Portland Is(n't) Burning (October, 2019)
Thoughts on the past, present and future of the city that's become a national flashpoint
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Last fall, a short time after I moved to Portland, Oregon, I spoke to a man named Randy Blazak. I was writing a story about Major League Soccer, and about the fact that the league had banned a symbol associated with the Iron Front, an anti-Nazi group that had also been loosely associated with the antifa movement in this town. It was a complicated story that got into the fraught roots of Portland’s history, and I didn’t realize how complicated it was until I spoke to Blazak, who has plumbed the depths of racial animus and the history of hate groups, particularly in the state of Oregon. That Blazak can make a living studying these things tells you how deep their roots are.
All of this stuff was intertwined: The fans of soccer in Portland believe that they are not just supporting their teams, but that they are advocating a more-inclusive version of the city itself—that part of their duty as fans is to protect their supporters from right-wing reactionaries and white supremacists who often parachute into Portland in order to stir up controversy. This was a story about sports and culture, and that culture dovetailed with the politics of the moment, even as the fans themselves told me that it was unfair to call advocating against fascism a political issue—it was, to them, a human rights issue. To be honest, I’d never seen a movement quite like it before in any mainstream American sport; but then, I’d never written about professional soccer that much. And I’d never lived in a city quite like Portland.
I understood the rough outlines of Portland’s controversial racial history—and the state of Oregon’s checkered racial past—but I think most people presume that it’s softened up over the years, as the city’s image morphed into the soft-focus hipster haven of Portlandia. That image is partially true: There is a store on a street near my house that only sells kilts, and I regularly see tattooed goofballs heading to band practice with Siamese cats perched on their shoulders.
But the Portland I’ve seen in the year that I’ve lived here doesn’t feel entirely like that. In fact, it feels, at times, a little more like the part of central Pennsylvania where I grew up, a college town surrounded by farms and rural small towns, in the section of the state that James Carville once likened to Alabama. There is tension here between left and right that dates back decades, and it’s only been exacerbated by the effects of gentrification and population growth: Portland feels like a small city that’s constantly resisting attempts to transform it into San Francisco or Seattle, which is why it also feels like there is too much traffic and not enough stoplights and a palpable sense of road rage that has led to me nearly getting hit by a car while crossing the street in a crosswalk roughly seventy times since I’ve moved here.
It is, of course, also the whitest major city in America.
And then came the election of a president who is nakedly willing to exploit these divides in order to boost his popularity among his base. This stirred up all that history. In 2018, a man shouting racist slurs on a commuter train in Portland stabbed two people to death; that incident carried echoes of a horrifying incident that occurred thirty years earlier, in 1988, when white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw.
Every so often, white supremacists and far-right groups will swoop into ultra-progressive Portland, seeking to garner attention and cause trouble—particularly with the forces that have grown up over the course of decades in order to combat them, like Rose City Antifa, the city’s most prominent anti-fascist group. This mirrors what happened with European soccer, Blazak told me, a sport that far-right skinhead groups began to co-opt decades earlier in order to spread their hatred—and which then produced far-left skinhead groups as a reaction to that hate. When soccer began to boom in Portland in the 1980s, it was the perfect sport to encapsulate this city’s quirky European character. And eventually, it became an avenue to fight back against the abhorrence of the far right.
Last weekend, in the midst of rising tensions that had been so obviously inflamed by a president seeking re-election, a man was murdered in downtown Portland. The president responded by declaring that Portland had been burning for decades, which is the kind of ridiculous and delusional bullshit we’ve come to expect from him. Portland is fine, other than the fact that a handful of people are taking the bait and allowing the city to be utilized as a political pawn.
But maybe what the president was trying to say (probably not—almost certainly not— but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here), in his own stunningly ignorant fashion, was that Portland—and Oregon, and the entire Pacific Northwest—had been dealing with these kinds of underlying tensions for quite some time. And what he neglected to mention in making that statement was that he has only ever been interested in exploiting this divide to suit his own needs.
Over the past few months, I have re-watched a pair of documentaries, both directed by brothers MacClain and Chapman Way. The first is The Battered Bastards of Baseball, about the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor-league baseball team in the 1970s that swooped into town and succeeded where no one thought they could. It is one of those odd and quirky Portland stories that makes you fall for this city’s weirdness: The team was owned by Bing Russell, father of actor Kurt Russell, who played on the team; the batboy was Todd Field, who became an Oscar-winning director. One of the players invented Big League Chew; another, Larry Colton, became an acclaimed writer. It is a celebration of Portland’s oddity, its embrace of outsiders, and it is one of the best sports documentaries I’ve seen in recent years.
The making of that film led the Way brothers to their second project: Wild Wild Country, a stellar six-part documentary about the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his attempts to construct a commune in rural Oregon. The Bhagwan and his lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, are not exactly sympathetic figures; but the documentary manages to portray what it was like for this strange group to parachute into rural Oregon, of all places, which was not exactly known for its enlightened attitude toward foreigners or people of color. It is a story about many things—and in the end, it is hard to view the Bhagwan and Ma Anand Sheela as anything other than sadistic and ruthless and materialistic, captives of the ugliness of the American dream—but at some level, it is also a story about the great American divide, the way this melting pot of a country has always viewed outsiders with rampant suspicion.
That, I think, is what concerned the fans of the Portland Timbers when Major League Soccer forbid them from displaying that anti-Nazi Iron Front symbol. The people who have lived here far longer than I have—and who understand this city better than I ever will—view Portland as a sort of sanctuary for those who might be marginalized in other places, whether because of their race or their gender or their worldview. That this city is located in a state with a long history of white supremacy was bound to cause problems, which is what led to groups like antifa sprouting up, which is what led, eventually, to the president utilizing this moment to exploit the fears that have long existed under Portland’s glossy surface.
I don’t know if I’ll live in this city long enough to see it—and maybe it’s not fair for me to comment on it all, given that I’m essentially a transient gentrifier myself—but it’s clear that Portland is on the verge of real change. That’s kind of what these past four discomfiting years have been about—fear of change. That idea now bleeds into everything: Our cities, our sports, our politics, our inherent power structures. Oregon is not in play in this election, but Oregon’s history is, because it is the same history we’re now confronting as a nation.
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