In late July, Portland, Ore., held a grand reopening of its downtown. Hollowed out by the pandemic, which banished office workers and tourists, the neighborhood became the site of massive demonstrations against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. Throughout the summer of 2020, protesters faced off against local and federal law enforcement in nightly clashes that inevitably ended in tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and arrests. Even after direct actions became small and sporadic, many storefronts remained boarded up—a detail often mentioned in a barrage of media coverage characterizing the Rose City as dangerous, trashed, even dying.
Resurrecting downtown Portland, and the city’s image, has been a major focus for Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city leaders this year. By the reopening event, much of the plywood had come down; the band Pink Martini led a sing-along for a crowd in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and city commissioners Carmen Rubio, Mingus Mapps, and Jo Ann Hardesty cut a red ribbon to mark the opening of a new pod of food carts, several of which had been displaced from their previous location a few blocks north by the construction of a 35-story tower that will house 138 luxury condos and a Ritz-Carlton hotel. “Today is the beginning of a new Portland,” Mapps told the crowd.
What this new Portland should look like—and whom it should serve—remains a matter of fierce debate. To many Portlanders, the months of sustained protest that followed Floyd’s murder were historic, electrifying, and potentially transformational for a city with a deep history of racial exclusion and police violence. Portland’s Black residents, who make up 6 percent of the city’s population, have for decades endured harassment from police officers. The city has one of the worst racial disparities in arrests in the United States, and for nearly a decade the Portland Police Bureau has been under the supervision of the Department of Justice because of a pattern of using excessive force against people with mental illness. Though efforts to reform the bureau began decades before last year’s uprising, never before had so many white residents been attuned to the issue. Longtime activists sensed a remarkable opportunity. “Ain’t nobody scared of police no more,” Kent Ford, who founded the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, said recently. “If I don’t see nothing else, I’ve seen how it came together here.”
After two weeks of demonstrations, the police chief stepped down. The City Council redirected $15 million from policing to communities of color and to Portland Street Response, a non-police pilot program intended to assist people in mental health crises, and dissolved a handful of controversial police units. In November, 80 percent of Portland voters approved a new independent police oversight board, which will have the power to discipline and fire officers for misconduct. It was understood that all of this would be only a start toward making the whitest major city in America more equitable. Black-led organizations developed a sweeping agenda to dismantle systemic racism not only in policing but also in housing, transportation, education, economic development, and health care across the state.
But some Portlanders came to see the demonstrations as a threat to the city’s appeal to tourists and investors. “Lenders and purchasers have for all intents and purposes blacklisted Portland,” said John Russell, a longtime Portland real estate developer. Dramatic clashes between protesters and law enforcement provided the opportunity for right-wing politicians and media to depict the city as besieged by violent anarchists and, as Donald Trump claimed, “ablaze all the time.” Commenters linked Portland’s protest movement to homelessness and rising gun violence, marshaling it all as evidence of a city in precipitous decline.
Now, with civic leaders focused on economic recovery, advocates are concerned that efforts to rehabilitate Portland’s brand may eclipse the tentative steps taken toward reform. The pandemic, the protests, and a series of climate-related crises exposed major fault lines in Portland, from public safety and racial inequity to gentrification and homelessness. Wheeler, who is regularly accosted when he goes out in public, is facing a recall campaign. Business leaders have pressed city officials to be more aggressive in their treatment of protesters and in clearing homeless encampments. Gun violence has fueled calls for reinvestment in Portland’s police force and the reinstatement of some of the disbanded units. During the weekend of the downtown reopening, FBI agents and members of a new police unit coordinated to provide a “high-visibility presence”—a potent illustration of how the winds have shifted.
“We really are a tale of two cities,” said Hardesty, who has led police reform efforts on the City Council. “One is a city that would like to flip a switch and pretend that the last 15 months didn’t happen—like, ‘Let’s just clean up the graffiti, get the trash up, and move all the houseless people so we can look like everything’s back to normal.’ And then you have another city that understands we have to fundamentally, radically change a lot of our systems.”
