Dispatch from PDX (Portland, Oregon); Black Lives Matter in a White Utopia

Kahlil M. Wall-Johnson
https://blackagendareport.com/sites/default/files/2020-08/Portland_845x400.jpegThe temporal-spatial convergence of the largest white city in amerikka, with the most persistent “BLM” protests and exceedingly white subcultures should not be dismissed as coincidence.

“The matrix of violence that defines Black life cannot be understood through the lens of fascism.”

Portlanders have risen up against the fascist police state. Armed with ski goggles, saline solution, homemade shields, leaf blowers and lacrosse sticks for scooping up and throwing back tear gas canisters. The word gestapo is trending on twitter as videos circulate of the feds snatching protesters off the streets. Constitutional rights are invoked, amendments are cited, it’s an outrage. The spectacle continues. Let us take a moment to reflect on divergent meanings of the conglomeration of terms “fascist police state”. What many white people seem to understand, when they use these terms, could best be described as a momentary or sporadic occurrence of police “overreach” or “encroachment” into their lives. This very feeling of having one’s liberties and privacy encroached upon is not an occasional or even periodic phenomenon for Black people surviving in amerikkka. It defines their experience, to the extent that a word is not necessary to express it, it could even be said that the matrix of violence that defines Black life cannot be understood through the lens of fascism (Wilderson, 2020). For those of us that have been graced with experiences that have permitted us to deconstruct national myths of exceptionalism and innocence (Sirvent, Haiphong, Ford, & Baraka, 2019), fascism and amerikkka are coterminous.

“The word gestapo is trending on twitter.”

Portland is the lwhitest large city in amerikkka, once overtly hailed as a white utopia. Why have the protests here gained so much national and international attention for their duration and how have they managed to continue for so long? Portland is still a white utopia. Whiteness in PDX has proliferated in all of its shapes, colours and sizes. From vegan strip clubs to annual naked bike rides, in which whites flaunt their sense of state sanctioned corporeal security. The absence of Black bodies cannot be separated from the peculiar national identity that Portland has come to acquire. There are many things that Portlanders like to forget, things that run contrary to their peculiar eco-friendly/progressive/humanitarian/PNW self image. Oregon was once home to the largest KKK organization west of the Mississippi River, which boasted upwards of 30,000 sworn members, dispersed throughout fifty separate chapters across the state (Bruce, 2019). Portlanders are also strangely naive to Oregon’s Black exclusion laws, which were punishable by semi-annual lashings, or to the anti-Black rhetoric present in the state’s constitution until 2002 (Camhi, 2020), that employed terms such as “negro” and “mulatto” (BallotPedia, 2002). The preamble to one of these exclusion laws justifies itself by appealing to whites anxiety that Blacks would ​“intermix with Indians, instilling into their minds feelings of hostility toward the white race.”​ (Nokes, 2020). This pushes us to consider how anti-Black legislation and action cannot be untangled from anti-Indigenous racism and genocide.

“The absence of Black bodies cannot be separated from the peculiar national identity that Portland has come to acquire.”

Black exclusion from the state, understood in this context as an institutional function, process and effect, was once executed by state legislation. It could be argued that the onus of responsibility of maintaining Oregon’s whiteness has shifted from the formal or legal sphere of the state’s constitution, to the tangible, physical realm of the tasers, bullets and sirens of the Portland Police Bureau. With the obvious collusion of the judicial system, which to this day, after 365 incidents of police killing civilians (of which Black people are overrepresented fivefold) has not held a single officer accountable. Less than eighteen percent of PPBs men and women in blue live within city limits (Zielinsky, 2018), which means they come from areas which are, remarkable as it seems, even whiter than Portland. It should be noted that we are referring to regions where the Black population drops below one percent. The notion that the historical process of making Oregon uninhabitable for Black bodies continues to be institutionalized through policing can be swallowed with relative comfort.

