Dispatch from Portland: 2022
Homelessness, anarchy, Thomas Chatterton Williams
I am back in Portland for the tenth time since having moved from the city in summer 2019. A lot happened in the interim, including, starting on May 27, 2020, more than 100 continuous nights of protests-cum-riots, which I covered for Reason and other outlets, an exhaustive list of which is at the end of this post. And if you're wondering, is she making something more of these, a book maybe? That’s the plan. The Gloss of Good Intentions begins as a series of articles on Paloma Media starting next week.
This week, I am in town with Thomas Chatterton Williams, visiting the Rose City from Paris with his own project, Nothing Was the Same, a "meditation on the paradigm shift of 2020, [which] will be published by Knopf and in translation in 7 foreign countries so far." Thomas and I will be meeting with people to find out where the city is clocking in. While it may be the case that the violent nightly anarchist-led protests have died down, homelessness is - despite progressive factions choosing to call it "experiencing temporary houselessness" - a serious and expanding problem, with no agreed-upon solutions for addressing the causes why, namely drug addiction, specifically fentanyl, and mental illness.
As Thomas tweeted upon arrival:
Got into Portland, Oregon yesterday and I don’t think “dystopian” is too strong a word to reach for insofar as this is a society whose streets are absolutely saturated with people leading dehumanized lives. One man screamed in rage and anguish outside my hotel for the entirety of the night... It's also not just homelessness. the hotel I'm staying at, which has thriving branches in other cities, is eerily empty and they keep apologizing to me for having hardly any staff. room can't be cleaned because no staff; restaurant won't open until Thursday because no staff. (The food trucks still very much on point tho)
And sure, Portland is that too, all adorableness and food trucks and homemade beer and youth-dreaming. But, as I wrote in 2019, in "Portlandization: It Can Happen to a Place Near You":
Young people, bless them, have a way of circumventing even the best of times and, like the milk from the goat they kept in their front yard, things turned pretty sour pretty quick. Those who’d come to Portland expecting a plug-and-play lifestyle of cheap rent and a part-time barista gig while playing in a band found the model did not work, though whose fault this was remained unclear.
By May 27, 2020 - and from my vantage point, as early as 2015 - it had become clear to young people whose fault it was, it was the fault of the cops, the courts, the landlords, white people, men, student loans, bosses, the goons sent to protect the federal courthouse, and Trump, Trump, Trump all the way down. Didn't Mayor Ted Wheeler say so himself? Didn't he call-out Trump on national television? But then the goons were gone, and soon after Trump, but the hunger, the near-sexual hunger to keep smashing stuff, it didn't go away, it needed to be fed, fed day and night with no satisfaction in sight. As I wrote for Persuasion, "I sometimes saw the activists as caught in a sort of bulimic loop, binging every night on figurative junk food only to get up in the morning feeling gross and undernourished and needing somebody to blame for the emptiness."
There are people who will tell you, all of that is BS; that Portland is the same delightful city it's always been; that the action all happened within two square blocks, and what was I, a fascist? And did I not realize my reporting was putting the lives of activists and journalists in danger? To these allegations, I will let the reader decide.
It's 2022, and I am glad to be back in Portland, with Thomas, bringing you the stories as people tell them to us and as we see them with our own eyes.
For a view of what Portland looked like nearly a year ago, I offer the feature below.
But first! Please consider a paid subscription. There are several levels to choose from, and if you want a special one, message me and I’ll set you up xx
The Dream of the 90s Died in Portland
A typical night in Portland 2020. The sun is down and a few hundred people, nearly all in their 20s and 30s, start to congregate, by twos and threes, at a prearranged location, usually a city park but sometimes at the U.S. Immigration and Customs building, or City Hall, or, as they are tonight, on the strip of downtown that is home to local and federal courthouses and the city's central police station, known as Justice Center. The drumming starts, there are some Black Lives Matter slogans shouted but mostly it's calls of "FUCK THE POLICE," none of whom are in evidence. They almost never are during the nightly protests, or not until things get hot, when windows are smashed and, for what will end up being nearly 200 nights in a row, fires started.