Like many Portland residents, I have fielded a number of questions about how safe the city is from friends living elsewhere. My immediate reaction has been exasperation: Even at the height of the protests, when federal agents were firing impact munitions at moms in bike helmets, violence was evident only around the plazas downtown. During the day, I sometimes ran along the waterfront and through downtown. The streets were quiet, the stores shuttered—but downtown had felt empty long before Floyd was murdered, since the pandemic cleared out the office workers and tourists who make up the bulk of its foot traffic. Yes, there was more graffiti. But I never felt unsafe.
And yet it wasn’t accurate to tell friends that everything in Portland was fine. Far-right groups had turned the city into a culture war battleground. Activists and some journalists had been brutalized. Business owners were struggling with pandemic restrictions, which were stricter in Oregon than in many other states. Shootings were rising, and in June, dozens of people died during an unprecedented heat wave. The fact that some 4,000 people lacked housing became impossible to ignore as the city paused its regular sweeps of homeless encampments and tents became more visible. The weakness of the state’s mental health care system became starker, too: There were few sources of help that residents could call during encounters with people in the midst of a crisis.
Many of these challenges are not unique to Portland. But the media attention magnified them and often situated them within a longstanding narrative about local Democratic leadership collapsing into anarchy. This story line took hold during the early years of the Trump administration, as far-right groups repeatedly chose Portland as a staging ground for media spectacles like the Trump Free Speech Rally organized by Patriot Prayer, a pro-Trump group, in 2017, just days after a white supremacist murdered two people on Portland’s light rail. Clashes between these far-right activists and local anti-fascists led to obsessive coverage from conservative outlets like National Review, which devoted a cover story in 2018 to the left-wing “goons and thugs” who ostensibly controlled Portland.
The immense Black Lives Matter demonstrations here in the summer of 2020 and Trump’s decision to send federal forces into the city made Portland a mainstream media story. Much of the coverage fixated on vandalism committed by the most extreme of Portland’s activists. In an article in Forbes in January, a consultant who lives in a wealthy suburb likened Portland to Pompeii, contending that “violence and vandalism” were pushing the city toward “death.” A local news anchor (who also lives outside the city) wrote that it “has become the city of trash and filth.” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is considering a run for Oregon governor, decried a lack of “law and order” in the city.
In May, The Oregonian published the results of a poll of metro area residents and their views on downtown Portland. “Destroyed,” “trashed,” “riots,” and “homelessness” were some of the words frequently used, according to the main story. Yet 45 percent of the respondents hadn’t been downtown at all since the onset of the pandemic, suggesting that what was driving many of these opinions was not experience but media coverage. “I just have no sympathy for people who speak with visceral disgust about the city. It’s human people who are really struggling, and you haven’t even actually seen them,” said Lisa Bates, associate professor of urban studies at Portland State University, which is located downtown. Of polls like The Oregonian’s, Bates said, “You’ve basically tested your own coverage. Your sensational coverage has caused people to think that it’s a wasteland and yet has done very little to drive the alleviation of real suffering.” Notably, 83 percent of respondents in that poll said they felt safe in their own neighborhoods.
Relentless media scrutiny led to finger-pointing, and politicians and business leaders found a convenient scapegoat for Portland’s struggles in the relatively small group of activists who continued to protest this spring, often destroying property. In April, after several buildings, including a church, the Oregon Historical Society, and the home of the Blazers Boys & Girls Club, were vandalized and a police union hall was set on fire, Wheeler called on citizens to “take the city back” from “anarchists” who “want to burn, they want to bash, they want to intimidate, they want to assault.”
