Let feds' withdrawal open a new chapter
It’s too soon to call Gov. Kate Brown’s deal with the federal government a victory. While a welcome development, it remains to be seen whether using Oregon State Police to protect the federal courthouse in place of federal officers will end the destruction and violence that has often followed peaceful demonstrations. And “victory” hardly seems the right word considering the injuries, damage and loss of faith — in leaders, institutions and even fellow Portlanders — that the standoffs of the last several weeks have wrought.
Still, the agreement provides an opportunity to close this chapter in the movement sparked by George Floyd’s killing and start a new one focused on making systemic changes. Already, a group led by Black community organizations has unveiled a host of proposals aimed at transforming the landscape of opportunity for Black Oregonians. The “Reimagine Oregon” plan offers multiple roadmaps for those who want to turn the chant of “Black Lives Matter” into concrete policy and lasting change. But that will require elected leaders, protesters and the community as a whole to leave the turmoil of the past several weeks behind and move forward.
For elected officials, moving forward should start with seeking redemption. Mayor Ted Wheeler’s shifting stances reflected someone reacting more to political backlash than leading with a consistent focus on accommodating peaceful protest while halting destructive behavior. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, particularly when police are both the focus of protesters’ ire and the agency responsible for crowd control. But that task becomes impossible when you’re more focused on currying favor with constituencies than leading with conviction.
Other elected officials across the city, county and state government, should also take this moment to figure out where their voices went. Many chose to either sit on the sidelines or lob rhetorical grenades that only heightened emotions and divisiveness. Few spoke up in defense of businesses whose losses and theft have apparently been deemed acceptable collateral damage. Even City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has provided by far the steadiest leadership among government leaders, faltered in accusing Portland Police officers of infiltrating protest crowds and setting fires in order to justify a police response. Although she later apologized, the incendiary accusation was one more disappointment for Oregonians who have longed for someone to show a commitment to both fostering peaceful protest and isolating those intent on destruction.
Brown, too, hung back far too long, especially considering Wheeler’s indecisive and ineffective strategy. She further complicated the matter by offering and then pulling back state assistance depending on which way the political winds were blowing. But ultimately, she set aside politics to parlay her working relationship with Vice President Mike Pence into an agreement that gets federal officers dispatched by the Trump administration out of Oregon. It was a pragmatic and necessary act that put the safety of Portlanders and preservation of the city above political posturing. Oregon needs more of this — from elected leaders, businesses, community groups and its people.
For protesters, moving forward means stepping up their self-policing to stop those intent on provoking a police response. And in fact, protesters did exactly that on Thursday, the first night of the state police presence, putting out fires with their water bottles and confronting those who argued that destructive acts somehow help the movement. Protesters’ efforts as well as the restraint by police were the most hopeful sign in weeks to a city tired of the drama and national attention. But protesters can take other action as well, such as moving from nightly protests to volunteering for other initiatives, such as childcare or educational support to low-income and underserved children — a need that will only grow more dire with schools planning distance-learning instead of in-person classes this fall.
And for businesses and community groups, moving forward means examining practices and biases that have sidelined people of color from full participation in our economy and civic life. That means looking at hiring policies, community engagement outreach and other practices that help solidify the status quo as opposed to welcoming changes that broaden opportunity.
We don’t have time to waste as Oregon faces unprecedented threats on multiple fronts. The number of coronavirus cases in Oregon is rising sharply, with people of color accounting for a disproportionate share of cases. The increase has already prompted several school districts, including Portland Public Schools, to announce that classes will be held online instead of in-person for at least the first two months of the academic year. The potential damage of those school closures to students of color and disadvantaged students who may lack the technology, internet access, supervision, food security, adult support or other resources typically provided by schools cannot be overstated.
The economic crisis triggered by the pandemic is forcing business closures and throwing people out of work, with those in lower-paid jobs hit disproportionately hard. Meanwhile, the need to root out the racist practices underlying our institutional systems demands urgency and attention now to ensure a recovery that addresses, rather than exacerbates, longstanding inequities.
These are urgent needs that require undistracted leadership and unity among Oregonians. Brown’s deal to get federal officers out of Oregon has given us the opportunity to take a pause and recalibrate. Oregonians shouldn’t pass it up.