Activist’s worry: Trump, Wheeler rhetoric distracts from purpose of Portland protests

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Sept. 3, 2020 1 p.m.

Activist, journalist and hip-hop artist Mac Smiff says protests remain about the police budget and standing up for Black lives.

More than three months into the nightly protests in Portland, the dynamics have changed yet again.


Over the past few weeks, supporters of President Donald Trump have demonstrated in Portland, and more physical violence has ensued. A man was shot and killed during dueling protests over the weekend.

Portland activist, journalist and hip-hop artist Mac Smiff has been demonstrating for racial justice since the beginning, and he joined “All Things Considered” host Tiffany Camhi this week to talk about what it’s like to be out every night in this moment. You can also use the audio player at the start of this story to listen to their conversation.

Mac Smiff (with megaphone) speaks to a crowd gathered at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., July 22, 2020. Smiff says protests remain about the local budget, defunding police and standing up for Black lives.

Mac Smiff (with megaphone) speaks to a crowd gathered at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., July 22, 2020. Smiff says protests remain about the local budget, defunding police and standing up for Black lives.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Tiffany Camhi: You’ve been out protesting for just over three months. Have you seen a shift in the tone of these protests? How? Has your perspective changed?

Mac Smiff: Yeah, especially now. There have definitely been a lot of shifts, but now we have a fatality. I don’t think that my perspective has changed. I think that a lot of us were prepared emotionally for this kind of a moment to occur because the amount of escalation has kind of foreshadowed that.


Camhi: Far-right groups have been holding their own protests the past few weeks in Portland. As a Black man in this city, does that make you feel less safe going out every night?

Smiff: Yeah, but I didn’t really feel safe in the first place. So it is what it is.

Camhi: Some organizers have been actively encouraging people to stay home right now, especially BIPOC people. They worry about retribution by conservative extremists. Are you worried about that?

Smiff: That’s a realistic expectation given the situation. I feel like everyone has to have their own personal level of safety and boundary. So I don’t really have an opinion on how people take care of themselves, I think we definitely have to take care of ourselves, though.

Camhi: Republicans are making “law and order” a core part of President Trump’s reelection campaign. He’s criticized the racial equity protests in Portland several times. Are you worried that this messaging will dilute the Black Lives Matter protests here?

Smiff: I think that everything that’s been done by the president has been an effort to dilute our protests here. I think that this messaging again is expected. You expect for the president to take the defense of race warriors. That’s kind of his m.o. So I think that it does, as everything that is done that has nothing to do with what we’re asking for, it always changes the focus.

Camhi: Does that frustrate you?

Smiff: It does, because this is really a local budget issue. This is an issue of we are spending too much money on police and not enough money on anything else. And this has been turned into a Donald Trump war, which is not the reason that we’re out here. So that’s actually extremely frustrating.

Camhi: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has blamed the violence at the protest on Donald Trump, and he’s called for federal law enforcement to stay away from the city. I know that you’ve been very critical of Wheeler’s leadership during this time. How do you think he’s handled the past few days?

Smiff: I have been less critical of Wheeler’s leadership as I have been about his non-leadership. The issue I have with Ted Wheeler, including the last a few days, is that he doesn’t actually ever do anything. He just continues to say the same thing that he has been saying. His talks over the last few days have really not amounted to a whole lot. He’s told Donald Trump to stay away, but again, that’s not the fight that I’m even here for. So that’s kind of an auxiliary issue. And his lack of leadership and actually making the changes we’re asking for is a real testament to even grasp this moment.