On this night, I do see one officer. He is sitting alone inside the lobby of the back entrance to Justice Center. Beside him is an industrial fan. When I ask why, he explains that the night before, a group of protesters sloshed in a giant bucket of diarrhea into the room where he sits. The fan is to try to get the stench out. Behind me, five teenagers stand at the curb gawping.
"What happened? What happened?" they ask. They're not black bloc—the darkly clad anarchists roaming the streets—but random teens with random energy who came downtown, maybe, to see what all the fuss was about, to lightly taunt a police officer before running off. The J.V. team.
In their stead there soon appears a young couple. They are outfitted in the black bloc uniform of head-to-toe black; the boy carries a steel baton and wants me to know it. There is nonetheless something patrician about them, as if under different circumstances one might encounter them at cotillion. The uniform conceals their identities, but it can't hide the sense of entitlement that allows them a cheap laugh at the cop, at the fan. What I want to know is, why do they think throwing human shit as a tactic is OK?
"Do you believe that property is worth more than human lives?" asks the boy.
"Do you believe the police should be allowed to murder people?" asks the girl.
I do not mention that, at this point in the year, there has been only one deadly police shooting in Portland. I do not mention it because, after 15 years of living in Portland, I know the city's fledgling anarchists do not deal in facts, that they instead keep a set of platitudes up those black sleeves.
"We've tried for 20 years to do it another way. It hasn't worked. Nothing changes except with violence," says the boy, who is maybe 22. Then he flips me the bird.
* * *
The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland Sleep till 11, you'll be in heaven The dream of the '90s is alive in Portland The dream is alive —Portlandia
Around the turn of the century, Portland was the new belle on the block, not despoiled like San Francisco or in bed with high tech like Seattle. Oregon was not known nationally for much more than Nike and pinot noir and former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, but maybe (with the exception of Packwood) that was OK. Maybe the city could debut as a fresh canvas, eco-friendly and affordable, a place to achieve your achievable dreams.
A lot of people were willing to take the chance, including my family. We moved from Los Angeles to Portland in 2004, and for a while, everything seemed on the up. The city in 2009 was, according to The Wall Street Journal, attracting "college-educated, single people between the ages of 25 and 39 at a higher rate than most other cities in the country." New residents built the city they wanted to live in: farm-to-table restaurants and 40 million brewpubs and too many bike paths and aggressively progressive politics. When then–Illinois Sen. Barack Obama swung through on the campaign trail in 2008, more than 75,000 people lined Portland's waterfront to see him.
Portland had entered the national stage. Was it a little bit goofy, a little bit twee? Sure, but also energetic in the way a young city can be, with people cutting what seemed to be genuinely new paths. Would the dudes slinging Korean barbecue out of an old R.V. take it brick-and-mortar? Who knew? Who cared? The dynamism of what-could-be hung in the very air.
Air, it turned out, a lot of people wanted to share. Soon, some who'd come to Portland expecting the city to deliver their dreams grew restless. They couldn't find their footing, or couldn't settle on who they were supposed to be, or both.
"I sometimes think we're the scatterbrained generation," a 26-year-old barista with a degree in anthropology told me for a 2010 article I wrote called "Is Portland the New Neverland?" "You have so many choices, and you know what you end up doing? Nothing. You become the D.J.-fashion-designing-knitting-coffee-maker."
Portland's leadership seemed likewise unserious. Democratic Mayor Sam Adams had to fly home from Obama's first inauguration to face charges of having had a sexual liaison with an underage legislative intern with the readymade name of Beau Breedlove, and in 2019 he was accused by his former executive assistant of sexual harassment. In 2015, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid allegations of influence peddling by his fiancé.
