Black-led groups unveil sweeping demands for combating systemic racism in Oregon

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
July 28, 2020 9:01 p.m.

The "Reimagine Oregon" plan already has buy-in from elected officials at every level of Oregon governance.

Black-led organizations and activists in Oregon have unveiled a sweeping set of policy demands aimed at rooting out the entrenched systemic racism that has marred the state since its founding.


Hoping to leverage momentum from two months of protests over racial injustice in Portland and around the country — and with buy-in from elected leaders at every level — the newly formed coalition unveiled its “Reimagine Oregon” plan in a press event Tuesday morning.

A subsection of the crowd marches toward the Marriott hotel in downtown Portland, Ore., July 25, 2020. Portland has sustained protests against police brutality and systemic racism for 58 days.

A subsection of the crowd marches toward the Marriott hotel in downtown Portland, Ore., July 25, 2020. Portland has sustained protests against police brutality and systemic racism for 58 days.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

“Oregon this is your chance,” Kali Thorne Ladd, executive director of Kairos PDX, said during the event. “Now is your chance to prove that Black Lives Matter in a tangible and actionable way.”

The many-pronged plan defies easy summary, roping in policymakers from a wide range of government bodies, and touching on such central issues as criminal justice reform, housing equity, transportation access, education, health care and more. Among demands that supporters announced:

  • An end to police officers patrolling school campuses, with money for that enforcement instead dedicated to counselors and professionals trained in conflict de-escalation, mental health and culturally specific social services.
  • Decriminalizing the offense of fare evasion on public transit, preventing police from checking for warrants when handling cases of fare evasion, and divesting from transit police.
  • Banning chokeholds, tear gas, auditory weapons and other options police currently can use under the law. Those proposals appear likely to be considered in an upcoming special session of the Legislature.
  • $2.5 million in funding to support a task force that will propose further changes to public safety practices.
  • Ending homeless outreach in Multnomah County currently centered in the sheriff’s office, instead placing the function more squarely in the hands of social service agencies.
  • Stepped up enforcement against discriminatory housing practices, and making it easier for Black Oregonians to qualify for rent assistance offered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Requiring statements that detail what racial impact proposed laws at the state, regional, and local levels will have.

“We’re giving highlights, because the work is voluminous,” said Nkenge Harmon Johnson, CEO and president of the Urban League of Portland, in a nod to the scope of the proposal.

Organizers behind the Reimagine Oregon project described a remarkable process to conceive and build support for the plan — one built off both the urgency that followed Minneapolis police killing George Floyd on May 25, but also off demands that have been put forward for years.

As the Black Lives Matter message began to catch fire in the wake of Floyd’s killing, “it felt like we kept hearing folks get stuck in this rut of acknowledging Black people’s pain and apologizing for it and we didn’t really hear any action,” said Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN. “So we started calling each other.”

Since June 12, organizers have been meeting for weekly video conferences, first collating a list of policy goals and demands in a spreadsheet, then pulling in elected officials from city, county, regional, state, and federal government who have pledged to act as leads in pursuing those changes.

“This is about lives and the rights of people to be free. After I get free, I’ll focus on the graffiti.”

As a result, proposals listed on a website for the plan contain not just details of individual actions. They list proposals by specific government entity, offering a prognosis for how likely they are to pass, a timeline when that might happen, and which elected officials will lead the way.


Some of those proposals show little sign of life, such as a call to pull $50 million from both the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and Portland Police Bureau budgets. (“Prognosis: Unlikely to happen.”) Many more are listed as “likely” or “in discussion”.

Elected officials on the press call included Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington and Metro Councilor Juan Carlos Gonzalez.

“We are taking meaningful, tangible steps,” Kafoury said. “We can go faster and we can go farther and we can do more and we will.”

As she has in the past, Brown labeled herself “one of the many white politicians whose good intentions haven’t done enough to tackle the scourge of systemic racism.”

“It’s been incredibly important for me to participate in this process… so that we can all work together to forge a better path forward,” Brown said.

Groups who’ve helped build the Reimagine Oregon proposal include Kairos PDX, the Urban League of Portland, the Coalition of Communities of Color, JOIN, and Stand For Children. Individual protest organizers also helped develop priorities.

In Oregon, and specifically Portland, protests over Floyd’s death and other instances of police violence have been among the most sustained in the country. The movement had dwindled in late June, before seeing a huge resurgence when President Trump sent a surge of federal officers to tamp down protests in the city.

“I can tell you it’s the first time I’ve worked in a room like this,” Harmon Johnson said.

Organizers also nodded to the deep history of racism in Oregon, which extends back to laws prohibiting Black residents when it was founded as a state.

“Now that you’ve finally realized Black lives matter, are you ready to do these things?” said Holland, describing discussions while the plan was being formed. “On what timeline are you ready to get these things done? Because systemic racism has to be dismantled in our lifetimes.”

Organizers described protests that have turned national attention to Portland as a symptom of the longstanding issues around racism the state has experienced.

Repeated, violent clashes between federal officers and protesters in recent weeks have created fierce debate over what many say is a disproportionate response by police to overwhelmingly peaceful protests. Federal officials, though, have highlighted graffiti, thrown objects, and small fires that a minority of demonstrators have employed.

To a question about those tactics, Harmon Johnson offered a pointed answer.

“What we’re seeing too little of is the media talking about the reasons that people have to take to the streets in the first place,” she said. “I am a daughter of Oregon. I am an American. And yet I have to fight to be treated as an American… This is about lives and the rights of people to be free. After I get free, I’ll focus on the graffiti.”