The following month, four city power brokers, including the real estate mogul and philanthropist Jordan Schnitzer, met with Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt at a private club downtown and pressed him to prosecute protest-related crimes more aggressively. Schmidt, who campaigned as a criminal justice reformer and won more than 75 percent of the vote, had declined to file charges for some low-level offenses like disorderly conduct, arguing they take resources from higher-level prosecutions. “I don’t want to be arrogant and talk on behalf of 2½ million people in the metro area,” Schnitzer told The Oregonian, “but I can’t imagine anyone not being concerned about how long the protests have gone on.”
There has been genuine debate among Black organizers and community leaders about protest tactics and the extent to which activists with an antiestablishment agenda and a penchant for property destruction undermined a more focused racial justice movement. At the same time, focusing attention on a small group of activists helped elected officials and police leadership avoid questions about their own commitment to addressing the racial injustices that gave rise to the demonstrations in the first place. Policing has long been a visible expression of inequity in Portland, but it’s hardly the only one. Oregon was founded as a whites-only state, and in the early 1900s Ku Klux Klan members were prevalent in the state legislature. Redlining forced Black residents into neighborhoods in Northeast and North Portland that were heavily policed and later damaged by “urban renewal” projects. Today, white families in Portland make more than twice what Black families do, while the school district suspends and expels Black students four to five times more often than white students. “Once you start peeling back the realities,” said Donovan Smith, a vice chair of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, “this has been a state that has been so hostile towards Black people, and there should be anger from a lot of people.”
Efforts to reimagine public safety in Portland have been made more complicated by an increase in gun-related crimes, a trend that predates the city’s modest steps toward police reform. As of August 9, there had been 717 shooting incidents since the beginning of the year, leaving more than 50 people dead and putting Portland alongside dozens of other cities nationwide that have experienced an uptick in gun violence. Records obtained by Willamette Week show that Black Portlanders have been killed and injured in shootings at a rate 12 times that of white residents.
One of the most alarming shootings occurred in July at a collection of food carts downtown, when six people were injured and a teenager named Makayla Maree Harris was killed. Hours later, Wheeler and Chuck Lovell, the chief of police, spoke with reporters by video conference. Last year, in explaining his support for modest cuts to the Portland Police Bureau’s budget—$15 million out of $248.3 million—Wheeler spoke of his “duty to evolve” as a leader and to “fundamentally rethink what safety means in this community.” But in recent months, he has called for directing more money to the bureau, citing the shootings and complaints about low staffing, high workload, and burnout. “I will fight for additional resources for the police bureau, I will fight for more police officers, and I will fight for more tools and whatever other support the police bureau needs to be able to get its job done,” he said during the press conference. Lovell has asked for a 40 to 50 percent staffing increase. (The Portland Police Bureau declined to comment. Wheeler was not available for an interview.)
Earlier this year, Wheeler essentially reinstated the disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team, which had stopped Black drivers disproportionately and had shown little evidence of effectiveness, under two new names: the Enhanced Community Safety Team, a unit of 21 officers assigned to investigate gun crimes after the fact, and the Focused Intervention Team, a group of 12 tasked with “proactive enforcement.” Wheeler has insisted that the FIT is different from previous iterations of the gun violence unit because it will work with a “community oversight group” responsible for analyzing its impact on communities of color. But after a shooting in May, Wheeler sent a text to Lovell “authorizing [him] to deploy the focused intervention team without the community oversight panel.” The text, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting, continued, “Do so ASAP. I am prepared to take the political heat internally including resignation. Deploy the team.”
“It’s insulting in a lot of ways,” said Smith of the NAACP, which opposed the new units. “It’s a mind trip to have this person on the podium saying they’re listening when we have [heard] so much of the city say, ‘Do not put more money into the cops in that way.’”
There is no consensus about what’s driving the increase in shootings across the country. That’s partly because the research is in the early stages and data is lacking, said Jonathan Jay, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. But Jay and other experts suspect that the economic, social, and psychological disruptions caused by Covid-19 are significant factors. “We know that the pandemic created changes in all of the social determinants of violence. There were spikes in poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, all of those drivers of stress at the community level,” he said. “They hit particularly hard in the places and the communities that have been most disinvested from and therefore were more vulnerable to gun violence incidents.”
