Sunrise Beaverton brings Portland-style, confrontational activism to the suburbs
As voters brace for a slate of contentious elections, the Beaverton mayoral race among them, emerging youth organizations like Sunrise Beaverton are harnessing youth frustration to push for new candidates and new policies, sometimes using combative methods.
On July 28, a video from Sunrise Beaverton, a youth activist group engaged with climate change and police reform in Beaverton, drew attention on Facebook and Twitter. The video captured Pedro Evenezer, one of Sunrise Beaverton's organizers, confronting Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, who was entering city hall flanked by three city police officers.
"Why is the City Council having a three-week summer break in the middle of a global pandemic?" Evenezer asked.
Doyle, who was wearing a medical mask, offered a brief reply, mentioning ongoing community outreach relating to racial justice that the city was conducting. As Evenezer pressed for a more specific response, two of the officers, both of them maskless, got between him and Doyle, leaving Evenezer in a tense conversation with the pair as Doyle was escorted into the city building by the third officer.
"You guys are clearly defending the mayor, protecting him from any public comment," Evenezer said in the video. "Do you perceive me as a threat?"
Demanding comments from public officials while recording them is known as "bird-dogging," a tactic patented by activist causes like the national Sunrise Movement.
For Sunrise Beaverton, bird-dogging is a made-for-social media means of pressuring elected officials into making on-the-record remarks when their public statements have been evasive — or nonexistent. Unlike Portland, however, where direct, recorded confrontations between activists and elected officials are commonplace, city officials in Beaverton are still adjusting to the forceful tactics of young activists.
The divide between longtime suburban city officials and young activists is exemplified in the relationship between elected officials in Beaverton and two of Sunrise Beaverton's head organizers, Diya Balakrishnan, 16, and the 25-year-old Evenezer.
Sunrise Beaverton, which has recently dedicated its organizing efforts to police reform and defunding in Beaverton, isn't always combative. The group organized two informational "teach-ins" on Facebook Live in July and August related to defunding the police and removing school resource officers from schools, and it hosted an open-mic with several guest speakers in July. Its organizers regularly testify at Beaverton City Council meetings, calling for more deliberate, balanced consideration of various police reforms.
But Sunrise Beaverton's social media savvy and willingness to castigate Beaverton officials are unconventional. Its youth energy differs from the long-existing cultural organizations the city typically consults, said Beaverton City Councilor Lacey Beaty, who is challenging Doyle in the mayoral race.
As the organization persists beyond the initial outcry for police reform, the organizers behind Sunrise Beaverton are trying to sustain their own movement, broaden youth engagement with local politics and become a force to be reckoned with in a "sleepy suburb" like Beaverton, Evenezer said.
An expanding platform
While they've benefited from the mass attention devoted to police reform, Sunrise Beaverton didn't start there. Part of the national Sunrise Movement, Sunrise Beaverton began in 2019 as a youth-led movement championing climate action. It's the second Sunrise chapter in the state.
The group is driven by four organizers, with Evenezer and Balakrishan at the helm.
Amy Johnson, 32, and one of the hub's founders, and Maggie Myers, 33, are also part of the team. They say they try to defer leadership to the two younger organizers and support their organizing efforts.
Balakrishan said Sunrise Beaverton found an opening to expand its base when the topic of policing took center stage this May — following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, over which four Minneapolis police officers were fired and are facing prosecution.
With many community events and public meetings canceled or moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunrise Beaverton began posting updates on protests and Beaverton City Council meetings, hosting educational events with guest speakers on Facebook Live, and networking with other organizations.
Having a consistent social media presence became a potent asset for the group, Evenezer said. As young people began seeking news that was approachable and youth-driven, Sunrise Beaverton began to gain more attention from young suburban residents, other movements and from the city itself as organizers shifted the group's focus to police reform in Beaverton.
After crafting demands — starting with passing "8 Can't Wait" policing reforms in Beaverton, and ultimately slashing the city's police budget in exchange for boosting community services — Sunrise Beaverton's leaders began testifying at virtual council meetings and contacting city officials. But as an organization with few pre-established relationships or connections in city institutions, they initially struggled to be heard.
"There was very little opportunity for public comment and public testimony (at previous City Council meetings)," Balakrishan said. "All of us emailed and asked them and said, 'Could you take this opportunity to have a public forum to get testimony?' And they completely brushed us (off)."
