Late Friday night into early Saturday, young, predominantly white looters smashed and grabbed their way through downtown Portland, Oregon, seriously injuring an Apple Store in the process. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had to leave his dying mother to deal with this mess, and although Sarah Iannarone is my first choice for mayor and anyone else's name I pull from a hat is my second, I feel for the guy.

However, he did tweet something that irritated me.

This happened in Portland, so it's obviously very Portland. We are the sum of our actions. I would also argue that people make up a city and a community, not businesses or property. Portland recently shut down non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the conservatives who claim such life-preserving actions “killed" cities are wrong. People are what matter, and Portland, despite its liberal cred, has never placed great value in black lives.

White residents of Portland and other liberal cities outside the South are likely to claim racism doesn't exist there or at least they've never witnessed it. Not even an Alabama Trump supporter with a Confederate flag on their truck would make that claim with a straight face. Clueless racial naïveté is Portland's true legacy.

Raw video: Portland police officers kneel with protesters

When Oregon entered the Union in 1859, just a couple years before the Civil War, it was the only state to outright forbid black people from living there. Just 100 years ago, Oregon "had the highest per capita [Klu Klux Klan] membership in the country." There were only 2,000 black Oregonians at the time. They must've each had their own personal Klansman, like a Big Brother or Big Sister, but racist.

Democrat Walter M. Pierce, a racist and eugenicist, was elected governor in 1922 with open Klan support. There are photos of the Portland chief of police, sheriff, district attorney, US attorney, and mayor posing with Klansmen. After World War II, Mayor Earl Riley declared that Portland could "absorb only a minimum number of Negroes without upsetting the city's regular life."

"Whites-only" signs were in Portland stores well into the 1960s. Black residents were subjected to redlining, predatory lending, and racist outcomes even during Wheeler's lifetime.

In 1981, black owners of a Northeast Portland soul food diner, the Burger Barn, sued the city after two police officers dumped dead possums outside the restaurant as a “prank." Burger Barn closed a while back, and Northeast is now a hipster paradise if you overlook that I live there. This isn't ancient history. It's not even history. It's still happening.

From The Atlantic:

A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.

So Portland more than deserves a kick in the ass from pissed off black folks, but we weren't the ones acting out this weekend. Wheeler's tweet sounds as if he's lecturing black Portlanders, reminding us to “honor the legacy of George Floyd." What does that even mean? He has shown no interest in confronting militarized police methods or the over-policing that results in needless deaths like Floyd's. Just last week, Wheeler had to apologize for a "testy exchange" with Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, who's black, and Chloe Eudaly, who's named “Chloe." Hardesty and Eudaly criticized Police Bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team for stopping blacks more frequently than people of other races. Wheeler snapped at them and condescendingly noted that they referred to the unit by its former name, the Gang Enforcement Team ... like nerds.

But Wheeler is apparently ready to listen now. Here's his tweet from Sunday.

That's swell. It'd be nice if we had a mayor who knew all this at least a half dozen dead black people ago. George Floyd's “legacy" should be more than inspiring powerful white people to read a history book.

However, the people looting downtown Portland aren't victims of systemic injustice. They are predominantly white. Most black protesters were by all accounts peaceful. White “brocalists" hate cops but that doesn't mean they love black people. They don't care about George Floyd. They jump at any opportunity to tear shit up.

These looters will steal from innocent small businesses, so they feel no shame in stealing the spotlight from Ford's death and black people's lives.

[Willamette Week / The Atlantic]

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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