"It's not a well-governed city. It's not a well-governed state. Portland has basically had three failed mayors in a row," says T.B., who previously held a high-ranking position in state government and who asked not to be identified by name. "Tom Potter was a former police chief who became mayor. He was totally hapless. Sam Adams was hyperkinetic, one thing after another and scandalous and so totally ineffective. And then Charlie Hales—I don't know exactly what happened to him, but he also served one term; they all did. And now you have Ted [Wheeler], who I think has had three police chiefs since taking office. There's certainly political instability at the municipal level, to say the least."
Out of instability, good things nevertheless grew—including Portlandia. The comedy series debuted in 2010 and served up the city at its most parodic, with real-life Mayor Sam Adams playing a bumbling mayoral assistant and restaurant diners demanding the life story of the chicken they were about to eat.
The show riffed on slacktivism and five-hour yoga classes and men whose only "safe space" was Reddit. It was often genuinely funny. Who didn't like to laugh at themselves?
As it turned out, a lot of Portlanders.
"Fuck you, Portlandia!" read an anonymous letter printed in one of Portland's alt-weeklies. "I've been here for 20 years. I have watched it change. Portland is now a soulless amusement park for the entitled and wealthy. I hate what this city is becoming and I blame YOU!"
"One thing I do like," wrote the culture editor of Willamette Week, another local newspaper, of the show in 2011, "is the idea that Portlanders are furiously angry underneath their calm demeanors."
Young people had come here to achieve those achievable dreams. What was taking so long? Why did they have to live three, four people to a house, when just a few years ago rent was affordable? When my husband told baristas at the cafés he owned that, no, he couldn't raise the starting wage to $12 an hour—this was in 2014—seeing as they also received tips and health insurance, the response was a general chilling, an "us against them" ethos that seemed to seep into the city. Activists became more vocal, denouncing businesses they saw as anti-LGBTQ. The city's most active queer center was called out in 2015 for being too "white-centric." And in 2016, students at Reed College formed RAR (Reedies Against Racism) and staged a protest against the 1978 Saturday Night Live skit "King Tut," claiming Steve Martin's portrayal of the Egyptian pharaoh was racist. "The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface," a student told the student newspaper.
The anger seemed free-floating; it was gathering momentum, was becoming an identity in itself.
* * *
When Donald Trump won the presidency, Portlanders' anger catalyzed into a manic animus that took the form of compulsive marching and letter writing and CNN watching and the schadenfreude-tinged hope that Mike Flynn/Stormy Daniels/the Russia scandal would sweep the president out of office any day now. In this way, Portland was not different from other heavily Democratic U.S. cities.
But there was an additional agitation in Portland, in that the plans of those who'd come to try their hand at baking and winemaking and woodworking and beekeeping had become unreachable. In 2005, you could (and my husband did) open a coffee shop where the rent was $425 a month. The rent was nearly 10 times that much in the last café he opened in 2016. Service industry gigs, where young people traditionally found employment, had become scarcer. The legalization of cannabis in 2015 seemed to offer unlimited potential growth, but the market almost at once became oversaturated, resulting in cheap weed but few who could make a living off it.
Was this fair? To have the nascent dreams one came to Portland with come true for some but not others? Was Portland going to become as inequitable and unlivable as other West Coast cities? If so, whose fault was this? With nearly 75 percent of the electorate having voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Trump administration was an obvious scapegoat. After the Muslim travel ban went into effect in 2017, seemingly every storefront hung a poster that read, "WE WELCOME ALL…WE WELCOME YOU, YOU ARE SAFE HERE."
But there was a problem: Trump was both far away and a master of eliding responsibility. Without the satisfaction of seeing their enemy downed, people grew antsy. Someone needed to take the blame for stagnant wages, and rising rents, and what some saw as the misallocation of social and emotional resources. And so, in a preview of the protests that would come to roil Portland following the death of George Floyd, those who considered themselves more finely calibrated toward injustice than the rest of us took matters into their own hands.