That being said, we should also push ourselves to consider how conceptualizing Oregon as a “white utopia,” in the context of its most progressive inhabitants, continues to be a practical lens through which to meditate on anti-blackness. For instance, the ways in which Portland’s hyperwhite culture plays actively, albeit unintentionally into the historical process of excluding Black bodies from Oregon. The following generalizations should be avoided, however, when we consider that Portland as a city is growing rapidly, should we not take into account how Portland’s quirky-hipster culture or outdoorsy, coffee-stained identity, manifest in shows like ​Portlandia​, make Portland far more attractive to white folks than to non-white individuals and to Black people in particular? I acknowledge that PDX’s national reputation is not deliberately or consciously engineered to entice white people into moving here. Neveetheless, we must ask ourselves if and how the function of excluding Black bodies from Oregon has been partially absorbed by Portland’s cultural practices as well.

“The historical process of making Oregon uninhabitable for Black bodies continues to be institutionalized through policing.”

The history of Portland, including the entrenched anti-blackness, has undoubtedly determined the culture and ethos of the city, which have in turn influenced the development of the protests. My goal here is not to establish unilateral causal relationships, only to hint at certain connections that may have previously gone unconsidered. Such as the idea that Oregon’s unique history and demographics, including its anti-blackness, may have indirectly contributed to the city of Portland appearing to be on the forefront of combating anti-blackness. Meditating on the ways in which these protests actively construct how violence is conceptualized is also a worthwhile endeavor. The emphasis on concrete instances of police physically killing Black people perpetuates an understanding of violence as acute occurrences of what Sadiya Hartman(1997) refers to as ​“the shocking and the terrible”​ (p. 4). Furthermore, when this apprehension of violence is centered upon the police ties to the KKK (the chant “​cops and klan go hand in hand”​ ), a particular framework through which to understand anti-Black violence, both historically and contemporarily, is reinforced. This framework hinders efforts to “​illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle​” (Hartman, 1997, p. 4) and neglects other forms of death that are not restricted to the beating of the heart (Patterson, 1982).

Portland no longer has a physical Black space, and as a result (white) Portlanders have far less interactions Black people, both individually and as a community, than residents of other large urban areas. What are the psychological affordants of living in a ​white utopia​? It would appear that for many of the city’s residents, not having to interact with Black people and not being racist are synonymous, as if Portland’s progressive spirit and demographics render its inhabitants innocent of anti-blackness. This delusion of situating oneself in de facto post race or beyond race zones is eerily reminiscent of utopian literature (Henry, 2020).

“For many of the city’s residents, not having to interact with Black people and not being racist are synonymous.”

 I also urge the reader to consider the possible relationships between the niche, hipster, DIY variant of whiteness that has been forged in PDX and the absence of Black bodies. This requires a holistic understanding of causality that goes beyond unidirectional etiology. This is especially relevant when we take into account how the national attention derived from these protests is undeniably reinforcing Portland’s progressive identity. The temporal-spatial convergence of the largest white city in amerikka, with the most persistent “BLM” protests and exceedingly white subcultures should not be dismissed as coincidence. How has the physical absence of Black bodies enabled the proliferation and cultivation of the peculiar variant of white identity that has surfaced in PDX? Is it because of the largely homogenous white population that more individual subcultures have emerged? In what ways does the physical presence of Black bodies burden the white psyche? This is not a desperate attempt to articulate a socio-historical connection between Oregon’s peculiar strain of anti-blackness and the magnitude of the current protests. Nor is it a dismissal of the unprecedented solidarity shown by Portland’s youth, or of the efforts and time of the many dedicated protesters and organizers. Questions such as “Why in Portland?” or “What drives them to come out every night?” have no satisfying answer. It should also be acknowledged that factors unmentioned so far, such as white guilt, protest adrenaline, the white savior complex ​(Sirvent, et al., 2019)​, generational changes, covid-19 or rising (overt) white supremacism are undoubtedly intertwined.

Is a valid metric upon which to weigh social movements not their propensity to reduce Black suffering? Many critiques aimed at the protests in PDX seem to be underwritten by the assumption that the protesters are there for the wrong reasons. The kids are only there to socialize and get fucked up. The Black Bloc folks just enjoy pretending to be ninjas. The Dads just want to use their leaf blowers, the critique goes on. I argue for a more strategic approach to narrating these movements on behalf of organizers in which certain groups, regardless of the plethora of motives which may or may not be driving their behavior, are used for the inertia and pressure they can provide to the narrative and dynamic surrounding the protests. This is not to say that attempts or declarations of solidarity should not be scrutinized, questioned or even dismissed (Wilderson, 2010). Black organizers should learn how to harness or direct the social capital at their disposal. For example Portland’s “Wall of Moms” was recently condemned by the Black-led organization Don’t Shoot PDX, via twitter, due to allegations of unspecified intra-organizational anti-blackness (Hardgrave, 2020). Black folks should in no regard have to be patient with incidences of anti-blackness. In spite of this, are there not more intentional ways of disavowing certain aspects of the behavior of protesters, or groups of protesters, without rejecting their participation all together? Can their white bodies not be manipulated and instrumentalized in certain ways for the purpose of attenuating Black suffering?