While Beaverton, like most public entities in Washington County, offers a limited public comment period at City Council meetings, hosting public forums to allow more extensive testimony — on school resource officers in Beaverton schools, for instance, at an event in late July — took prompting from groups like Sunrise Beaverton and the Beaverton Black Parent Union, as well as from Beaty, the city councilor and mayoral candidate.
The sluggish pace of negotiations frustrated the group, Balakrishan and Evenezer said. They quickly learned to make specific, repetitive requests, anticipate slower change, and balance interactions with the City Council with public education and recruitment.
On Facebook and Twitter, Sunrise Beaverton distills information for followers without a civic background. Many topics the Beaverton City Council addresses receive little media attention, making information-sharing all the more critical, Evenezer said.
Organizers hosted a teach-in explaining a Beaverton School District policy report on SROs and solicited students' testimony on their experiences with SROs.
According to Evenezer, some of those students were encouraged to deliver their testimony to the City Council — a step forward in amplifying young voices in Beaverton, where city politics have historically been dominated by older residents. (Mayor Doyle is in his early 70s.)
Even on the topic of SROs in Beaverton schools, "it was mostly older people engaging with us," Beaty said.
"We struggle in City Council often on getting to the right groups to give feedback on issues we're talking about," she said. "I don't think it's unique to our City Council. I think this is just an issue local governments have."
Sunrise Beaverton still censures elected officials who are "impediments to progress" through social media posts and direct confrontation, Evenezer said.
A desire among Sunrise Beaverton's organizers to hold Beaverton's politicians accountable for perceived inaction spawned more aggressive tactics, like the bird-dogging of Doyle that was widely seen on social media earlier this summer.
"We have tried to play the nice game before and had meetings with elected officials and testified and not done this type of stuff, but none of it really accomplished anything," Balakrishnan said. "It's a way to get noticed by elected officials, just coming up and asking them direct questions."
Sunrise Beaverton has criticized Doyle in particular for not asking questions at City Council meetings and making few public statements. Under a city charter that is expiring at the end of the year, the mayor leads meetings, but he has no vote on the council.
Doyle said his decision not to speak at city council meetings is a deliberate policy. As mayor, he said, he "guides the meetings," but he leaves it to city councilors to ask questions during public business.
As for bird-dogging as a means of igniting conversation, he repeatedly tells Evenezer in recorded videos that the city is focusing on community engagement in other settings such as scheduled meetings with community organizations and listening sessions.
Bird-dogging often stews hostility between Sunrise Beaverton and the officials it targets. During a bird-dogging incident in mid-July, Doyle dismissively waved his hand in the camera's direction and implored Evenezer to turn the camera off, which he refused to do.
Beaty, who was confronted by Evenezer at Beaverton's Juneteenth celebration, acknowledged that recorded confrontations between herself and the public can be uncomfortable, particularly with concerns about privacy and her family's safety. But she said bird-dogging is symptomatic of a larger problem.
"When they're feeling unheard and unanswered, that's part of what's driving this style of activism," Beaty said. "When council continually doesn't respond, this is the likely outcome."
With the tension between Sunrise Beaverton and city officials, the organization has yet to become a source that the Beaverton City Council regularly consults.
The organization is also wading into city and county politics, an effort to install younger, more progressive candidates more amenable to swift progress. Sunrise Beaverton has voiced support for Beaty's candidacy and other progressive candidates in Washington County, and organizers plan to use the Sunrise platform to further those candidates' campaigns.
Risking institutional rejection is worth it if Sunrise Beaverton can retain its ties to the Beaverton community and adhere to its bold vision for change, Evenezer said. Galvanizing community support, he said, will determine the strength of the movement.
"We know that concerned people are out there, and they will see us eventually just by us leading with the bold, transformative vision of what the future could look like," Evenezer said. "There's new people who have never testified to the council who call in and participate. There's new people who've never done political organizing and see what we do and say, 'Hey, this is kind of cool. I'm scared, but can I join y'all?'"
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sunrise Beaverton's relationship to the Sunrise Portland chapter. The story has been updated to note the two are unaffiliated.
This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the regional government of greater Portland. Amplify supports three summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process.
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