Portland's York statue toppled amid 'intimidating' vandalism
An unofficial art installation that was quickly adopted by city officials and park-lovers alike has been damaged, if not destroyed.
The statue of York — an enslaved member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition who nevertheless became the first Black man to cross North America and reach the Pacific Ocean — was discovered toppled from its pedestal in Mt. Tabor Park Wednesday, July 28.
Made of hardened plastic and plywood, the bust had occupied a plinth at the park's peak after the original sculpture, of pioneer and Oregonian publisher Harvey W. Scott, was torn down in October by protesters angered by his anti-suffrage views and Indian War service.
Demonstrators brought down at least five other bronze installations last year, including statues of U.S. presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as a cemetery war memorial. Many are unlikely to return under a new policy from the Regional Arts & Culture Council that allows removal of statues that violate anti-racist and equity principals.
Portland officials hope to salvage the statue of York â€” he was enslaved by Clark amid the expedition across America to the Pacific— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 28, 2021
"The latest act of vandalism is incredibly disappointing for me," says parks director. "I'm sure the majority of Portlanders will miss seeing York" pic.twitter.com/s3TZK2cK6Y
Now York has met the same fate.
"The latest act of vandalism is incredibly disappointing for me, and I'm sure the majority of Portlanders will miss seeing York at the top of Mt. Tabor," said Portland Parks & Recreation Director Adena Long.
Long noted that the February appearance of York had been a "happy surprise" for officials who intended to let the artwork remain until it deteriorated in rainy weather.
"Unfortunately, the numerous racist responses to the memorial of a Black man forced to participate in the Corps of Discovery Expedition have not been a surprise," said Long.
A visitor stumbled upon the statue around 6:51 a.m. Wednesday, its stoic visage gouged out and overturned, as chunks of urethane and an explanatory plaque littered the ground. Crews removed the bust around 7:15 a.m. and are assessing whether any part of it can be salvaged.
A. Madison Cario, the executive director for RACC, thanked the anonymous artist behind the York sculpture, saying it had been designed to raise questions in the viewer.
"Who was this person, York, memorialized here?" Cario said. "Why is so little known about him? Who has been recorded and represented in history and our public spaces? And who has been left out of these representations? What is at risk when that representation historically left out, is made larger than life?"
No one has claimed responsibility for the damage. But the incident follows two other reports of activity by right wing groups that took aim at racial justice messages.
On Sunday morning, July 25, vandals splashed the phrase "Patriot Front" across a mural depicting George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor on the Union Market building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The previous Friday, a banner urged commuters heading east on U.S. Route 26 to "reclaim America" by visiting Patriot Front's website. The splinter group formed in the aftermath of the deadly 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, according to the Western States Center.
"That's an effort to spread white nationalist propaganda and recruit," said Amy Herzfeld-Copple, a deputy director for Western States. "That has a chilling effect on the community. It's certainly intimidating,"
Herzfeld-Copple says Patriot Front has been linked to vandalism of other statues of Black historical figures across the county, and has also been known to blanket blocks in stickers or flyers advertising their movement.
Even though such actions can be accomplished with just two or three people, Herzfeld-Copple says it can still have a serious impact.
"Any time there are examples of organized bigotry, it's an opportunity for the community and civil society at large," she said, "to speak to shared values of equity and inclusion, to make public affirmations and to really close space for white nationalists and political violence."
As for the banner itself, Oregon Department of Transportation crews frequently remove flags and other hanging objects from overpasses.
According to Willamette Week, community members rushed to the site of the damaged mural and quickly removed the new paint, and the artist, Christian Grijalva, completed restoration work later that morning.
The mural has been completed! Firekat, the artist, was extremely emotional about how many people showed up to help. They told me â€œIf we come together for art like this, imagine what else we can doâ€¦hah, wait. we already are. Portlandâ€™s been kicking ass.â€ Vm: Christian-Grijalva-4 pic.twitter.com/fbzTUmQ2YB— Alissa Azar (@AlissaAzar) July 26, 2021
"I'm an artist," Grijalva told the paper. "I'm going to continue to do social justice murals like this, regardless of the hate and ignorance, especially from those who want to come out and do this in the middle of the night. It only makes me want to paint bigger, harder."
While the shattered glass and graffiti of last year's uprising was more — or less — palatable to those who agreed with protesters' lefty causes, the city now appears to be getting a taste of vandalism of a decidedly different flavor.
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