On Friday, a group of Black moms from Portland, Ore., were 3,000 miles away from home, standing on the Lincoln Memorial steps where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 57 years ago.
They had been on the front lines of Portland’s protests since May, after demonstrations erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody. Since then, their city had made headlines for sustained protests and federal arrests. They’d witnessed it all, as grassroots organizers, then as members of the short-lived, controversial “Wall of Moms,” and later as leaders of their own Black-led organization called Moms United for Black Lives.
At the March on Washington, surrounded by thousands of others protesting police violence and racial inequality, they felt empowered, knowing they were both witnessing and making history. But they also worried about what was happening back home. Danialle James, a Portland native and Moms United leader, got a call from her brother: The city no longer felt like a safe place for a Black person to be, he told her.
Portland, dubbed “the Whitest big city” in America, is 77 percent White and 5.8 percent Black (nationally, America is 76 percent White and 13.4 percent Black). Violent skirmishes between far-right extremists and counterprotesters have become increasingly common there in recent weeks. And on Saturday — after a series of confrontations between a 600-vehicle pro-Trump caravan and counterprotesters — a man wearing the insignia of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group based in the city, was shot and killed during demonstrations. Police say an investigation is ongoing.
As news outlets focus on the violence erupting between mostly White protesters and counterprotesters, the city’s Black residents have been left feeling unsafe — and unheard. “The way [the far-right groups] have descended on Portland, I’m scared for my kids, I’m scared for my brothers, I’m scared for my dad,” James says. “I’m literally scared to be Black.”
Black Portlanders say that Oregon’s history has led to systemic racism. When it entered the Union in 1859, it became the only state to ban Black people from living in its borders. It refused to sign onto the 14th and the 15th Amendments for decades after they were ratified; it also left anti-miscegenation laws in place well into the 20th century. This legacy of exclusionary laws, plus its large Ku Klux Klan membership in the 1920s, has made it a stronghold for white supremacists since. Even with its reputation for progressive activism, Portland is not insulated from this legacy, according to residents.
Arya Morman, a 31-year-old Portland native, says that she has experienced racism at various points of her life, reaching back to experiencing discrimination playing sports as a kid.
“I have three educational degrees, and I am still fighting for equal opportunity in housing, employment, banking — equal opportunity in just existing as a human in this state,” Morman says. “This is why those systems have to be dismantled and rebuilt, because they were built on white supremacy.”
Morman, chief executive of a consulting agency, has been attending Black Lives Matter protests for months. But in recent weeks, she feels those protests have gotten further away from protecting Black lives. She says that although they generally start off as “peaceful protests,” fascists, far-right groups and anti-fascist groups are responsible for the “rioting” and violence.
“As a Black woman, it’s frightening,” Morman says. “A lot of us are actually only doing daytime protesting events because it’s too dangerous at night.”
Violent protests in the city were making headlines before this year. After the 2016 election of President Trump — and in the wake of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 — far-right demonstrators violently clashed with antifa activists. Earlier that same year, Jeremy Joseph Christian, a white supremacist, stabbed and killed two men after yelling racial slurs and harassing two young women, one wearing a hijab, aboard a light-rail train in Portland. (In June, Christian was sentenced to life in prison.)
Even within Portland’s Black Lives Matter movement, Whiteness has been a central point of contention. In July, the city’s “Wall of Moms,” a group of mothers that shielded protesters from police and chanted lullabies, became a national sensation. But some protesters saw a problem: Most of the mothers being depicted in media outlets were White, when Black mothers had been fighting for racial equality for years. The group quickly disbanded after charges of “anti-Blackness” led its White leaders to step down, giving rise to Moms United for Black Lives and other groups.
The women now leading Moms United for Black Lives — including James and Demetria Hester, who was attacked by Christian a day before his light-rail attacks in 2017 — say they’re focusing on the city’s Black residents. Hester emphasizes the importance of mutual aid funding for those who have lost housing during the pandemic, for example. They’re also pushing to get Black women elected to positions of power; they want to replace Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler with longtime activist Teressa Raiford.
“We’re going to keep going with our allies to make a name for Portland,” Hester says. “To be the Whitest state but making change to be equal — if the Whitest state can do it, anyone can do it.”
And despite the danger, they are still taking to the streets. Elisha Warren, a co-leader of Moms United who was born and raised in Portland, was in D.C. for the march this past weekend. When she returns to the city on Wednesday, the first thing she’s going to do is hug her kids, she says; she’s been worried about their safety. But then she’s going to get back out on the front lines.
“It’s sad that we have to do this, it’s sad that we have to keep marching and singing songs and doing chants,” she says. “But now people know that Portland is not going to stop.”