While downtown Portland has received most of the recent media attention, it’s not where most of the shootings are occurring. Portland is bisected by Burnside Street, which runs from the mansions and lush trails of Northwest, skirting Powell’s bookstore and the sleek condo buildings of the Pearl District before hitting Old Town, where club-goers from the suburbs step around tents and people sleeping in doorways, then across the Willamette River, through the hedges and big houses of Laurelhurst and out past 82nd Avenue into sprawling East Portland, an area sometimes called the Numbers. Here the city flattens into strip malls, car lots, low-cost apartment buildings, and single-story ranch homes; sidewalks peter out and some roads remain unpaved. East Portland does not have the twee feeling of Portlandia. Annexed in the 1980s, this area is where many people searching for affordable housing have moved as prices went up in inner neighborhoods like the Albina district, where many Black Portlanders historically lived. East Portland is far more diverse than most other parts of the city, and it has a high rate of poverty. It’s also suffering disproportionately from the shootings.
Whether more police would help is a matter of fierce debate. Hardesty and other critics of the bureau argue that it has plenty of resources; that the Gun Violence Task Force proved ineffective in the past, with shootings and homicides staying steady or increasing during its operation, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting; and that resources should instead be directed toward the social and economic drivers of violence, along with trauma-informed interventions led by community members. “We have historical underinvestment in Black communities [in Portland], and gun violence is the result of it,” said Lakayana Drury, a former schoolteacher and the founder of Word Is Bond, a local organization that runs leadership development programs for young Black men.
Portland has made some investments in community-based violence prevention programs, including an emergency budget package passed in April that included $4.1 million in grants for groups working with affected communities. But the money was distributed slowly, and some Portlanders in those communities say the emphasis is still on the tried-and-failed responses developed by consultants, politicians, and police. “How could you talk about reducing gun violence without gun shooters in the room?” asked Lionel Irving, a former gang member who works on violence prevention. (Both Irving and Drury serve on the FIT oversight panel.) He noted that it’s hard to get funding for interventions that achieve less obvious wins, such as making sure a young person who’s just lost a close friend in a shooting gets home by 10 pm. “If you want to stop the retaliation, get in there and deal with some of that trauma.”
Efforts to reform the Portland police go back decades. In 1970, the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party tried to get a petition on the ballot to put the police bureau under community control. But their signature-gathering effort was interrupted when police shot a man named Albert Williams at the chapter’s office, an incident that generated significant negative media coverage for the party. “The police kept hitting us and hitting us,” said Ford, the chapter’s founder. They “put the community control thing on to simmer.”
On the 12th of every month, Ford attends a vigil for a man named Keaton Otis, one of a number of Black residents killed by police officers who never faced legal consequences. In 2010, police pulled Otis over for failing to use a turn signal. When an officer tried to remove him from his car, police said, Otis shot him in the leg. Police fired 23 rounds in return, killing him. Otis had a mental illness, which is a common element in many Portland police killings. The police bureau has been under the supervision of the Justice Department since 2014, after federal investigators found a pattern of excessive force against people with mental illness.
The brutality of the Portland Police Bureau and its lack of accountability became particularly apparent during the nightly protests last year and their aftermath. The city’s police oversight board, the Independent Police Review, was contacted nearly 4,000 times about police conduct since the beginning of the protests, during which the police documented some 6,000 uses of force, including firing impact munitions and deploying tear gas. In February, the Justice Department rebuked officers for using force indiscriminately. The terms agreed to in the 2014 settlement required the bureau to conduct an assessment of its handling of the protests. In May, the Justice Department slammed the bureau’s self-assessment as “an advocacy piece to justify what PPB did, blame shortcomings on other entities and circumstances beyond PPB’s control, and seek additional funds for new equipment, training, and personnel.”
