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How Portland's Racist History Informs Today's Protests

Jul 30, 2020
Originally published on July 31, 2020 3:56 pm

The arrival of federal agents in Portland three weeks ago to crack down on racial justice protests fueled tensions there, and helped push the city to the forefront of coverage of the nation's racial justice movement.

As one of the whitest big cities in the America, Portland's outsize role in the nationwide protests may strike some as surprising.

Oregon has a long history of entrenched racism, dating back to its statehood in 1859, when the state constitution barred Black people from entering or living there. Yet the recent protests in Portland are part of another long history of black and white Oregonians combating that lingering racism, says Lisa Bates, an associate professor of urban studies at Portland State University.

"As much as there is far-right activity in Oregon and Portland, there's also left activity," Bates says. "There's also always been a left movement here, and a history of pretty significant protests."

She points to the white anti-racist movements and the "Abolish ICE" protests in 2018.

"Portland is known as 'Little Beirut' because of its tendency toward uprising," she says.

Here are excerpts from Bates' interview on All Things Considered.

While many people think of the Ku Klux Klan as a Southern phenomenon, it had a huge presence in Oregon in the early 20th century. Tell us about that.

In the Portland area, many of the elected leaders, sheriffs, etc., were active members of the KKK, and that history of white nationalist organizing has persisted. In the '80s and '90s, Oregon was seen as a white homeland for people who believed in the idea of a racial holy war, and there are settlements throughout the state of people who are pursuing that kind of white homeland idea.

How has that deep legacy of racism played out in the last few decades?

After that history, we might wonder how did Black people really end up living in Portland. Black folks are about 6% of Portland's population, and many of these are families who were brought to work in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, and after World War II remained in the city — despite ongoing civil rights battles, particularly around police.

I would point to a couple of significant incidents in the 1980s where Portland police officers dumped dead possums on the door of a Black-owned business. In the mid-1980s, after [police killed] a Black man, [Lloyd] "Tony" Stevenson, with a chokehold, the chokehold was banned and the police union distributed T-shirts to officers that said "Smoke 'Em, Don't Choke 'Em," with the image of a gun.

Do you see these protests today as a direct outgrowth of, or reaction to, the long history of racism and white supremacy that has been the building blocks of Oregon history?

For some people, yes. I think that we've had a number of protests over 15 years here about the problem of white supremacy in institutions, and of course that's at the center of what's happening today.

Over the past two months, I've seen marches for Black trans lives, we've had movement around Black victims of intimate partner violence. There are actions happening here almost every day, not all of which are focused around the [Multnomah County] Justice Center and the federal [Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse], because there's movement-building that's happening — from youth to elders among Black, indigenous and other people of color here, as well as allies and accomplices.

Christopher Intagliata and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today federal officers begin to withdraw from downtown Portland under a deal between Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Trump administration. Things have been tense since federal agents arrived three weeks ago to crack down on racial justice protests. City leaders hope this will defuse tensions. Portland's central role in this racial justice movement may surprise some people because

Portland is one of the whitest big cities in the U.S. Oregon was founded on white supremacist principles, and the state has a long history of entrenched racism. For some context, Portland State University urban studies professor Lisa Bates joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LISA BATES: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So white supremacy was literally written into Oregon's state constitution in the 1850s. What did that look like in practice?

BATES: Well, when the settlers came to Oregon, obviously they were, on the first place, engaged in a very brutal war against Indigenous people here and also did bring enslaved Black people to help clear land and create farms. But the idea was that once you had established yourself that you would remove those people...

SHAPIRO: Black people were literally not allowed in the state.

BATES: Right. No Black person or Asian person - of course, that wasn't the term that they used at the time - could live in the state.

SHAPIRO: And moving forward in time, while many people think of the KKK as a southern phenomenon, it had a huge presence in Oregon in the early 20th century. Tell us about that.

BATES: In the Portland area, many of the elected leaders - sheriffs, et cetera - were active members of the KKK. And that history of white nationalist organizing has persisted. In the '80s and '90s, Oregon was seen as a white homeland for people who believe in the idea of a racial holy war. And there are settlements throughout the state of people who are pursuing that kind of white homeland idea.

SHAPIRO: So how has that deep legacy of racism played out in, say, the last 50 years or the last few decades?

BATES: So after that history, we might wonder how did Black people really end up living in Portland. Black folks are about 6% of Portland's population. And many of these are families who were brought to work in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II and after World War II remained in the city despite just ongoing civil rights battles and particularly around police. I mean, I guess I would point to a couple of significant incidents in the 1980s where Portland police officers dumped dead opossums on the door of a Black-owned business in the mid-1980s after killing a Black man, Tony Stevenson, with a chokehold. The chokehold was banned, and the police union distributed T-shirts to officers that said, smoke them, don't choke them, with the image of a gun.

SHAPIRO: Do you see these protests today as a direct outgrowth of or reaction to the long history of racism and white supremacy that has been the building blocks of Oregon history?

BATES: For some people, yes. I think that we've had a number of protests over 15 years here about the problem of white supremacy in institutions. And of course that's at the center of what's happening today. Over the past two months, I've seen marches for Black trans lives. We've had movement around Black victims of intimate partner violence. There are actions happening here almost every day, not all of which are focused around the Justice Center and the federal courthouse because there is movement building that's happening from youth to elders among Black, Indigenous and other people of color here, as well as allies and accomplices.

SHAPIRO: Lisa Bates teaches urban studies and planning at Portland State University. Thank you for talking with us today.

BATES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY'S "STARLIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.