"You probably remember there was massive rioting in the Pearl District the day after Donald Trump was elected. Millions of dollars of damage were inflicted," says journalist Michael Totten. "How many people in the Pearl District voted for Donald Trump? It's probably not even 1 percent. Who on earth are these people who declare war on a place where nobody voted for Donald Trump? That's not how people in a democratic society are supposed to behave. You don't go trash neighborhoods with the opposing political party in a healthy democracy, but they didn't even do that. They declared war on the city as a whole."
If there was zeal in using one's power thus, crude as it was, there was also a mandate: If good citizens needed to fight racism, why not start at home? The food world, which arguably more than any industry had put Portland on the cultural map, was the first target. Andy Ricker, whose restaurant Pok Pok was the only place the late Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer Jonathan Gold wanted me to take him when he visited Portland in the early 2010s, was called out for making Thai food while not being Thai. Two young women closed their burrito cart within days of opening it after they received multiple death threats for making homemade tortillas despite not being Latinas. The local press, which had once lauded such people and places, now published lists of business owners "wantonly cooking the food of other countries, arguably at the expense of people from those very cultures."
So much for ALL being welcome. People instead seemed to be asking: Are you with us or against us?
City leaders, in medias res, decided on "with." People wanted a break on rent? Chloe Eudaly, elected to Portland's City Council in 2016, proposed sweeping changes to rental laws, including requiring landlords to rent on a first-come, first-served basis and, should they choose not to renew a lease, to pay renters to move out. The measure passed (and was one of the reasons my husband and I decided last year to sell our home instead of rent it). A second newly elected council member, Jo Ann Hardesty, demanded that the Gun Violence Reduction Team, a police unit dedicated to investigating shootings, be defunded, noting that it disproportionately impacted people of color. A 2019 resolution to ban hate groups, without defining what a hate group was, passed unanimously. Only two people at the public hearing, including Joey Gibson, founder of the pro-Trump group Patriot Prayer, questioned the resolution's potential impact on free speech.
"This last testimony does not reflect anything in the resolution," said Wheeler following Gibson's comments.
Eudaly went further. "I want to thank everyone, or almost everyone, who showed up to testify today," she said.
It seemed to me that the resolution was left deliberately vague, a sort of all-purpose "not our kind" designation to be applied to whoever and whatever might be deemed undesirable into the future. I wondered at the time whether the commission had thought this through, and whether Wheeler had considered how it might affect him should Portland's activist class no longer consider him their guy.
* * *
By the time Wheeler appointed his fourth police chief last summer, at the height of the city's unrest, he was trapped in a vise of his own devising. Having tried, and failed, during his first term to satisfy Portland's progressive elements, he wound up the target of multifarious ire—from his own City Council, one member of which openly called for him to step down as police commissioner (Portland's system of government has the mayor also fulfilling that role), and from the public more broadly. In July 2020, as he stood in front of Justice Center calling for calm, nearly 1,000 people chanted, "FUCK TED WHEEL-ER!" This was shortly before he was tear-gassed, shouted down, surrounded, and very nearly attacked.
The people doing the attacking were not the youngsters lighting fires next door at the federal courthouse. They were middle-aged residents who had reached a state of perturbation where physically assaulting an elected official seemed proportionate with what they were going through: the occupation of their city by federal forces and the murder of people of color in cities across the country. That the second item was not happening in Portland mattered not at all.
"The Portland police are murdering all our black friends in the streets!" a young woman shouted at me that night, by way of explaining why she was lobbing flaming trash at the courthouse.
(She was wrong about that. By the end of 2020, there would be two police killings or deaths in custody, both white men. In 2019, there were six deaths, one of whom was an African-American man.)
If Portland activists made their bones by playing the aggressed, by summer 2020 they had become fully the aggressors. They had reasons that could be seen as unassailable (who but a monster would not want to avenge the death of George Floyd?) but which often were flimsy (who exactly was Andy Ricker hurting with his crispy Thai prawns?).
