Black protesters in Portland struggling to have their voice heard

The cause of protests has flattened this summer to a culture war when the reality is much more complex

Portland's Black Lives Matter protests, which came to the forefront in mid-July have exposed a tension between Black demonstrators and their white allies, as well as disagreements among Black residents about the meaning of progress.

“It happens so much that the things that we care about get hijacked and get put on the back burner. And that just gets put into a big barrel with everything else,” said Neil Anderson, a Black business owner. “We all want the same thing. But so often we get drowned out.”

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Demetria Hester, a Black woman who leads the new Moms United for Black Lives, said the departure of federal agents and the dissolution of white liberal agitators has refocused the protests.

“These are the moms who actually want to ... make our reparations happen. Make this revolution happen,” she said.

Seneca Cayson, who helped lead peaceful gatherings in downtown Portland, believes white protesters who commit vandalism and taunt law enforcement are distracting from peaceful protest.

“What the white people have is something that we don’t, and that’s rights,” said Cayson, as he prepared to lead another peaceful rally with several other Black men. “We are fighting alongside them to ... be equal.”

 In this July 22, 2020, file photo, Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Ore. Protests in Portland have topped the headlines for days, but lost in the shouting are the voices of Black Portlanders themselves and their feelings about the unrest are nuanced and diverse. 

 In this July 22, 2020, file photo, Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Ore. Protests in Portland have topped the headlines for days, but lost in the shouting are the voices of Black Portlanders themselves and their feelings about the unrest are nuanced and diverse.  (AP)

Although Portland has a Black population of less than 6%, people of color were disproportionately stopped by a gun violence reduction team, leading many activists to call for defunding the police.

An analysis published last month found that in 2019, cops were much more likely to use force against Black people — especially young Black men — than other targets regardless of calls to use less force.

“It is the entire culture of the Portland Police Bureau that is fundamentally unmanageable and must change,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the city’s first Black councilwoman and an activist who has pressed for police reform for 30 years. “Thirty years is a long time to be asking for the exact same reforms. The difference now is there are tens of thousands of Portlanders who want the exact same thing.”

In June, the City Council cut nearly $16 million from the Police Bureau budget which ended programs like the gun violence reduction unit, a youth services program and school resource officers in three school districts.

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There were 99 shootings last month -- more than triple the amount from the previous July — and the city has tallied 366 non-suicide shootings this year compared to 388 in all of 2019.

About two-thirds of the victims in July were Black, said police Sgt. Derrick Foxworth.

Some Black residents believe vandalism and violence is appropriate retribution during protests to elevate Black grievances after hundreds of years of oppression is appropriate, they say.

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Teressa Raiford, head of Don’t Shoot Portland and a former mayoral candidate, said people who are questioning the legitimacy of protest through so-called “direct action” against police are on “the wrong side of history.”

“There are people that are hellbent on protecting the status quo and the system as the way it is even if the outcomes don’t serve us,” she said. “The politicizing of Black people is not only vicious, it’s violent and we’re not being heard.”

Raiford said: “The disgusting people, in my opinion, are the people with guns and tasers that are attacking people that are showing up to protests. When we talk about anarchy ... you know that we have stolen people that were brought to stolen land where they were used as slaves. And I think people are realizing that — including white people.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.