A number of protest-related lawsuits have been filed against the city, including by a nurse who was allegedly tackled while he worked as a medic; a resident who was allegedly beaten after going outside to talk to police about tear gas entering his home; and by two protesters and the police reform group Don’t Shoot PDX for the bureau’s “indiscriminate use” of tear gas. So far only a single officer has been indicted in connection with the protests. In June, Officer Corey Budworth, who was a member of a unit called the Rapid Response Team that had been dispatched to the protests, was charged with one count of assault in the fourth degree for hitting a photographer with a baton in August of 2020. All of the remaining officers of the Rapid Response Team resigned from the unit in what was widely seen as an act of protest.
The bureau’s treatment of Black Lives Matter demonstrators is often contrasted with its handling of incursions by far-right militias. In August, police were notably absent when far-right activists, including members of the Proud Boys, came to East Portland for a rally and clashed with antifascists in brawls featuring baseball bats, paintball guns, and chemical spray. Late in the day, a man fired several shots downtown; he was later arrested.
“Police here are just not used to being held accountable, frankly, and so it creates a culture of ‘They’re right and everyone else is wrong.’ And that shows up in the way they police the neighborhoods,” said Candace Avalos, chair of the Citizen Review Committee, which hears appeals of cases of alleged police misconduct. Systems of oversight are weak, particularly compared with the power wielded by the Portland Police Association, the union that represents officers of the police bureau. The CRC, for instance, has no subpoena power. Six members of the CRC have resigned since December 2019, several citing Wheeler’s lack of support.
The new oversight board could correct some of this imbalance. It will be the most powerful citizen-run police accountability panel in the country, with subpoena and firing power. Implementing it will take more than a year; a commission has recently begun work to hash out the board’s structure. “We get one chance to do it right,” said Commissioner Hardesty.
Portland police officers have killed two people so far this year, both of whom were in a mental health crisis. (Grand juries declined to file charges against the officers in both cases.) These kinds of incidents are what motivated the creation of Portland Street Response (PSR), which rolled out its pilot program in February in the Lents neighborhood, an underserved area with a high volume of 911 and nuisance calls. The team consists of a firefighter EMT, a licensed mental-health-crisis therapist, and two community health workers who are embedded in the fire department. The goal is to create an alternative emergency response for incidents involving mental health crises or homelessness, which currently consume a sizable chunk of police resources. Half of the arrests made by Portland police in 2017 were of people experiencing homelessness. Oregon has notoriously poor mental health care services, ranking 48th in prevalence of mental illness and access to care, according to one study.
But the pilot’s scope is limited. Currently PSR operates only in Lents, and the team is permitted to independently handle only incidents that do not involve a suicide risk or a weapon and that occur in “publicly accessible spaces” such as stores or lobbies. Because of these limitations, call volume has been lower than expected. In May, three of the city’s five commissioners voted against Hardesty’s proposal to allocate $3.6 million to expand the program into other neighborhoods next spring. Wheeler said he supported the pilot but wanted to see “outcomes” before expanding it; more recently, he said he was working with Hardesty on an expansion. In June, PSR asked the city for permission to respond to calls from private spaces such as homes, hotels, and shelters. The Portland Police Association, which has bargaining rights over PSR expansions, denied the request.
The pilot is one of the few concrete steps Portland has taken to reimagine public safety since George Floyd’s death, though it was in the works years earlier. That, combined with the ongoing political wrangling, has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the program’s small team of first responders. “It’s been really, really stressful,” said Britt Urban, the team’s crisis therapist. “I love the work. I love what we’re doing when we’re out meeting with people…. But then on top of that you have all this chatter and media scrutiny.” While the program is often described in the media as an opposing force to the police, its staff works closely with the bureau, and many of the emergency dispatchers who assign calls to PSR are members of the union. Robyn Burek, a program manager, described this collaboration as helpful. Given the union’s veto power, it is also a necessity. Now that the team has been blocked from independently responding to homes and other private spaces, for instance, PSR can maintain its limited mission, or try to “co-respond” more frequently with officers.
