Dispatch from Portland 2016-2023: The Gloss of Good Intentions
Policies enacted as conflicts burned have led to an unintended rise in crime, homelessness, drug addiction and murder. Has the situation cooled to where citizens will turn things around?
Because young people do not own television sets, a group of seven or eight of my husband’s employees gathered in our kitchen in October 2016, to watch the debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump.
There was, I think, equal parts curiosity and anxiety in the kitchen that night. With the exception of my husband and me, 2016 would be the first or second election these 20-somethings were eligible to vote in. Obama was the only president they’d ever known; no doubt some had been at the largest presidential rally ever in 2008, when 80,000 people gathered on the Portland waterfront to cheer the then-candidate. Eight years later, the staff — avowed feminists, not so much leaning as pitching left - was rabidly pro-Clinton. And here was this buffoon, this horror show, this pussy-grabber stalking their candidate on the stage.
This did not make them feel safe, not at all. But what could they do about it, other than vote? Which, after the election, I understood most of them had not. The reasons ran from, “What’s the point?” to a passive anger at a system that would allow a man like Trump to be on the world stage, fuck Amerika and all that.
As it would turn out, there would be things they could do about it. As I have previously written:
Were most people in Portland stunned when Trump was elected? Sure, but they did not malinger, they marched, they marched and marched and kept marching, women’s marches, “Not my President!” marches, marches for LBGTQ rights, for minority rights, an Earth Day march, a May Day march, marches against homelessness and ICE, for police accountability and immigrant rights, so many marches an alt-weekly ran a “Resistance & Rallies” listings category. Marching provided the warm spurt that doing something can bring, and if they did not seem to have much effect on the machinations of government, they at least brought people together.
I was wrong about the effect on the machinations of government, but before I get to that, there have been many discussions - privately, editorially, including from me - about when we as a country first detected the cultural shimmy that’s resulted in use of cancellation as a swift and effective tool, a temptation immediately satisfied by mashing the heart-icon. I am going to put the tactic at 2015. This was when the young people of Portland, many of who’d been lured by the siren song of an eco-conscious affordable city being ready to deliver on their dreams, a song that started softly around the turn of the last century but which, by 2015, was getting a little creaky: Rents were up, and the fantasy of making a living as a part-time barista who played in a band turned out to be just that. And whose fault was this? It was easy to blame Trump for the big problems, the perceived misogyny and racism and homophobia, and marching did provide some relief. But what about the day-to-day grievances, how it was hard to get a raise or find an apartment? Why did people have to keep calling home for money to get through the month? Where was their piece of the Portland pie?
Thus started the era of the request and the threat: Can we station white people at the doors of cafes to buy black people their coffee? It would be good PR! (That would be no.) Can I put on Facebook that my boss is a Nazi because she made us serve a guy in a MAGA cap? (You can, and face whatever consequences the boss sees it.) Can I film you while accusing you of being a racist? Can I sign an anonymous list calling you out for cultural appropriation? Can the staff write a manifesto demanding you meet our demands for a raise, a union, an apology?
If Portland’s young people found voting too taxing, they had no trouble being swept up by memetic contagion, which by 2019 they called activism, acts they believed were being performed for the greater good, for equity, for equality, to keep people safe.
And then we all faced a real contagion, with no way to express frustration or a lust for justice but being online, until, opportunity of opportunities, Trump sent federal forces to protect the federal courthouse in Portland, altercations I spent dozens of nights covering and which I have written 100+ pieces about, which can partially be summed up in four minutes.
As the violence went on, as the country and indeed the world was beamed the message that the nightly protests were necessary for the future health of the city, that Portland was the little metropolis that would light the way, I worried. I worried that people would go full Weather Underground and start building bombs in their basements. I worried about people trapped inside buildings that were set on fire. I became very alarmed when I saw a young woman praising the killing of a man she’d never met. What sort of idealism has people cheering in the streets for murder?