A predominantly white city tucked away in the northwest corner of the U.S. hardly seems the logical spot to emerge as the new flash point of the protests against racism and police brutality that have raged across the country for nearly two months.
Then again, both Portland and its home state of Oregon have a troubled past that animates the ongoing demonstrations, now in their eighth week.
Oregon’s territorial constitution adopted in November 1857 – less than two years before it became a state – barred people of color from coming within its borders. It wasn’t until 1926 that the provision was repealed. Oregon imposed a tax on people of color in 1862, and racial exclusion laws and bans on interracial marriages were on the books for decades, the latter until 1951.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, who teaches history at Oregon State University and splits time between the school’s base in Corvallis and Portland, said the long trail of discrimination in Oregon informed the protests in a liberal city long known for its activism.
But he said they had tapered down, describing them as “peaceful, benign and boring’’ – until the feds took action. His comment was echoed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who told PBS the actions of “Trump’s troops’’ were “simply like pouring gasoline on a fire.’’
Nichols said a fellow history professor from another college, Maureen Healy, was hit while near the moms’ group by one of the rounds fired by federal agents Monday night.
“There had been local activists who kept the fire burning, and now with the federal agents coming in, we’ve seen a reignition of the fire,’’ Nichols said. “I mean that both literally in terms of the unfortunate violence, but also figuratively because people are getting more excited and enthusiastic.’’
Nichols also pinned much of the blame for the continued animus from the crowds on heavy-handed tactics by the police department, which he said has a culture influenced by racism even though two of its last three chiefs – including the current one, Chuck Lovell – have been Black.
Both professors pointed out the heated clashes with police and/or federal agents are limited to a small part of downtown, in contrast to statements by Chad Wolf, Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that Portland is “under siege’’ by “violent anarchists.’’