One of chief drivers of the backlash against police reform is concern about homelessness and related public safety issues, a debate that Portland Street Response is also wrapped up in. Some who request the team’s services want it to clear homeless encampments, which is not part of its mission. “There tends to be these two communities,” said Burek. “One community wants this alternative to police response, and another community, largely [people] who live in residences near homeless camps, wants more of an enforcement.”
Homelessness is one of Portland’s most divisive, complex issues. It’s often chalked up to the city offering “generous” services to houseless individuals. However, research indicates that housing unaffordability is a more significant driver of homelessness. Between 2012 and 2017, rents in Portland rose faster than income, while home prices jumped citywide by over $88,000 between 2014 and 2019. Today, 46 percent of renters in the greater Portland region spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
According to city officials, there were about six large encampments in Portland before the pandemic; as of June, they numbered more than 100. Tents and other structures dot sidewalks, green spaces, and the shoulders of exit ramps throughout the city. During the past year, the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program was receiving a record 1,700 complaints about encampments each week, according to The Washington Post. “People typically assume because homelessness is more visible, rates of homelessness have gone up,” said Greg Townley, research director at Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative. Such a rise may be looming as eviction moratoriums end, Townley noted, but the visibility of the thousands of people living without housing mostly reflects the fact that Portland paused what had amounted to dozens of weekly sweeps of encampments after the CDC recommended that people be allowed to shelter in place.
Portland has resumed some sweeps, which the city calls “clean-ups.” Some residents feel that removals aren’t happening fast enough, while others argue that they are an inhumane measure that prioritizes aesthetics over the well-being of unhoused people, who often lose their belongings in the process. “Sweeps are not [an approach] that has been shown to effectively address the issue that we’re facing in terms of housing shortages,” Townley said. “All it is is moving people along.”
Some other new initiatives offer medium- and long-term solutions. County and city officials have united around a plan to create six “safe rest villages,” designated parking or camping sites that will offer hygiene services and case management. These may provide some immediate safe shelter, but they don’t solve the underlying issue of housing affordability. Last year, voters approved a quarter-billion-dollar measure to fund permanent supportive housing, and the City Council enacted a significant zoning reform that will permit multi-unit homes in residential lots, a plan that housing experts believe may eventually help lower housing costs across the city.
Portland’s racial justice protests were driven by the fraught history of racism and policing in the city and its deeply rooted tradition of radical activism. But they also emerged in the context of Portland’s recent transformation from an under-the-radar, affordable city into a national tourist and business destination with snarls of traffic and block-long lines for famous ice cream, where the cost of rent was for a time rising faster than almost anywhere else in the country. This transformation is neatly expressed in the new Ritz-Carlton under construction downtown. Its lower facade is now in place, a skeleton of pale, asymmetric blocks stacked like bones. Invitations sent out recently to potential investors described the tower as a “response to the rapid proliferation of commerce and affluence in Portland.”
Ultimately, the protests became a lightning rod for more expansive anxieties about the trajectory of the city and who wields power here. Before the pandemic, the city government was taking tentative steps to address equity in its planning decisions and to stop the displacement of vulnerable residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. Lisa Bates, of Portland State, believes that some of the backlash from the business community to the protests is really a “very explicit rebuke of the idea of placing equitable development at the core of decision-making.”
“The conversation about the city’s major issues is, in my view, reprehensibly putting the blame on poor people, Black people, and allies of Black civil rights for essentially every ill that’s happening in the city right now,” Bates continued. The result is a narrative that insists “the only way we can save us is more cops; get out of the way of my development; juice at the top so high-income tourists come back.” To acknowledge that Portland’s greatest challenges have little to do with anarchists would mean having a more difficult conversation about the city’s future. It would mean asking, “Who is this city for?”