Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Hope in Portland?

Portland, Oregon is a city of memories. A quirky, friendly, fun city. A place for back-to-school shopping trips with my daughter and romantic getaways with my husband. Built on the Willamette River, it reminds me a bit of Paris or London, with parks and paths along both banks and crossed by numerous bridges. 

Ten days after the insurrection in D.C., my husband needed to make the three-hour drive from Seattle to Portland for business. I decided to tag along, and we booked a room in one of Portland’s historic downtown hotels. We assumed the low rates were pandemic related. After checking in and parking the car in the garage – for us walking or cycling is the best way to enjoy Portland – we headed toward the river and soon discovered that Portland is no longer the City of Roses I have long loved.

Last summer’s peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to the May 25th murder of George Floyd turned violent when white supremacists, anarchists, and Trump supporters converged on the city. When federal agents were called in, violence escalated. It is still smoldering.

That violence combined with the financial crisis caused by the pandemic has left a wasteland of boarded up buildings. Some stores are open for limited business with entrances through reinforced doors. A few restaurants offer outdoor dining, but most we saw offer take-out only or remain closed. Chain link fences surround official buildings, monuments, and parks. Homeless people, tents and garbage are visible at every turn.

We headed toward Portland’s famous food trucks for a late lunch. There are several areas we have enjoyed on prior visits. This time we found them amid seas of homeless encampments. After being approached a few times for handouts, we opted to move on.

Walking away, we saw police activity: police vehicles with flashing lights barricading the street, officers holding pointed guns over cruiser roofs, a pedestrian filming with her cell. But the pain is in pockets. We found another cluster of food trucks only a few blocks away and we ate.

Everywhere the buildings are boarded up. Many are framed with two-by-fours, as though for a new wall. This allows easy removal and replacement of plywood boards. A necessity in an unstable environment. I was reminded of the roll-down metal security doors I became familiar with during my years in Mexico City. According to the desk clerk at our hotel, these barriers have come down and been replaced several times in the past eight months. She said some were removed last autumn only to be replaced before the presidential election. Some were removed after the election only to be replaced in response to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now the city seems to be waiting, holding its breath, for the inauguration.

Some of the plywood boards are painted, others are raw wood. Many have splotches of different colored paint as though nobody could settle on a color choice. Those splotches testify to a constant battle by some to stop the graffiti. The boards on other buildings display creative and artistic expression. The Apple store boasts large black panels and invitation to folks to decorate them. They remain untouched.

That evening in our comfortable hotel room with take-out  from a nearby grocery store, we watched Anand Giridharas on MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. He described what we are experiencing in America today as the beginning of something new and better for our unique nation.

Anand Giridharadas, publisher of The.Ink, says that what the country experienced last week is the chaos at the end of white supremacy. “This is not a launch party, this is a funeral for something. It is a funeral for white supremacy. It is a funeral for a kind of outdated, outmoded male power. It is a mourning for a time in which certain Americans could claim to be the default of America and not have to share.” (Source)

Here's an excerpt from an essay Giridharadas published in The.Ink:

We are falling on our face because we are jumping very high right now. We are trying to do something that does not work in theory. To be a country of all the world, a country made up of all the countries, a country without a center of identity, without a default idea of what a human being is or looks like, without a shared religious belief, without a shared language that is people's first language at home. And what we're trying to do is awesome. It is literally awesome in the correct sense of that word. (Source)

While it is hard to imagine Portland’s downtown returning to peace and prosperity from such extremes of unrest and poverty, I find hope in Giridharadas’ words.

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