Portland protests will keep heat on in 2021, observers say
Portland got its first taste of a year-round protest season in 2020. The forecast for 2021 hardly calls for calm.
Despite Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's Nov. 4 prediction that a Biden presidency would "take some of the heat off," seasoned observers and dedicated activists say the root causes of the unprecedented unrest are unlikely to abate, no matter who sits in the White House.
"The anger is still there," said Melissa Lewis, an independent videographer who regularly covers demonstrations. "Ultimately, Black and brown people are still going to be dying at the hands of law enforcement, and every time that happens that fuel is going to be reignited."
Demands for racial justice shook-up the state, and the world, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. And Portland's leaders — accustomed to a few, regularly scheduled summertime street fights between roving left- and right-wing bands — struggled to respond to an uprising that sent demonstrators to every corner of the city, every night, their declared foe nothing less than the police themselves.
"Diversity of tactics," as Lewis terms it, is likely to extend protests' longevity. It allowed tens of thousands of marchers to attend media-friendly spectacles, like the Burnside Bridge die-in, while smaller autonomous groups of black-clad figures planned direct actions that typically ended in graffiti, broken glass and arrests.
Looking to the future, the stringer expects more right-wing violence as Biden takes office: "They've always been violent, but the escalation in the past two months has been massive," Lewis said, pointing to recent shootings in Olympia.
Portland State University educator and civic leader Candace Avalos said she is more hopeful that Biden can dial down the heat, primarily by setting the tone of the national conversation and nominating a diverse cabinet. That said, she hardly expects him to fix everything.
"I think that 2020 was an extreme check on our systems," said Avalos, a prior candidate for Portland City Council and co-founder of the Black Millennial Movement. "It really showed that we had neglected so many of the problems that have been mounting for decades, and that manifested in the chaos that was this year."
Avalos says those in the streets will need to learn to fight burn-out and disappointment in 2021, especially when a vote at City Hall doesn't go their way.
"If we let our tank go empty, that's where rash decisions happen, that's where we start to turn on each other," she said.
But the pandemic and widespread economic inequality won't magically disappear when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, notes Sergio Olmos, an ever-present Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter covering rallies and demonstrations.
Instead, 2021 might parallel the beginning of President Barack Obama's first term.
Olmos said it took the election of a Democrat to formalize the populist dissent within the right-wing, as well as the Occupy movement to the left.
"The right wing will take up a more kinetic version of the Tea Party," Olmos predicted. "They're the buoys in the water that tell you, 'Hey, this wave is coming.'"
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