“Black organizers should learn how to harness or direct the social capital at their disposal.”

Similarly, I urge protest critiques not to content themselves with monolithic explanations regarding the motives, perspectives and behavior of a certain demographic. Due to the wide panorama of whiteness that exists in Portland, it would be inconceivable to use one white individual as an example of the “white community’s” desires. Not surprisingly however, the inverse operation is routinely conducted by white people through social media platforms. In other words, individual Black people, most often filmed, are used as a rhetoric or persuasive tool by a white person to further their argument or perspective regarding the protests. This attests to the fungibility of Black bodies (Wilderson, 2010). That is, to ​the long tradition of commodifying Blackness to please the white gaze (Matamoros-Fernández, 2020), or in this case molding Blackness to underpin one’s own understanding of the world. ​Content of Black people expressing their political views are frequently used by white people as if to clarify “​see! This is what Black people want!“​ . This may partly be due to the romanticized concept of the authentic “​Black community​” (Fanon, 1952) and Black political organizing that has been engendered within non-Black spaces and the difficulty of objecting to Black reactionary discourse in an all-white city. The ways in which this monolithic conception of Black political views may aid in the silencing of any discussion that would engage with the fact that many Black voices may actually adhere to reactionary perspectives should also be taken into account. On the #Portlandprotests twitter feed, even when content surfaces including Black anarchists or marxists, the underlying message is “​see how there a​ re​ Black anarchists too“​ , as if the heterogeneity of Black politics should come as a surprise.

The nightly protests in Portland have largely consisted of large crowds of white people listening to Black speakers. Due to the scarcity of Black Portlanders, it has been difficult on many nights to find Black individuals to address the masses, as a result many of the same speakers have become common nightly voices. From the first night on, there has been a sweeping imperative to center Black and Brown voices, and because of this many Black individuals have found themselves with both a megaphone and an eager crowd at their disposal for the first time. It must be asked; when addressing an almost all white audience, is the development of the narrative and leading discourse not equally molded by what evokes the most enthusiastic response from a white Portland crowd? Amongst the speakers there has been a general unwillingness to connect the dots between U.S. imperialism, racial capitalism, policing and the matrix of violence in which Black life is inscribed. There has also been a naive tendency to appeal to the unconstitutionality or illegality of the actions of law enforcement. This testifies to the pervasiveness of national myths (Sirvent, et al., 2019) and the necessity of recognizing the second class citizenship of Black folks as a prerequisite to political action. However my intention here is not to issue a critique at any of the individual speakers and their respective discourses, but to analyze the ways in which the chant “Black Lives Matters” is a powerful tool when addressing largely white groups.

“There has been a general unwillingness to connect the dots between U.S. imperialism, racial capitalism, policing and the matrix of violence in which Black life is inscribed.”

Many white people with whom I am acquainted have applauded speeches that are in direct conflict with their politics out of the fear or uneasiness of being seen not responding positively to a Black voice. These divergences of philosophy most frequently surround themes such as the justification of violence, the validity of voting or the potential of reform as Black speakers frequently endorse the electoral system or condemn property damage. Many of these same speakers conclude their addresses with the chant “Black Lives Matter,” which never fails to provoke an enthusiastic response from the predominantly white crowd. In this sense the chant is strangely reminiscent of a religious mantra such as “the father, the son and the holy spirit,” regardless of the content of the sermon, you must respond, otherwise you are a heretic.