The city had not been No. 1 in anything since the Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977, and here it was now on TV every night. There was frisson in that; there was relief—from the COVID lockdowns, from the bars and schools being closed, from the fact that what jobs there still were now seemed to be in jeopardy. With not much squinting, Portland activists and those who supported them saw selflessness in trashing the courthouse; in setting fire to Justice Center and trapping employees in the basement; in erecting a guillotine on the roof of the police union; in squeezing little piggy toys in the faces of officers and yelling, "KILL YOURSELF!"; in dancing around a street fire set in front of the mayor's condo and demanding that "Teargas Ted" resign. Not wanting to inconvenience his neighbors, Wheeler moved out.
"I've told people this for five years. At this point, we're really bottoming out. This has become a city run by children," says Jessie Burke, an entrepreneur who has built several successful businesses in Portland. "I've been a fan of Ted Wheeler's because he's an analytical guy. He's smart. But running a city, or running a company, is like raising children. They don't have all the information, and someone has to make the decision."
Not having all the information relieves people from making informed decisions. There was, for example, the neighbor who disagreed with police having their own union and insisted they join the city employees union, which doesn't exist. ("People make up how things work," says Burke.) Another neighbor, upon learning that activists had barricaded some police inside their station and then set the building on fire, told Burke, "It wasn't murderous; everyone knows that there are multiple routes of egress."
"I asked her, 'Then why were they barricaded at all, then?'" Burke recalled. "She was like, 'Fuck the police.' I don't know if cognitive dissonance is the right word or what."
Burke and I were speaking in front of a bakery she'd started in Portland's Kenton neighborhood. To help offset the financial ruination of COVID, local businesses had a few weeks earlier created a walking plaza, complete with outdoor seating and street art. Within the week, the plaza was ransacked and set ablaze by activists, on the run from police whose nearby union hall they'd just set on fire for the umpteenth time.
"As people of color, this is not our way of getting the message across, by tearing up other people's stuff," says Terrance Moses, head of the Kenton Business Association. "The fact of the matter is that these are young white kids destroying people's property to try and get a message across that they think is what black people want to hear."
Moses, who grew up in Kenton and who, with his adult son, physically stood in front of businesses in the neighborhood when the ransacking continued a second night, asked to meet with the activists. "'Put down your violence, come join us, and let's really get the message across,'" he says he told them. "Nobody has asked to sit down with me. All they do is just continue to argue. Some say, 'You don't get nothing the peaceful way. We've been trying the peaceful way for 30 years.'"
"I can completely see where the neighbors are upset in Kenton," one activist said following the plaza fire. "The [business owners] are saying, 'We tried to make this great area for everybody with these picnic tables. We spent time with our own materials building this, and then you burned it to make a statement to the police. And you're hurting one of the traditionally black neighborhoods in Portland, too.' So it's a little counterproductive. But there's also that stance of, well, we're here. And if we don't make this noise and respond with the violence we're being presented with from the police, then no change is going to come."
Erin Smith, a right-wing activist who'd embedded with antifa in Portland to see what all the fuss was about, and who was there when the union hall was set ablaze, put it another way: "I'm not going to lie. It's fun."
* * *
So the fun continued, and why not? Who was going to pay attention to you if you stopped? The destruction eventually attracted the attention of the president himself. Predictably, the federal troops Trump sent to the city in July did not cover themselves in glory. There was the poor roll-out, the tit-for-tat between state and federal officials, the people in full-on camo pulling people dressed in black into unmarked cars. And there was, of course, the tear gas.
