Red House stalemate: Neighbors complain of guns, explosions
As 2020 lumbered to a close in Portland, the barricades and spike strips around the "Red House on Mississippi" encampment were gone.
But the tents near the property, the garbage, the graffiti on nearby buildings and the armed sentries patrolling the North Portland neighborhood, alert for police, remained.
Despite Mayor Ted Wheeler's announcement in mid-December of a breakthrough agreement, the status of negotiations to allow the Kinney family to repurchase the home they were foreclosed out of more than two years ago remains unclear — if they've even begun.
Meanwhile, some residents and property owners in the area are complaining of stress and fear. They said there are children living in the area and they feel the area is unsafe.
Three residents and two local landowners spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution. Their accounts provide another perspective on what the campers call the family's "eviction defense" as well as insight into how the city — and the Portland police — have grappled with the unprecedented situation.
Some expressed support for the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, but say they feel the Red House eviction defense was something else entirely.
"We've been just living in this state of fear for a while," one resident said. "There are men walking around with guns, pistols, long arms, shotguns, rifles (who approach you) if you get close to their camp. … There's still trash and garbage everywhere. There's definitely a lot of tension in the air. This is definitely not our neighborhood anymore."
They expressed a common frustration, however, that city officials did nothing to head off an increasingly volatile situation despite dozens of calls and emails from neighbors starting last summer.
The residents said moving vans already have moved out several renters in the area, including from the neighboring apartment buildings still covered in graffiti. But some residents said they can't or won't leave because their homes could be occupied and damaged —and they can't be sold.
"The only people who are leaving are renters," another resident said. " We know that the city will not protect our property. (Some residents) have children and animals that they don't want to displace. But … even if any of us wanted to possibly move or sell our house, we can't do that with what's in our backyard.
"We've lost so much but also our mental health (has suffered). We are anxious. We are triggered by noises and sounds and chanting and sirens and footsteps on our front porch just because we don't know who's coming. Who is it? What is it? We don't have any support here. … We support each other and that's all we've got."
Residents say nights are often punctuated by loud, pounding music well into the ext morning, as well as large campfires and sometimes explosions — possibly fireworks thrown by right-wingers at the campers.
One landlord echoed some of the people who live in the neighborhood, saying, "Someone needs to be asking the mayor, why are they not enforcing the laws?"
How things escalated
The story of the Red House has dripped out slowly since hitting the news in November.
In 2017, the Kinney family stopped paying their mortgage on their North Mississippi home.
The family blamed their decision on confusing paperwork. But others have noted that the members of the family have adopted some of the trademark tactics of the "Moorish sovereign citizen" movement, which often refuses to acknowledge laws or government authority, and which sometimes clashes with banks and landlords, tying up the courts to make debts go away.
In 2018, the bank foreclosed on the Kinneys. Two brothers, Roman and Edward Ozeruga, bought the house at an auction.
In 2020, after the sheriff's office attempted to evict the family in September, William Kinney III, who goes by William Nietzche, called for an "Occupy Wall Street"-style encampment.
Local left-leaning anarchist and "antifa" or anti-fascist activists swarmed the area and set up camp, protesting a situation they said exemplified capitalist greed, predatory lending, gentrification and systemic racism.
Nietzche had already issued apparent threats involving firearms to a judge and local sheriff's deputies. But the situation started to look far more dangerous after Dec. 8.
That morning, Multnomah sheriff's deputies again evicted the Kinney family and left. But the family's supporters rushed to the area and began attacking Portland Police Bureau officers with rocks, paint, pushing them and pounding on their retreating vehicles.
City insiders say the law enforcement operation appears to have been completely botched, much as it appeared on the many videos circulating on Twitter.
Wheeler, for his part, later accused Multnomah county officials of poor communication.
The family's supporters erected barricades around the house and into the neighborhood around it, blocking public streets and sidewalks. Videos began circulating of masked men bearing military-style assault rifles. Signs and graffiti on nearby storefront proclaimed things like "Death to the PPB," and "Kill the cop...."
Neighbors started worrying about their proximity to a clash between two groups of people bearing guns.
A seeming breakthrough came when one of the two brothers who bought the house told a reporter he was willing to sell the house at cost to the Kinneys, because he feared for the safety of his family.
On Dec. 14, Wheeler announced an "agreement in principle" with the occupiers. After that, the Kinneys supporters helped clear the barricades that had sprung up around the house.
Since then, besides the barriers coming down, "nothing has changed," one neighbor said.
How things escalated
The Kinneys did not respond to an email requesting an interview sent on Dec. 30. But there are indications they hope to scale back the occupation, saying in a Dec. 24 Instragram post they would be "returning our space to a more compact setup" and would "pause" the site's status as "a resource hub" for campers and activists to "ensure the Kinneys and our frontliners get some much-needed rest and support."
As for the hoped-for negotiations to let the Kinney's repurchase their land, the post said the family was "beginning" to consult with a lawyer about it.
Edward Ozeruga, one of the two brothers who bought the dilapidated house at a foreclosure auction, declined to confirm whether any direct negotiations over the property had taken place. He did not sound optimistic.
"If you have anything toward the solution or resolution," of the situation, he told a reporter, "feel free to email us."
A spokesman for Wheeler stressed that the office is not involved in the negotiations, but cast things in a positive light.
"When we look back a few weeks and compare today to what was going on, we see a positive trend," said Jim Middaugh. "We see a path forward that allows the Kinneys to get their home back."
Some of the residents who spoke with the Tribune say the encampment north of the property on a vacant lot has been growing, with activists on Twitter openly planning to turn it into a "community center."
The neighbors also feel that other local properties could become occupied by squatters given the rhetoric from some of the leaders.
"We held the city hostage, not the other way around," said Ragina Gray, a prominent local organizer who was a leader during the Red House occupation, in a recent Instagram video. "We stopped traffic, we stopped transportation, we stopped business and commerce, we stopped trash and recycling. I mean, there were people who literally felt like they couldn't leave their houses.
"...We held that space until we were given what we wanted. And if you can't accept that then I don't know what your problem is," she added. "I'd say you don't understand how war works."
She urged viewers to join the encampment, even if they did not have weapons to bring with them. She added, "if you're listening to this right now, you should rise up with all your friends and take the houses — every single last house."
Camp site changing hands
Last week, the Portland Tribune first reported that the owner of the vacant lot to the north of the Red House — the main campsite for the Kinney family's supporters — was intending to sell it to a local nonprofit that serves the local African American community. Shortly after that, The Oregonian reported that the nonprofit is Self Enhancement Inc., or SEI.
While the owners said, through a spokesman, that they had been planning to donate the land before the standoff began, it also followed repeated unsuccessful requests to the city to remove the trespassers camping there for months, according to a spokesman.
The landowners again informed a representative of the camp shortly before Christmas that the campers were not allowed to be there.
As the tenuous situation continues, Wheeler's spokesman, Middaugh, said he can't predict how the city and Portland police will respond to future occupations, but stressed that the mayor supports eviction moratoriums and other programs such as rental assistance.
Middaugh said that, in this case, the community "stepped up" by contributing more than $300,000 to help the Kinneys repurchase their former house. And he rejected the notion that Wheeler, who oversees the police, was not enforcing the law, saying that some criminal investigations linked to the Red House eviction blockade are ongoing.
"I think every situation is going to be unique," Middaugh said. "I think the biggest challenge we face as a community is how much inequity are we willing to accept in our community? And we have to solve for employment and education, health care, and all the things that underlie the economic challenges families are facing. ... We're going to take it case by case."
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