Commentary: the view from Portland

The calm before the storm: Protesters gather in front of Protesters with the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Shelley Dunning/Courtesy photo


Commentary: the view from Portland

Dear to my heart, Portland is the city where my husband and his brother and sisters were born.

It is the city where my father-in-law grew the Grand Prize rose in the Rose Festival at the age of 12.

It is the city where, in my first job as a college graduate, I visited every high school, from Grover Cleveland to Sunset to Central Catholic, recruiting students for my alma mater, Rocky Mountain College.

Portland is the city where we took our kids on every summer vacation for 18 years.

The city that, like so many, has a racist history, but wants tobe better and worksto be better.

It is the city with a mayor who tells the people he wants to do good, but doesn’t.

The city where good, mostly white people come out every night for 58 days and counting, to call for justice for Black lives.

Portland is the city where Donald Trump has sent a mysterious militia of agents, clad in camouflage and riot gear and wielding batons, rubber bullets and tear gas to crack down on peaceful protesters.

I went to Portland to support Black Lives Matter as a mom, to join the Wall of Moms seeking justice for the young Black people making their voices heard. What I saw was a movement of Black leaders, strong, organized, passionate, and very clear in their message demanding change.

For 58 days, the BLM leaders and organizers have rallied the people of Portland. On my second night, the 57th night of protests, supporters gathered at the Salmon Street Springs on the edge of the Willamette River two blocks from the federal building and courthouse. For two hours before it got dark, BLM speakers explained who they were and why these protests mattered.

There were thousands, including grandparents, college students and young professionals. And there were huge groups representing different cultural identities and professions: Clergy, teachers, veterans, Asians for BLM, healthcare workers, social workers, the Wall of Moms, lawyers.

There was a huge drum circle to help the crowd keep rhythm as we practiced the protest chants. There was dancing. And there was the promise from one of the leaders that the night’s protest would not only be peaceful, it would be “joyful.”

And it was peaceful. And joyful. At least in the beginning.

As the sun set and the protesters walked up Salmon Street to Third Avenue to join the larger group, the mood became more apprehensive. The crowd chants continued, loud and strong, but I don’t think I was alone in feeling a tension and a heaviness as we walked. It wasn’t so much a sense of danger as it was a feeling of darkness and doom.

For many of the people I had spent the past two hours with, this was not their first night of protesting. They knew how the night would unfold because it had unfolded the same way for the past 20 nights, ever since the federal government deployed officers to protect the federal buildings on July 4. The serious demeanor of my co-conspirators, knowing what to expect, I suppose, contributed to the change in tenor as we passed the metal garage doors on the side of the federal building where the feds were waiting.

The federal building and the Multnomah County Justice Center are side by side on Third Avenue, each taking up a city block of space. Directly across are two city parks, each the size of a city block. Those parks and the streets surrounding them were filled with people, more than 6,000 peaceful, passionate people.

And, judging from many of the signs that they held, they were thoughtful, clever, funny people. As they somehow cleared space in the street for the thousands of people in our group coming from the Salmon Street Springs, I read signs like, “It must be bad, even the introverts are here” and “Racism isn’t getting worse it’s getting filmed.”

We found our places to stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, all masked, wearing goggles and bike helmets, just beneath the raised base of a column on the courthouse steps where the speakers stood. There were speeches about social justice, interspersed with chants and applause and shouting. One speaker made the point that being Black is pretty awesome. The music, the dancing, the clothing, the culture … And then he reminded us that “Everybody wants to be Black until the cops show up.”

Rather than forming a barrier around the crowd, our Wall of Moms remained together as a group in the crowd. At the last minute, a Wall of Veterans had formed, separating the federal buildings from the protesters. It was a powerful sight. But even as we were immersed in the conversation and the part we played as listeners and learners, there was that sense of doom.

At one point I turned to another mom and said, “I feel like we all know that building is going to explode and the horrible, fire-eating dragon is going to be released to devour us.”

Behind us, someone began to throw fireworks. And then a group forced down the fortified metal fence. Then, much earlier than any previous nights, the camouflaged officers exploded from the federal building onto the streets of Portland.

You might think that the feds would direct their wrath toward the impostors who’d thrown the fireworks and knocked down the fence. But you would be wrong. Before anyone knew what was happening, the peaceful crowd was engulfed in tear gas and pandemonium.

As people ran for water and clear air, they regrouped and returned, where they were sprayed again.

That is what the world saw the next day on every news. The words of hope, 6,000 people singing together and strangers locking arms in solidarity were all lost to explosions and tear gas and violence. All fodder for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

I left Portland at midnight and as I drove south on I-5, I wondered how those young leaders keep up their energy. How can they continue to breathe tear gas into their lungs every night? How can they continue to shout and fight, knowing their message is being lost and distorted among the fireworks and the tear gas and the media and the fire-breathing dragon?

If anything makes my heart hurt, it’s knowing that these young men and women will continue all of this, every night — to shout until their voices are gone, to be engulfed in tear gas, to dance in the drum circle to keep it “joyful” for all of us. Whether we show up or we don’t, they will be there.

They will continue to demand justice, even as their message is being co-opted by impostors throwing fireworks and pushing down fences; even as the president distorts their peaceful protests to create an alternative reality of death and destruction for his television ads; even as their own government sprays rubber bullets and tear gas on them.

And even as our system continues to tell them, “We aren’t ready yet.”

Please learn more about Black Lives Matter at Become an ally by voting for people who are committed to justice and change. Fight for the changes that Black lives are demanding. And when you see the images on television of violence and destruction, please know, this is the America that our current president is creating for all of us.

— Shelley Dunning is a Davis resident.



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