I don't know whether July 22, 2020, was the night federal forces—known locally also as "Trump's goons" and "the Gestapo"— shot the most military-grade CS gas at protesters launching objects at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Tear gas is a hard thing to quantify, and it didn't help that protesters were shooting off fireworks as well as setting fires, including tipping a barbecue grill over the temporary security fencing around the courthouse, then undergoing its 57th night of frontal assaults. But let's say there was a lot of gas, each volley driving protesters back from the courthouse and into the park across the street, past the homeless people and the stoners and the boys revving gas-dispersing leaf-blowers and the girls with "medic" spelled somewhere on their clothing and, on this night, a guy on his knees vomiting onto the asphalt. Tear gas can do this; it can also, despite your intention to stay until the end of the confrontation, have your body walking itself back to the car, your cloth mask, after five rounds of gas, useful now mostly as a repository for tears and snot and also as evidence that the young people you've seen swaddled in enough headgear to look as though they're about to go scuba diving in fact know something you do not.
If what they knew would turn out to be puddle-deep—or that's what I deduced, seeing them bust the same moves night after night after night—city leaders still seemed torn. They would occasionally complain about the mayhem, while enacting policies that let it continue. According to Portland's KOIN-TV, of the more than 1,000 protest-related arrests from May through November, charges were dropped more than 90 percent of the time. This was at the behest of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who upon assuming office in August announced he would decline to prosecute the "breaking windows of businesses, lighting things on fire, stealing from those stores in the protest environment."
This, and the City Council voting to cut $15 million from the Portland Police Bureau's budget (activists had asked for a $50 million cut) and passing a resolution whereby Portland police were forbidden to communicate with or provide support to federal forces, took power away from law enforcement and de facto put it in the hands of the protesters. This was considered a good thing, not only by those Portlanders who were vocal supporters, but by local and national media, who somehow found it impossible to understand that, while the majority of protesters were peaceful, there was a small band that wreaked havoc. This was self-evident, night after night after night, and yet people would not see it, or if they did, were afraid to admit it, as if doing so would discount the entire BLM movement, would play, maybe, into Trump's hands.
Still, every encounter between protesters and police that I witnessed followed the same pattern: black bloc and a few Black Lives Matter supporters (fewer as the months wore on) would appear at a previously decided location. They would either attack the location or march toward the night's target. Pilot vehicles would let marchers know where to go and whether the cops were coming. The target would be bombarded with trash, set on fire, broken into. Activists would drum and sloganeer; as summer turned to fall, the chants were almost exclusively some version of "Fuck the police." After one to three hours, the police would appear and the activists would form a "shield line," complete with homemade shields. This was done for the cameras: Portland's 2020 protests, or what they devolved into, were nothing if not a revolution by cellphone, the choicest clips being those that showed the activists looking heroic and besieged. If you widened the lens to capture, say, a guy battering a building with a fire extinguisher or a girl spitting in a cop's face, you would be accused of being "a fash"; would be shadowed in the crowd or told point-blank you were going to get your ass kicked; would have your phone or camera stolen because "YOU'RE NOT ALLOWED TO FILM!" and "PHOTOGRAPHY EQUALS DEATH!"; and would later find photos of yourself posted to social media, sometimes by journalists who, mistaking activism for journalism, whistled out anyone deemed not on-message.
All of these things happened to me. The activists, with ample support, sang in one voice in Portland: They were the ones who were going to tell the story.
And they did tell it, and it wasn't hard. Not with major news outlets pushing the "mostly peaceful" protest narrative and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown blaming the first four months of nightly destruction on right-wing extremists. Such groups rarely rolled through town, but when they did, it was with a lot of boo-yah! and flags flying and dudes in pickup trucks ballyhooing their loyalty to Trump and open-carrying semi-automatic weapons.
Characters out of Portlandia these people were not. Whether activists and average citizens were authentically scared of them I cannot say. I can say that they were enlivened by them. I can say that each group had need of the other if the fight were to continue. And so it made sense, when Patriot Prayer member Aaron Danielson was killed in August by self-proclaimed antifa supporter Michael Reinoehl (who was himself shot and killed by law enforcement five days later), that Brown would in essence blame Danielson for his own death. "I will not allow Patriot Prayer and armed white supremacists to bring more bloodshed to our streets," the governor proclaimed.
