Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's appearance at the Black Lives Matter protest Wednesday, July 22 — when coupled with the NAACP's attempt to refocus those protests back toward their initial purpose on Thursday — has created an opportunity to change the dynamics of the nightly demonstrations downtown.
But neither Wheeler nor the NAACP can do it alone. As we editorialized on July 19, many of our local leaders need to intervene, to listen and to act before the city will see an end to protests that too often devolve later in the evening into destructive behavior.
As we stated then, the 50-plus nights of unrest could have been quelled — as they have been in almost every other American city — by leaders sitting down in front of protesters, shutting up, listening, taking their lumps, then formulating a plan, together. Implementing that plan, together. And leading our community, together.
Wheeler took up that challenge on Wednesday. Others did not, but they still have the chance to lead.
Wheeler went before a very loud, very angry crowd, listened to people, responded when he could, and made a speech atop a pedestal in front of the Justice Center. He got screamed at. A lot.
However, when he was able to make his point, he also got cheered.
And later in the evening, he got tear gassed by the feds, just like some other protesters. He made the top of the news for major national media outlets on Thursday.
You have to give Wheeler credit for his guts to walk into an angry crowd. It was a good start toward resolving conflict — but just a start.
Do it once, with one person, and it's political theater. Do it night after night, with a cross-section of local leaders, and people will actually believe you're there to hear them. You'll give the righteously angry people, the ones who believe that Black Lives Matter, a chance to be heard, to learn, and to come together.
The protesters, in turn, will hear about reforms already implemented. It was clear from Wednesday's crowd that many people hadn't realized what the city's done so far to alter policy on policing.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, you have the power to stand with the mayor, not undercutting him with public ultimatums and conspiracy theories (like telling a magazine that Portland Police are setting fires so they can blame protesters).
Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Chole Eudaly: Rise up. If necessary, play the peacemakers between Wheeler and Hardesty. Since the death of Commissioner Nick Fish, we have only four City Council members, not five, but you four, standing shoulder to shoulder with the police senior command on your left and the police union on your right, could have far more power than we've seen so far.
Wednesday's listening sessions should become a regular event. Not in the midst of the melee, at Southwest Third and Madison, in the midst of the cyclone, as Wheeler tried. It's too crowded, too dangerous, and too loud.
Thursday's march and speeches by the NAACP, attempting to wrest the narrative back to Black Lives Matter and our history of systemic racism, reminds us that the "Ground Hog Day" time loop of nightly brawls and the incursion by federal forces are sucking all of the oxygen out of the movement.
Move the debate, the essential debate, to a new venue. Perhaps outside a church in Albina. You'll bring with you many of those who actually seek to use this moment to build a better Portland.
Pick a time; say 8 p.m. Set up a microphone and invite residents to step up and tell you how angry they are. And also to tell you what reforms they want.
Would there still be bullhorns and screamed obscenities? Of course. Would this take some self-policing by the protesters? Yes.
And we saw that Wednesday night. Early on, several very young white men were shouting down a woman of color who had the mic. One kid screamed "No dialogue! No dialogue!" when she spoke. But other protesters got in his face and shut him down. We heard other protesters yell at people in the crowd who were shoving or getting violent.
At the heart of all this anger, there lies a large contingent of Portlanders who want the city, state and nation to do better, and who are frustrated by centuries of institutional racism decades of false promises to address it. City leaders need to listen to that group. And the protest community has to help weed out those who don't care about reform from those who do.
Wheeler, Hardesty, Fritz and Eudaly: If you come together, and if you loop in the reform-minded elements of Portland Police command staff and the union, you can still bring much-needed reform to the city and peace to the downtown core.
If you do not, you cannot.
The mayor's exchange Wednesday with protesters was Step 1, and a good step, to be sure. Step 2 is the city's leadership going into retreat for a day, getting your squabbling out of the way, coming up with a plan, and presenting it to the community.
Steps 3 through 1,000 … well, we've dug a pretty deep hole. We have a long way to go.
But it's the first steps, together, that count.
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