People have been hearing about the “riots” in Portland, Oregon. Some news reporters are talking about the violence there, and these have not been entirely peaceful gatherings, to be sure. But the New York Times tells a different story of a predominantly white city that has taken to the streets night after night to protest the way that Black people are treated in this country.
Nothing seems to have deterred these white protesters. Not National Guardsmen, not tear gas, not the threat of arrest. If anything, these national troops have only stiffened the resolve of the people in Portland - mostly white people - to protest our nation’s racist past and present. The irony is that Portland is one of the whitest places you can live today. African Americans who move to Portland find themselves in a distinct minority. They joke now that there are more Black Lives Matter signs in the city these days than actual Black people.
Protesters have thrown water bottles and run through the streets while tear gas swirled. There have been incidents of more violence, but for the most part these have been peaceful demonstrations. Some protesters have used their lacrosse sticks to hurl the canister’s of tear gas back at national guard. The fact that they had lacrosse sticks readily available tells us how young these protesters are. For 56 straight nights thousands of white citizens have filled the streets yelling “This is not a riot; it is a revolution.” The real revolution is that so many white people are so concerned about racial injustice.
Of all America’s cities with populations over 500,000 people, Portland is the whitest. Founded by white supremacists, the state of Oregon is 3/4 white. In the 1800’s in Oregon it was legal to whip any Black person with impunity. More recently, in the 20th century the state legislature was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. Black families in Portland earn half of their white counterparts, and today Black residents of Portland are 6% of the population but a much larger percentage of those shot by police.
So what is happening in Portland? Reporters are mystified. Somehow White people are enraged at the way that Black people are being treated in America and in Oregon. It started with George Floyd’s murder. That was a tipping point, but now this movement has taken on a life of its own. To discount it as a lawless rabble is to misunderstand it and to miss something significant that is changing for white people, even in some of the whitest places.
Damany Igwé, 43, a bath products salesman who is Black and has taken part in dozens of the protests, says white crowds have shielded him from the police, all the while yelling “Black power!” “I feel the most protected that I ever have in my city,” Mr. Igwé said during a Wednesday night protest that lasted well into Thursday morning. “White people can’t understand what we’ve been through completely, but they are trying to empathize. That’s a beginning.”
Portland may some lessons to teach us if we find the time to listen and learn.
Blessings, Rev. Susan