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People Of Color In Portland Government Face A Frustrating And Even Scary Time


Portland Police in riot gear stand guard in front of Portland City Hall.

Portland Police in riot gear stand guard in front of Portland City Hall.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

Lately, Asena Lawrence feels caught in the middle of two disturbing political events.

At the national level, there’s newly elected President Donald Trump. Lawrence believes Trump is encouraging discrimination against people of her faith. Lawrence is Turkish-American, calls herself a very liberal Muslim. She’s dealt with her share of prejudice. 

“I’m not trying to play a victim, but you know, it happens, it’s been happening my whole life,” she said. “It’s not something that I get to pretend doesn’t happen to me.”

And then, there’s local Portland politics. Lawrence is a community liaison for City Commissioner Nick Fish. For months, left-wing activists have disrupted City Council meetings. Lawrence says they have cursed at her and once pushed furniture up against an office door blocking her and other staff members inside.   

The hardest day, Lawrence says, was a recent meeting to declare Portland a sanctuary city for refugees and immigrants.

“I come out of it, and I’m physically shaking,” she said. “It felt like trauma.”

Lawrence helped write the sanctuary resolution. And she’d arranged for speakers to explain why it mattered.

But protesters repeatedly shut the hearing down. Some were members of Don’t Shoot PDX, an anti-police violence group. Others were anarchists. Earlier that week, a grand jury had declined to charge a Portland police officer who shot and killed a 17-year-old old while investigating a suspected robbery.

Protesters like Cecelia Evans wanted to talk about police reform, not immigration law.

“I don’t understand,” Evans told the Council, “how you can claim to be a sanctuary when you’ve got 17-year-old young men getting shot?”

People yelled at the City Council, interrupting immigrants who’d come to testify about their fears of deportation. At one point, a man shouted out a tally of police officers shot and killed last year: Three in Baton Rouge, five in Dallas, the man said. How many in Portland? 

Mayor Ted Wheeler told an immigrant waiting to testify to just ignore the disruption: “Good afternoon,” he said. “Just go ahead. Just start. We’ll give you extra time.”

Lawrence, the staffer, was horrified.

“To take away from the voices of people who are already marginalized and feeling attacked?” she said. “It hurt so much.”

The incident gets at the tension that rules City Hall right now: Portland is a very liberal city with a new mayor who’s promised a progressive agenda. Police reform. Affordable housing.

It’s also one of the whitest cities in America, with a long history of institutional racism.

And a small but vocal group see the mayor not as a progressive reformer, but as a continuation of that racist past. 

“There is an interesting dichotomy of people accusing the work you’re doing of being racist,” said Rachael Wiggins, who worked for the former mayor, Charlie Hales. “And then looking in the mirror, and being like, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Wiggins is mixed race; her dad is black, and her mom is white. Protests over racial justice were a weekly fixture of her job at City Hall, particularly near the end of the Hales administration, when the mayor was negotiating a new contract with the police union.

Wiggins says the protesters had valid concerns about the contract and felt shut out of the process. She believed the new contract would help the city hire better officers.  

“It’s really frustrating to be accused of being the man, being the people who are trying to hold people of color down in the city,” she said. “And it makes me very mad.”

Of the 20 or so people who work directly in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, more than half are people of color. More than half of Hales’ staff was made up of people of color too.

Some of the most vocal and regular weekly protesters at City Hall are white. So Wiggins often found herself listening to groups of largely white protesters insisting that black lives matter. “It was really interesting to see the folks who came out to protest, and to be able to say that there are more people of color in the mayor’s office than at this protest,” she said.  

Gregory McKelvey is with the group Portland’s Resistance and, like Wiggins, is biracial.

He led the protests against the police contract last year and helped organize demonstrations in the street after Trump’s election. McKelvey thinks police violence against protesters in the streets is behind the frequent chaos at City Hall.  

But he also said he thinks the disruptions at council meetings have become counterproductive. He’s still leading marches in the streets, but not at council meetings. 

“You know, these people were elected,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair to the rest of the city to say, ‘Me and my small group of friends have decided the most important issues.’”

He said he was especially discouraged when the activists he used to work with shut down the council’s hearing on sanctuary cities. That room was full of other marginalized people, McKelvey said — in other words, potential allies.

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