Many Portlanders in public jobs now have Juneteenth as a paid holiday and Gov. Kate Brown is interested in making it a state holiday. Suddenly Juneteenth was on all the Black Lives Matter flyers and social posts.
Juneteenth is a long-standing holiday celebrating the freedom of enslaved people — and specifically those in Galveston, Texas — in 1865. Those enslaved people were located in the westernmost part of the confederacy and the last place where the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was enforced.
On Friday, June 19, there were several celebrations across Portland. One gathering, a Celebration of Black Lives, met at Peninsula Park on North Rosa Parks Way and marched east to Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard and then south to an elementary school for a celebration of black artists. Traffic was blocked in an orderly manner without incident. The route went past several points of interest in Black Portland culture, including Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, which promotes homeownership for African American Portlanders.
Like a prayer
After leading a prayer for the sparse crowd gathered on the lawn of the impressive Victorian home which the PCRI inhabits, Samuel Miller, 62, told the Portland Tribune their event would have happened anyway on Juneteenth, regardless of the march going past the front door.
"We're just celebrating the community, the work that PCRI is done and the work that the Soul District Business Association is doing," Miller said referring to the attempt to reinvigorate the neighborhood.
There was Ethiopian food and goody bags to thank the volunteers, but Miller said this Juneteenth was different. "This year was very special because the system has had a tough year for our country," Miller said.
He has been aware of Juneteenth all his life and originally from the south. He has noticed Portlanders recently taking an interest in Juneteenth, especially corporations. "I think there's a level of shame that's going on right now within our country around the atrocities that have been done to people of color. And I think that there's more ownership or responsibility from folks that don't look like us. They want to be part of the solution instead of burying their heads in the sand."
Miller added, "Long before George Floyd we had this conversation every single day. And we will continue to strive for parity."
Since the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day there has been a surge of interest in Black Lives Matter from all races. Asked if it might continue, Miller said, "I can only pray that this isn't like a new toy, like your eight year old kid wants a new toy that they play with and it becomes an old toy and they're not interested. That's my prayer. But I can't predict the future."
'Mostly little gatherings'
Through 22 nights of protest against police brutality in Portland in May and June, the grassy field west of Revolution Hall has been the meeting point for marches which spread out to various parks. But on Friday night, people rested in place for a Juneteenth party, with DJs, a light show and the usual raft of free snacks and soft drinks. Many held signs refering to the end of slavery and the idea of freedom (adding "-ish"), and Rose City Justice commissioned a large Juneteenth banner to hang on the fence. With restaurants opening, there seemed to be no loss of momentum to the protests, more a division into different brands: children, black capitalists, allies on their best behavior and downtown, armored warriors.
People sat on the grass in socially distanced clumps of friends. The sidewalk on the north side was packed with people reading, solemly. There were posted accounts of Black Portlanders killed by the police, including follow-up information on where the officers are now. Many of them still work on the force.
Among the readers were two friends: Yves Joinville, who is black, and Melissa Ozmore, who is white and has a mixed race son. Joinville visited a year ago to see Multnomah Falls and fell in love with Oregon for its greenery and the locals' friendliness, which she compared to Southern hospitality. She has celebrated Juneteenth many times in "red states," but never with white people. "It's mostly little gatherings, cookouts, similar to what they do for the Fourth of July, in very intimate settings," said Joinville. She had not seen this kind of multi-racial Juneteenth party in a park.
Joinville remembers reading about Juneteenth in 2019 on a Facebook group for black Portlanders when she was settling here. She was impressed with the mellow vibe of the Revolution Hall gathering.
Joinville is a community health navigator. Her friend Melissa Ozmore is a nurse. They competed, with ironic humor, in telling tales of racism. Joinville ranked the police in Virginia the worst for racial harassment, and recalled driving to the beach through small towns terrified of being pulled over, even fearing for her life. Ozmore told how a school resource officer from the Beaverton School District came to her house one evening and warned her she was not welcome at her son's elementary school. (She switched to Portland.)
Ozmore admitted she knew little about Juneteenth growing up, but is now educating herself, partly as a result of being exposed to racism directed at her son.
"I wasn't really into history, but I'm very much into it now, because I'm an advocate for a lot of social justice things. It's very frustrating learning that I didn't really learn the truth about events in black history," said Ozmore.
For example, she did not know about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This was her first Black Lives Matter event in Portland. She was impressed and said she would bring her 11-year-old son next time. Joinville interjected that one place she used to live, Ocoee in Central Florida, had a white-on-black massacre in 1920. "You look that up," said Joinville. "There's a lot of those things they don't teach you in school. You've got to learn outside of your traditional education. The education here wasn't meant for us to really learn. It is to make you be robotic, slaves to the system."
By 10 p.m., the sound system was cranked up, not for speeches but for music. Performing next to the red, white and blue Juneteenth flag, DJ Cool Nutz turned the front few rows into a sweaty mosh pit. Perhaps 10 percent of people were not wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, and hugging was a common site. The party atmosphere was partly Juneteenth, a celebration of the idea of black freedom, and partly a release after three weeks of high anxiety about racism and a lack of social life.
Darren Golden of the Urban League of Portland took the microphone and asked everyone who had not had a text from Rose City Justice, the night's organizers, to stand up. Golden wanted to seize the moment to harvest data so that down the line he can make a policy change. He asked them to sign up for information on how to lobby against using cannabis tax revenue for the police.
"Much as it hurts my heart, the protests are going to slow down, people are going to stop coming out. It's going to dwindle. That's just the way it happens. What this does, it allows us to contact you."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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