A.G. Schmidt seemed spooked by the murder, and Wheeler said that "the tragedy last night cannot be repeated." Nonetheless, the mayor reserved the bulk of his opprobrium for Trump. "Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades America has seen this level of political violence?" he said. "What America needs is for you to be stopped."
And if Trump were stopped in November, would it have a soporific effect on the activists? With a Democrat as president, would the activists calm down and, like good children, figuratively go to sleep? I told the people claiming as much that they were nuts. That Portland's activists lived in a post-political world. That they wanted what they wanted, and what they wanted was to keep fighting, which necessitated an ever-fresh crop of enemies that would, at least in theory, provide their nightly spurt of relief.
* * *
"WHOEVER THEY VOTE FOR, WE ARE UNGOVERNABLE," read one of the flyers. It was advertising an event taking place a day after the presidential election, organized in part by a group called the PNW Youth Liberation Front.
Following form, several hundred people met in a public park and marched. I marched with them. I watched them do what they always did: smash windows, set fires, yell "FUCK THE POLICE." There were very few chants of "George Floyd" or "Breonna Taylor." These deaths, at the hands of the police, had provided fuel for a long time—had provided legitimacy. But that time had passed, and the police were right here, as were the National Guard, which Brown had deployed in anticipation of election-related violence.
There was plenty of it that night, albeit of the same kind Portland had been experiencing for the last six months. Is it possible for plate glass windows crashing at your feet, for people burning American flags in the street, to be boring? It is. There were no points for ingenuity that night, with one exception: It was the first time I'd seen people on the left open-carry rifles.
"We've started carrying in Portland, and overall, we've gotten a great reception," one young man told me.
Maybe the rifles pulled officials up short. Maybe it was a desire to pretty the state's image under a Biden administration. Whatever the reason, Brown suddenly became ecumenical in her warnings. "Political violence will not be tolerated," she declared. "Not from the left, not from the right, and not from the center."
Wheeler, who'd squeaked past openly pro-antifa challenger Sarah Iannarone to win reelection, issued an anodyne press release, thanking voters for giving him a second chance and stating that Portland "is not a perfect place, and we have many historical inequities to repair, but this is a very special place."
There were other signs people had had enough of the violence. Commissioner Eudaly, a favorite of the activists, was unseated by someone backed by the police union. And when I asked a local news editor, whose paper had pretty much been in the bag for the protests, if he had a contact at the PNW Youth Liberation Front, he wrote back, "If I had the names of the little criminals who run PNWYLF, I would have published them! [If they] were all torn apart by bears, as in the book of II Kings, I would consider that the work of the Lord."
* * *
The situation in Portland did not improve after the election. Activists kept marching nightly. They swarmed the house of a newly elected city commissioner because he'd voted against the latest measure to defund the police. They vandalized 27 businesses along a six-block strip in Northeast Portland. They established an "autonomous zone" called Red House, ostensibly in support of a black and Native American family facing eviction. And on New Year's Eve, they used Molotov cocktails and other high-powered incendiary devices to cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage in downtown.
"It's hard for most of us to even comprehend what goes on in the heads of people who think it's OK or a good idea to go on a violent rampage through the city on New Year's Eve and during a pandemic," Wheeler said the next day. "It's the height of selfishness….There are some people who just want to watch the world burn."
There is something mesmerizing in watching things burn, and just like any fire, it needs to be fed.
Wheeler brokered a supposed peace with the occupiers at Red House. But on January 6, the Portland Tribune reported that the zone was covered in trash and human filth; that the area, a short walk from where I'd lived until recently, had become unlivable. "There are men walking around with guns, pistols, long arms, shotguns, rifles (who approach you) if you get close to their camp," someone who lived within the zone told the paper. "This is definitely not our neighborhood anymore."
A day earlier, the Oregonian had reported that Wheeler was in talks to bring a seasoned power broker into his administration, "albeit one with baggage," the piece read, including "a sexual relationship with [a] teen he met on the job."
