For Portland, social conflicts and street riots are nothing new. This city in the state of Oregon has a long history of worker activism and defiance of authority, but also a dark segregationist past.
Thus, despite its small black population, Portland was not an unexpected scene of the protests against racism that plague the United States and that led President Donald Trump to send federal agents to different cities.
Protesters have been mobilizing almost every night since African-American George Floyd died of suffocation under the knee of a white policeman in May in Minneapolis.
With about 650,000 inhabitants, Portland began to build its reputation for far-left militancy during the eventful years of the 1960s, as did Seattle in the north and San Francisco in the south.
And since the 2016 presidential election, Portland has symbolized the most virulent opposition against Trump and his Republican Party.
“Left-wing anti-authoritarian politicians (…) have been present in Portland’s true protest culture for the past 30 years or more,” said Professor of Political Science Joe Lowndes of the University of Oregon.
– “Little Beirut” –
The city earned the nickname “Little Beirut” (“Little Beirut”), in reference to the long Lebanese war after then President George HW Bush faced barricades, burning tires and hostile chants.
“More recently, there has been some kind of anti-fascist work on the streets of Portland,” fighting white and far-right supremacist groups, said Lowndes.
Protests and “violent attacks” by far-right groups against Portland residents emerged in 2016, the professor added, leading to “an active network of anti-fascist activists that has been growing in recent years”.
In November 2016, a demonstration against Trump’s election ended in three days of riots and clashes with the police.
Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic contained spirits and restored calm in the streets. Then, however, scenes of white supremacists and neo-Nazis fighting with hooded anarchists “Antifa” (antifascists) became commonplace.
“It’s kind of a battlefield for extremists,” added Lowndes.
– Feedback –
“Given that Portland has gained a reputation as a liberal, radical (and) progressive, people have come to share these positions and a kind of feedback has been generated, making the city more radical,” said Steven Beda, professor of history at the University of Oregon.
Despite its reputation as a left-wing sanctuary, the city and state were the product of racist institutions, Beda recalled.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) “had a strong presence in Oregon in the 1920s. Currently, it has the highest per capita membership rate … and in the 1920s, there was a very close relationship between politicians and the Klan”, he added.
In 1926, local laws prohibited blacks from entering the state on pain of being flogged – a punishment that was repeated every six months if they stayed there.
– A history of racism –
Therefore, the professor points out, radicalism must be accompanied “by a conversation about Portland’s history of exclusion and racism”, where only 6% of the population is black.
Recent tensions exacerbate the already long-shaken relations between most residents and the authorities, said Lownes, which contributes to the rejection of the arrival of federal agents.
“The two, or three, previous years of political protests in Portland have created a fracture,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who works for a New York think tank.
“The more you hit the police, the more aggression you get,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post.
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