Portland Can't Call Itself Progressive Until It Confronts Its Racism

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Portland's liberal reputation is warranted in many ways, but like all American cities, its violent past remains unresolved and continues to shape the community.

protester kneels and looks into camera while holding a cigarette and American flag in front of an American/Confederate flag

It is generally assumed that the liberal bastion of the Pacific Northwest is the exception to American racism.

The communities there have developed a reputation for aligning with the political left and often stand at the forefront of progressive movements. However, these are also some of the whitest communities in America, and as much as the United States itself, these communities have been built on the words and actions of racists.

Portland, one of the largest cities in the region, has come into the national spotlight recently after the brutal stabbing attack that killed two men defending a Muslim woman and her friend against racist vitriol. The incident has plunged the city into grief and punctured its liberal bubble. Yet what's most telling is this bubble was not burst from the outside, but rather from within.

"Portland's tactic when it comes to race up until now, has been to ignore it," Zev Nicholson, an African-American resident of Portland, Oregon, and former organizing director of the Urban League of Portland, told The Atlantic.

If the city is to come out of this tragedy and truly grow, it must learn that ignoring hate doesn't make it disappear, but gives it a platform, he told reporters.

Like most, if not all, American origin stories, Portland was built on violence and bigotry, and it once stood far right from the left-wing Shangri-La it is viewed as today. Racism is as much a part of the city's history as the lush forests that frame it.

When Oregon entered the union in 1859, it was the only state that banned black people from living within its borders. The Ku Klux Klan built up their ranks in Oregon at the turn of the 20th century, and membership grew to 14,000 men, with 9,000 of them living in Portland in 1922.

The city was segregated just like the South, was an accomplice to Japanese-American internment in World War II, has housed violent neo-Nazi movements, and has struggled with leadership that tends to turn a blind eye to the city's severe problem with housing discrimination against blacks and Latinos.

To this day, Portland remains one of America's whitest cities.

"They want to know if it’s true and is it really that quirky? Is it really that progressive? Is the food amazing? And all of those things are actually true," longtime activist and civil rights strategist Eric Ward told HuffPost when describing people's curiosity of his city. "[But] there’s another ‘Portlandia,’ and the other ‘Portlandia’ isn’t funny. It is a ‘Portlandia’ that has a white terror crisis.”

As America grows increasingly divided, Portland, like other less liberal cities, reflects that hostility. Over the past year, it's been the location of many brutal and unnerving hate crimes, as documented by the HuffPost. In the Portland suburbs, a member of the neo-Nazi prison gang European Kindred mowed over a 19-year-old black man with his car. The day after President Donald Trump's election, three men threw a brick at a black woman, beat her, and threatened to rape her. She recalled one of the men saying, “We got a president who finally feels how we feel and we’re going to make America great again by getting rid of n*****s like you.”

Earlier this year, an Iranian refugee came home to find his house vandalized with hateful messages. And just last month the windows on both of the cars of a Latino family were smashed in, one of the vehicles rigged with an explosive device.

These are just some of the hate crimes committed in Portland amidst the current political climate, and history holds many more incidents that show that racism is a pervasive problem.

While these attacks are horrifying, to citizens on the front lines of racial hatred, like Imam Mikal Shabbaz, they are not altogether surprising. After all, Portland is "a white state where most white people almost never interact with people of color," Shabbaz told HuffPost. Prejudices are allowed to simmer unchallenged until they boil over onto two young girls riding the train and end in the deaths of good men.

Randy Blazak, professor and head of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime told HuffPost that the most recent hate crimes run down from the current administration. White supremacists have long carved out a home in liberal Oregon, but with racists at the helm, they feel their ideals are finally being represented and encouraged.

The hate "was always there," Blazak explained, "but now it's been given new permission."

Anti-fascist protesters march in Portland on June 4, 2017 in response to the Trump Free Speech Rally held nearby. Reuters

As Portland grapples with its demons, its minority communities are ensuring their members are kept safe. Shabbaz said that he is telling Muslim residents to be vigilant and for women to be escorted in case they are targeted for attack. Despite the precautions though, he is optimistic because of the inspiring acts of Taliesin Namkai Meche, Ricky Best, and Micah Fletcher.

“Their lives certainly have not gone in vain, because now they have triggered in other people the same idea,” he told reporters. “People can stand up for what’s right and refuse to give in under extraordinary circumstances.”

The nation that Portland moves forward in is not a kind one, especially right now, nor is it one that will be supportive if the city chooses to address its violent history. However, doing the right thing is never about doing what is easy. Like the three men on the train, Portland and America must stand up for the vulnerable in the face of evil, and they must never, ever look away.

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