On June 30 another sad chapter was added to the city of Portland’s long history of public violence when antifa and far-right protestors clashed at a downtown rally that began with a police permit but was soon declared a riot. It was the second time in a month that demonstrators from these two groups had met in public protests that turned violent; the earlier and smaller event dispersed after police made four arrests.
Portland is a city that claims to promote diversity of opinion, but also has a dark side, with a continuing history of racism and fear of “the other.” Black neighborhoods have been destroyed, starting with the building of a freeway in the late 1950s and through continuing gentrification ever since. But finally this fall, we will move toward a more representative city government with the election of the first woman of color to the city council. Immigrants have been murdered, as in the killing of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, in 1988 and also welcomed, as in the public schools, where about 25 percent of students overall come from homes where English is not the first language.
Perhaps it is this very polarity between opposing value systems that attracts clashes such as the one on June 30. Each side can be sure of having its opposite on hand as an audience.
Free speech is what both groups of demonstrators claimed they wanted to defend. And, indeed, the right to free speech is a part of our nation that almost all of us cherish. But what does that mean?
Speech implies a listener. And to get listeners to really hear our message, we have to imagine at least a little of what they are thinking and then present our ideas effectively so that they will be heard. In short, our message has to be given with our audience in mind, or our ideas will be lost in a fog of anger. June 30 was not a dialog, merely a shouting match.
In other settings, Portlanders are communicating across the divide. Portland Equity in Action, a community action group, put up 25 billboards this spring with anti-racist messages. One says, “Portland, is your white fragility showing?” Another includes a photo of Larnell Bruce, Jr, who died in a Portland suburb in 2016 at age 19 when a driver with ties to white supremacist groups chased him and struck him with a car. This billboard includes the statistic that Oregon is home to 21 active white supremacist groups. Each time a passerby sees one of these billboards, a message is conveyed, to be considered in the quiet of the observer’s own thoughts.
As another example, Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives provides affordable rentals and purchases in neighborhoods devastated by gentrification; preference is given to those with historic ties to the neighborhood. This program is moving discouragingly slowly, but it has the potential to gradually restore some of inner Portland’s diversity.
These examples are especially cogent because they seem so minor, inconsequential even, when taken against the drama of riots and tweets. Yet only with such small, slow steps can we resist the tyranny of the sensational and move toward lasting change. It’s time to get back to the day-to-day job of creating a just society: making phone calls, getting out the vote, attending meetings, supporting our elected officials, writing, talking – and listening. Sorry, I know you’re angry – I am too – but real change takes hard work.
Nancy Dollahite is the author of Field Notes from Sichuan: Learning to Be a Foreigner, to be published by Blue Ear Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon.