Protests made no point about free speech
It's unclear what was gained in Sunday's protestapalooza in the park.
No doubt, some who packed Chapman Square and neighboring blocks in downtown Portland were sincerely hoping to make a point about the right to support an unpopular president or the right for young women wear a hijab on a public train.
But any meaningful exchanges of ideas around the First Amendment, immigration reform or religious freedom were drowned out by angry words and violent actions, which made for compelling video but did nothing to help bring closure or understanding of the horrific events of the previous week.
Last week, we joined Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in calling on organizers of two planned political rallies to back off, following the deaths of two men who intervened on a MAX train on May 26 when another man verbally attacked two young women, one of whom was a Muslim wearing a head scarf.
One of the groups did call off its "March Against Sharia" slated for June 10, but alt-right organizers for Sunday's "Trump Free Speech Rally" were adamant in carrying out their plans, despite the horrible timing, ensuring counter-protesters would come out in force.
We now see why. On Sunday they seemed to have little interest in making any point about free speech. Instead, they were most intent on hurling insults and provoking their all-to-easily goaded philosophical foes. Fourteen arrests (and a volley of rubber bullets) later, both sides inexplicably claimed victory.
But victory for what? For being the loudest? The most outrageous? Having the snarkiest tweets?
We understand that people are angry. But anger has a polarizing effect. As Portland Tribune guest columnist Angela Uherbelau wrote last Thursday, "Hate is seductive because it demands so little of us. To embrace hate, we only have to reach out and seize one other word, grip it tight and refuse to let it go. Things are black or they are white. You are with us or you are against us. You belong here, in this town or this city or this state or this nation, or you don't."
The truth, vexingly, is usually more complex. Here are a few of the truths we see emerging.
The escalation of the Sunday protests was predictable, but we're still in for weeks of accusations about who's to blame. Already we're hearing complaints that Mayor Wheeler and the police predictably targeted the left-leaning activists. The complainers fail to note that Wheeler tried to nix the permit for the pro-Trump forces. While the pro-Trump rally was certainly provocative, reports suggest it was a small group of counter-protesters who provoked the police. The fact that no one was injured and property damage was limited is the best outcome anyone could hope for.
If not for the attack on TriMet, this would have been a minor event. But the attack and the protests became intertwined. Some people have been quick to portray Jeremy Joseph Christian, charged with the murders on the MAX train, as a mentally unstable "lone wolf," who lacked any coherent political convictions that could be linked to his deadly actions. The criminal trial will tease some of that out, but it is foolish to pretend that President Trump's campaign tactic of demonizing Muslims, immigrants and young African American men had no effect on the spike in hate crimes reported since his election.
The vitriol that the two girls endured on the MAX train is nothing new in Portland. The city has a long history of discrimination and bigotry. Some of it stems from systemic, government sanctioned actions, as evidenced in today's story about the displacement of African-Americans in North/Northeast Portland.
With the shock of the MAX slayings wearing off and the weekend protests behind us, many will ask: "What can be done?" Actually, there are things being done. Groups such as the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, the Muslim Education Trust and others are working to bridge cultural and religious divisions, through meaningful dialogue and education.
Getting past the scars of the past two weeks, emotional and physical, will be hard. "We may not know exactly how to do it and we will make mistakes in the attempt," Uherbelau wrote. "But we owe it to these men and their families and the young girls they defended and their families to try."