Will Portland’s Summer of Unrest Reshape City Politics?

Like communities throughout the West and elsewhere, Portland is grappling with the question of whether protests and organizing can bring meaningful political change.

Feds attempt to intervene in Portland protests (Photo credit: Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

By Carl Segerstrom, High Country News


Portland, Oregon’s politics have been shaped in recent months by the city’s reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. Ongoing nightly protests since Floyd’s death were punctuated by the shooting of a Trump supporter and the police shooting of his alleged killer in September, escalating tensions over how to prevent further violence.


This November, Portland residents will cast their ballots in a mayoral election that may well be a referendum on police brutality and racial bias. The question in Portland, as in communities throughout the West and elsewhere, is whether protests and organizing can bring meaningful political change.


“There’s nothing different about George Floyd’s murder,” Cameron Whitten, a Portland activist, said in an interview in late August. “What’s different was the response.” In Portland, that response has included more than $1.6 million in donations to the Black Resilience Fund, a group Whitten co-founded to help Black Portlanders pay for food, health care and other necessities. It’s one of many new coalitions and organizations, including Reimagine Oregon and the Black Millennial Movement, founded amid protests this summer.


These groups have already had some success at the policy level. In June, for example, the city council cut the police budget by $15 million. (The police budget is now almost $230 million.) In July, the council approved a ballot initiative giving voters the power to create a new, stronger citizen police-oversight system authorized to subpoena police records and terminate officers for misconduct. The city also ended funding for transit police and a gun violence reduction team that advocates argued disproportionately targeted Black Portlanders.


On Election Day, Portland will choose between incumbent Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has been slow to act on police reform, and Sarah Iannarone, who has pledged to aggressively defund and rethink policing in the city. Teressa Raiford, the founder of Don’t Shoot Portland, is also running a write-in campaign. Wheeler is facing a cratering approval rating and calls for his resignation for his failure to prevent deadly violence at protests. He has also been criticized for walking back some reforms; he has spoken against fully defunding the gun violence team, for example, citing an uptick in homicides in July.


Meanwhile, Iannarone has called for major changes in policing in Portland. The results of the election will be a good indicator of whether grassroots organizing can bring about broader political change. As of early last year, Portlanders still largely trusted police, said John Horvick, the political director for the Portland polling firm DHM Research, citing a 2019 survey by the firm. If Wheeler loses, it’s a sign that trust has faded. “(Wheeler’s) handling of protests and policing would be his downfall,” Horvick said.


Iannarone is banking on voters wanting a new direction for policing. She’s pledged to turn the Portland Police Bureau over to the city’s only current Black commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty, who has requested that responsibility. Portland’s mayor and city commissioners oversee different departments, and the Police Bureau currently falls to the mayor, whom Hardesty has criticized during the protests. “We need clear and unambiguous leadership to drive us to a more just future,” she wrote on social media after the killing of Aaron Danielson, the pro-Trump demonstrator, in August. “We cannot continue to have a police force that shows up a minute late because their leadership is not showing up at all.” (Wheeler, whose campaign did not reply to requests for comment, has said he would not cede his role to Hardesty before November, but would revisit the question if re-elected.)

“We need clear and unambiguous leadership to drive us to a more just future.”

Iannarone said in a phone interview that she supports reducing the city police budget by $50 million instead of the current $15 million, in line with one of Reimagine Oregon’s proposed reforms. “I understand the frustration of people when they see the violence done by our police,” she said. “People in the streets are building power.” Iannarone would also seek to criminalize right-wing protesters for inciting riots. This would be a major change from Wheeler’s approach; during his tenure, police have communicated and at times appeared to coordinate with leaders of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, according to text messages obtained by Willamette Week.


Portland’s mayoral election will show how far voters are willing to go to see policing change in the city. But the power of the movement for racial justice and police reform will echo beyond the mayor’s race, with four of five city council seats possibly going to newcomers. “This could be an inflection point for political change in the city,” Horvick said. The biggest question may not be who wins the races this November, but, “Do we see new leaders from these organizations and movements emerge?”


One such leader could be Candace Avalos, who co-founded the Black Millennial Movement and chairs the Citizen Review Committee, a citizen police oversight initiative. Whether organizing turns to political power in November, the movement for Black lives will persist. “The protests have pushed change,” Avalos said. “They’re messy and complex, but the product is incredible.”


Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at carls@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor at HCN. 

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