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Cape Town, South Africa
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  • Ellen Bassett

Portland, Summer 2020

My escape to Portland (escape primarily from the Virginia heat) took place pretty much as normal this year. A flight, albeit from a very empty Richmond airport, with a plaintive, but sleepy, dog at my feet under the seat in front of me. An empty seat between me and my travel companion, Michael.

Our arrival here was a bit earlier than usual—Morocco study abroad canceled, Mandela-Washington Fellowship program canceled. Not that I’ve had a lot of psychic distance from Charlottesville, as there has been so much prep (read: so many zoom meetings) regarding how the university will manage fall instruction with Covid19 in our midst. We have decided on a “return to grounds”—but most instruction will be online. Worries over transmission from socializing, immortal 20-year olds is rife amongst faculty.

Portland is indeed a different city during the pandemic. On Division and Hawthorne Streets, our normal haunts are quiet. We moved into Phase I in July and now there are restaurants serving customers outdoors on the street, although Pok Pok, the restaurant that really changed Division is still shuttered. We’ve had several “socially distanced” meals with friends outside. (See photo.) Glad we have a large yard for this—one implication of the pandemic for cities is that R1 (single family residential) zoning will persist. R1 has been implicated in our affordable housing crisis and, while I was doubtful that eliminating it is anything near a silver bullet, I now doubt we can eliminate it given the concerns raise over correlations between population density and disease transmission (largely disproven) and the refuge backyards have been for many.

The real action in Portland this summer, of course, is taking place downtown. We’ve now entered day 60 of Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd. Portland was pretty low key (say in comparison with Seattle) until the federal government showed up with enforcers from the Department of Homeland Security and ICE. There was clearly tension with the Portland Police prior to this and some indications that Ted Wheeler, our mayor, is in real trouble if he can’t get the police under control.

The feds have been using what can only be characterized as disproportionate force against protesters. The New York Times has a very powerful video summation that can be reached by this link: One landed in the hospital after they shot him with a “non-lethal” projectile after he kicked a tear gas canister back at them. His sister has compared him to Harry Potter with the scar the projectile has placed on his forehead. The most terrifying part has been the abduction of protesters off the streets and bundling them into unmarked vans. If that doesn’t remind one of terrible South American dictators, I don’t know what will. (Er...maybe dumping bound activists into the Willamette River from helicopters.)

The net effect of this has been to increase the size of crowds. Last night, there were an estimated 5,000 people downtown around the federal building. The Wall of Moms in their yellow tee shirts have become famous, trailed perhaps by the Dads, who are using leaf blowers to push tear gas back at federal officers. (Finally, a good use for leaf blowers. In my law class, I have had an abiding question as to whether they constitute a nuisance. I’ve a neighbor in Charlottesville who drives me absolutely crazy with his leaf blowing … he has an in-ground pool.)

The Wall of Moms are one of this week’s “Best Photos” for the New York Times. See below.

While I feel a lot of solidarity with the protesters (and I acknowledge the whiteness of Portland as a city and the way this has been disquieting for some activists), I really worry that this is just playing into the narrative that the Administration wants to have.

A plea: Late night Portland protesters—stop the property destruction already. Be peaceful. Don’t set fires. Provoking the feds plays well on Fox. People don’t understand that this city is peaceful, and our streets are safe. Most Portlanders, in fact, walk around with masks on even outdoors.

The mask—an unexpected symbol of community care and, certainly, of political inclination and resistance.

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