"I heard about this yesterday but thought it was a joke until you sent me the link," said T.B., the former state official, when I asked whether he knew previous mayor Sam Adams might be making his way back into City Hall. I thought Wheeler's choice of deus ex machina bizarre, but I could also imagine him thinking he needed someone as mercenary as Adams—a man who, during a two-hour conversation shortly after he'd been publicly accused of sexual harassment in 2019, lied to me about scandals he'd already copped to.
"I'm divesting from Portland," Jessie Burke told me. She'd recently bought a home in Key West. Because of the new renters' rights law, she'd just had to pay $4,500 to renters to vacate one of her properties; none of it made any sense. "My husband told me the other day, 'I feel like we have to save the city, and I'm not exactly sure how.' The loudest voices are not the smartest voices, and they don't know how much of anything works, and they don't understand how to move the needle."
I don't know how, either. I am almost sure it cannot be moved by government officials—not when their sympathies and policies have, in effect, allowed a tiny group of people to dominate the narrative for the better part of a year; have let them take the city, block by block; have seen them befoul what, less than two decades ago, was a legitimately beautiful place so seemingly full of promise that young people flocked there from across the country to fulfill their dreams. I do not believe they wanted to end up staring into a nihilistic fire, and if I could relay to activists a message it would be to stop devoting their munificent energy toward destruction, and to learn to be builders of the dream.
Additional Portland coverage for Reason and other publications:
Portland Wants to Ban Hate Groups, Has No Idea How to Define 'Hate Group' (Reason, February 2019)
Portlandization: It Can Happen to a Place Near You (Tablet, July 2019)
Proud Boys and Antifa Playact Protest in Portland (Reason, August 2019)
Dispatch From Portland: A Distinct Lack of Crowbars and Cops (Reason, July 2020)
What It's Like to Work in the Portland Jail During the George Floyd Protests (Reason, July 2020)
Dispatch From Portland: The Fire Next Time (Reason, July 2020)
Dispatch From Portland: The Morning Crew (Reason, July 2020)
Federal Cops Are Leaving Portland. But Will the Standoff Really End? (Reason July 2020)
A Quiet Night in Portland (Reason, August 2020)
A Night of Aimlessness, Surrounded by Flames: Dispatch from Portland (Reason, August 2020)
When You Say Yes to Hate: Dispatch from Portland (Reason, August 2020)
Nancy Rommelmann: The Disturbing Drift of the Portland Protests (podcast) (Reason, August 2020)
How Portland’s Protests Drifted into ‘Dangerous Territory’ (video) (Reason, August 2020)
When a Killing Becomes a Rorschach Test: Dispatch from Portland (Reason, September 2020)
'You're Not Allowed to Film': The Fight To Control Who Reports From Portland (Reason, September 2020)
Two Lawyers Walk Into an 'Anarchistic Jurisdiction' (Reason, September 2020)
The Conservative Trans Woman Who Went Undercover with Antifa in Portland (Reason, October 2020)
The Kids Are All Right (Reason, November 2020)
Even With a Biden Win, Portland's Protesters Vow to Keep Smashing Stuff (Reason, November 2020)
Nancy Rommelmann Reports from the Portland Protests (Reason, January 2021 print issue)
The Dream of the '90s Died in Portland (Reason, May 2021 print issue)
Can Portland Recover from a Year of Lockdowns and Nihilism? (The Dispatch, May 2021)
Destruction and Hope in Portland (Persuasion, July 2021)
Kenosha, Portland, and the Lies We Must Leave Behind (New York Times, November 2021)
Selected podcast appearances talking Portland:
House of Strauss with Ethan Strauss
Benjamin Boyce Calmversations (video)
Dark Horse with Bret Weinstein (video)
Dozens of episodes on the Paloma Media YouTube and podcast feeds, including with Matt Welch (Reason, The Fifth Column), Batya Ungar-Sargon (Newsweek), Liz Wolfe (Reason), Bridget Phetasy, Meghan Daum and others