of either “side” free access through our figurative “Checkpoint Charlie”; the wall has to be removed. Thinking about what that might look like is scary for many. I wouldn’t anticipate (although with Trump at the wheel, many things I wouldn’t have anticipated seem to be happening…) the same kind of governmental upheaval as occurred in eastern Europe in ’89, but there are some government/social structures that will have to be dismantled and rebuilt/reimagined, and people who are part of those structures, e.g., Portland’s mayor and police force—and many white folks, just in general—might understandably feel like “doing the right thing” means walking into the flames never to be seen again. Self-annihilation is not on too many folks’ daily checklist, hence the “incrementalism” we tend to see. People in power always seem to want to do just enough to calm the masses, but not upset the status quo. I would expect to see several token actions taken as “gestures”, but not anything that would truly result in noticeable change.

So what can we possibly do to right the ship without all-out civil war? Especially when there are far-right, ahem, “Patriot” groups who would love nothing more? Can we vote our way to enough change? Is the momentum of the status quo too great to overcome? Do we wait until Trump declares himself President and Dictator for Life, Calvin and Hobbes-style? (I hope not, it’s cartoonish enough already). What meaningful action can actually be taken that will have real results? How can that action be sustained long enough for results to materialize? Again, how will we know when any desirable “results” have been achieved?

I think the most frustrating thing for me, speaking as a white person, is that accurate accounts of what is going on have historically been obfuscated. In the words of Pontius Pilate, “what is truth?”. How can truth be communicated to people like me in a way that opens eyes rather than shuts down minds? My personal feeling is that most white folks have been duped by generations of “education” and folklore into believing that The System is already fair and impartial, and everybody in America gets a fair shake if they just work hard enough. Anyone who finds themselves at the margins, then, is just a lazy ne’er-do-well. Then when we see mostly people of color (pardon my simplistic categorization) in those margins, we can shake our heads and imagine…well, imagine. To find out the system that has worked so well for you has been propped up by rank injustice and sold with (literal) white-washed deception can be shocking. Realizing the firm foundation of “liberty and justice for all” is kind of a crumbling stage set rather than anything real is fundamentally deeply disturbing for a very large number of people—and they will actively refuse to hear it, let alone believe it. To get people to the point of believing it and asking themselves, “so, what do we do to fix it?” would be a huge victory, but that victory can only be had in a world where truth is distinguishable from fiction. Sadly, our current national “leadership” has been working tirelessly to make that impossible (to be fair, so have countless power-mongers that have come before, but still).

To borrow a phrase, this is truly a battle for “hearts and minds”, and there is a juggernaut of a propaganda machine fighting for the status quo. How can folks get the message across in a way that will be believed? How can we get white folks especially to understand that “these things are happening; it doesn’t necessarily mean you did them, but they are happening and you must help fix it, even if you don’t feel like you did it.”? We need stories. We need eyewitness accounts. We need believable information that describes the ugly truth. To a certain extent, we need an “incrementalism” of sorts to lead people one step at a time into understanding the reality of what is happening, so that the bold changes that are needed become obvious. Belief is a fulcrum on which many levers can rest; we have to create that fulcrum before leverage can be applied. Is it possible? I don’t know. But without it, people are imagining the worst and allowing fear to dictate the agenda. The possible results of that are truly frightening.