This again signals the difficulty of beginning a conversation about reactionary Black voices in a predominantly white city and raises questions regarding the synergy of reactionary Black organizations and the white power structure. How should a white person who advocates for total abolition, community self defense or direct action respond to Black discourses that reinforce the institution of voting, peacefulness or moderate reform? Put differently, how can the imperative to avoid the co option of the movement by white actors be wed with the defense of revolutionary principles? The chant has also been employed by speakers whose discourses were scattered, or had little resonance with the crowd as a means to evoke a show of superficial enthusiastic approval and support. “Black Lives Matter!” and the white people are guilted into cheer. This opens further questions about the potentially cathartic effects that the mantra may have for white protesters (Fancher, 2020). The conservative nature of Portland’s most predominant Black organizations, the majority dependent on public funds and philanthropy, is manifest in both their partial condemnation of the proclaimed violent nature of the protests and their unwillingness to endorse or show support for movements such as abolition, antifa or other radical trends which call for courses of action that see past the irony of voting for substantive change. It should be restated that the so-called fight against fascism is hardly a viable tool for conceptualizing the nature and scope of Black subjection and suffering. Additionally, I acknowledge that Black organizers and activists are rightfully skeptical of non-Black groups that supposedly show solidarity with the project of Black liberation. However it is dumbfounding that this skepticism does not extend itself to the viability of the ballot box as a means to reduce Black suffering. If we can vote ourselves out of the bowels of this beast, that implies that we find ourselves here today as a result of irresponsible and/or uninformed voting practices. In other words, the mythical logic of voting, combined with a “burdened individuality” (Hartman, 1997, p. 117), make ​us​ responsible for our suffering.


BALLOTPEDIA. (2002). ​Oregon Remove Constitutional References to Race, Measure 14 (2002)​.

Kahlil M. Wall-Johnson 08/05/2020

https://ballotpedia.org/Oregon_Remove_Constitutional_References_to_Race,_M easure_14_(2002)

Bruce, Ben (2019) “The Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon During the 1920s,” Voces Novae: Vol. 11, Article 2.

Camhi, T. (2020, June 9). ​A racist history shows why Oregon is still so white​. OPB. https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-white-history-racist-foundations-black-ex clusion-laws/

Fancher, M. P. (2020, June 1). ​Is “Black Lives Matter” a Therapeutic Mantra for White Guilt?​ Black Agenda Report.

https://www.blackagendareport.com/black-lives-matter-therapeutic-mantra-white- guilt

Fanon, F., & Philcox, R. (2008). ​Black Skin, White Masks​ (Revised ed.). Grove Press.

Hardgrave, A. (2020, August 2). ​Portland’s Wall of Moms crumbles amid online allegations by former partner, Don’t Shoot PDX.​ Oregon Live. https://www.oregonlive.com/news/2020/07/portlands-wall-of-moms-crumbles-ami d-online-allegations-by-former-partner-dont-shoot-pdx.html

Hartman, S. (1997). ​Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Race and American Culture)​ (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Kahlil M. Wall-Johnson 08/05/2020

Henry, C. (2020, July 3). ​White Utopia Is Segregated​. LA Progressive. https://www.laprogressive.com/white-utopia/

Matamoros-Fernández, A. (2020). ’El Negro de WhatsApp’ meme, digital blackface, and racism on social media. ​First Monday​, 2​ 5​(12). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i12.10420

Nokes, G. (2020, June 6). ​Black Exclusion Laws in Oregon​. The Oregon Encyclopedia. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/exclusion_laws/#.XyuPRGjYrrd

Oregon.gov. (n.d.). ​Black in Oregon 1840-1870​. Oregon Secretary of State. https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/black-history/Pages/context/chronology.a spx

Patterson, O. (2018). ​Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, With a New Preface​ (2nd ed.). Harvard University Press.

Sirvent, R., Haiphong, D., Ford, G., & Baraka, A. (2019). ​American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News―From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror​ (1st ed.). Skyhorse.

Wilderson III, F. B. (2010). ​Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms​ (1st ed.). Duke University Press Books.

Wilderson III, F. B. (2020). ​Afropessimism​ (1st ed.). Liveright.

Zielinsky, A. (2018, September 27). ​Only 18 Percent of Portland’s Police Live Inside the City Limits. Does That Matter?​ Portland Mercury.

https://www.portlandmercury.com/opinion/2018/09/27/23211988/hall-monitor-co mmuter-cops