Racism, riots and pandemic - horrible blend leaves Portlanders devastated
In any other year, downtown Portland at this exact moment would be in the midst of a massive, annual celebration of all the things we love about this city.
But the COVID-19 oubreak forced the cancellation of the 2020 Portland Rose Festival. And in its place this weekend was a disturbing display of destructive behavior downtown that marred a wholly legitimate message of anger from a majority of otherwise peaceful protestors.
Instead of parades down Broadway this year, we are left with broken windows at Pioneer Place. And instead of families boarding rides at Waterfront Park, we have fires smoldering in dumpsters and millions of dollars in damages.
Beyond the calendar's timing, there is a thread between the festival's absence and the extraordinary eruption of vandalism. The Rose Festival was postponed due to a global health crisis that has put the nation's business on hold. For nearly three months now, people have — for very good reasons — been living in social isolation. They've watched as the virus preyed on people's health and livelihoods, with a disproportional impact on people of color.
Then, in rapid succession came three overt examples of racism in distant places that were brought into everyone's homes via modern video technology: A black man who was bird watching in New York's Central Park and threatened for no reason by a white woman; an African-American man out for a jog in Georgia who was hunted down and killed; and then, most graphically horrific, the video that captured a white police officer in Minneapolis crushing the air pipe of George Floyd and killing him.
Already feeling frustrated by the virus's toll, many folks were ready to explode. The result, in Portland and other U.S. cities, was a more intense version of so many other protests we've seen in the past.
Let's be clear: People have a right to be furious about Floyd's death. They have an obligation to show their dismay through protest. They have a moral duty to demand police reform. They may even practice the long tradition of breaking the law in acts of civil disobedience.
Destroying downtown Portland — or the urban center of any other major city — is far from civil. It does nothing to advance the cause of reform, and likely has the opposite effect. The feelings were rawer this time, but the basic narrative was the same. Thousands of people came to protest in peace and make an urgent point about systemic racism. Then, a few smaller groups went on a rampage. Lacking direct evidence, it is irresponsible at this point to put labels on these groups and assume any political motivations.
Were they left wing, right wing, or just young people taking advantage? Photos from our journalists show, in one case, what appear to be school-age males breaking into an Apple Store. School would normally be in session for most students until mid-June, but is closed this year because of the virus. We also observed that the bulk of protesters were in their 20s and 30s, but at least eight of the people arrested were minors.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty summed up the feelings of many Portlanders quite well: "I believe there was a small group of people who came out last night with a very strong intention of tearing stuff up. I want those people prosecuted."
Ron Herndon, director of Albina Head Start, spoke on Sunday and talked about the horrific timing of the pandemic and acts of violence against people of color: "COVID has an older brother, an older pathogen … called racism. You can't put a mask on to protect us from racism," he said.
Speaking of the looting in downtown Portland, Herndon added: "…if you think doing that is a way to express your rage … it's ineffective. If you think tearing up is going to help black people, you are sadly mistaken."
It is not a contradiction to lament the vandalism while also condemning in the strongest terms the racism that leads to institutional and ingrained mistreatment of people of color every day in this nation. Oregon, despite its sometimes-inflated self-regard, is no exception.
A 2017 investigation by Pamplin Media Group and Investigate West showed that African Americans and Latinos in this state are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be ticketed and more likely to be charged with a bevy of crimes — from jaywalking and transit violations to theft and prostitution — than are white Oregonians.
Racism is real, and it can have tragic and fatal consequences, as we have witnessed right here in Portland. The work to reform the justice system must continue in Portland. Peaceful protests can build public support and apply pressure on the mayor, police chief and City Council to improve training and practices.
But there's a vast difference between protests and rioting. Organized protests have a goal. Rioting — shattering glass and lighting fires — is opportunistic and attention seeking. Negative behavior always draws the most scrutiny and, sadly, distracts the public from the legitimate grievances of those who protest peacefully.
This weekend's rioting hurt Portland, physically and otherwise. Systemic racism and violence against people of color hurt everyone. And the combination is the last thing any of us needed after the economic devastation from the coronavirus.
Now, among all the other tasks facing every one of us, is the question of how to move forward from the literal ashes.
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