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Inside Portland’s Autonomous Protest Movement
PORTLAND, Oregon, August 20 — It’s the 84th day of consecutive protest against police brutality and systemic racism in Portland, Oregon. People have gathered at a neighborhood park and are preparing to march to the police union building, the Portland Police Association. They’re led by the Black Youth Movement, a group of 20 young people who aim to elevate Black youth voices.
This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the anatomy of Portland’s ongoing protest movement. Read part 2 here, and part 3 here.
About 60 people mill around the park; some socially distance on grass while others visit the snack table, courtesy of a group called PDX Resistance. The PDX Frontline Drumline, a group of drummers in matching purple shirts, practice a few riffs as the park fills in. Near the street, a group of motorcyclists and bicyclists gather and strategize the best way to block off intersections and keep the marching route clear and safe for the protesters.
One member of the Black Youth Movement (BYM) gets on a megaphone and asks people to start filling into the street behind the car that will set the pace. Just then, the Snack Van—a sprinter van with “BLM” graffitied on the side, known for supporting protests with snacks and medical aid—turns the corner.
“We didn’t ask them to come, but we’re really fortunate and really happy that someone’s going to be here and bring water and stuff like that,” says Z, a BYM member. It’s decided that the Snack Van will bring up the rear.
This is how the Portland protests work: autonomously.
Portland has sustained more than five months of protests against police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd, pausing only when statewide fires created air quality so hazardous that merely stepping outside in a common cloth mask would bring the bitter taste of carcinogenic particles into your mouth. The Portland protests drew national attention when President Trump sent federal troops to “quell” the protests and “protect federal property” in early July. While the national attention has since subsided, Portlanders calling for the defunding of the Portland Police Bureau are continuously being reinvigorated and reimagined.
Underpinning these protests is a network of community groups and mutual aid services created by and for the protesters and supporters of the movement.
Protests, events, and calls for direct action in Portland are led by a variety of groups, the Black Youth Movement being one of them.
The Black Youth Movement was born at the beginning of the Portland protests in late May, days after the police killing of George Floyd. Several community members that now make up the group met in the streets while protesting alone and formed a connection. They came together to process their emotions collectively, support each other, and elevate youth voices in the movement for Black lives.
“A lot of times our voices aren’t heard just because we’re youth,” says BYM member Marzz. “We felt that it was essential that we not only speak up, but build a platform where other youth feel comfortable and feel like they can say what they want and say what they need.”
Marzz emphasized the importance of camaraderie and community within the movement. The group focuses not only on protests, but also on community events, like celebrating LGBTQ Pride month in June, school supply drives, and an end-of-summer skate session for skaters who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
“It’s all about creating your community when it comes to protesting, because you may not get change next week, but at least you have your family behind you no matter what,” Z explains. “If everything goes to shit one day, we will still be a family and we will still have each other.”
The group aims to lead marches and protests once a week, highlighting their list of demands at the beginning of each march. The group’s demands are constantly evolving, but are broadly sectioned into policing, health care, housing, and education reforms. Some BYM demands include defunding and demilitarizing the police to restructure the entire policing system, with the end goal of abolition; requiring diversity training by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color for every health care professional before they are allowed to work with any patient; creating a grant or funding program specifically for Black-owned businesses; and including one semester of Black history and one semester of Indigenous history within Portland Public Schools.
Other activists and organizers have developed a science of protesting.
Demetria Hester became a public figure in 2017 when she was assaulted by self-described neo-Nazi Jeremy Christian, who went on to kill two people on a Portland light rail train the next day. For the past three or four years, Hester says, she has been studying the way the police respond to protesters, as well as the most effective ways to bring protesters together. She now organizes for Moms United For Black Lives, a group of moms who support the protests with direct action, as well as mutual aid.
“We have a full game plan,” Hester says about Moms. “Make sure that the White people that are on your side are really on your side, that’s one.”
Hester stresses the importance of White allies being able to follow leadership from Black people, specifically Black women. Beyond that, Hester says that as the moms work on organizing with other mutual aid groups or reaching out to local politicians to promote change at a policy level, they must be educating themselves about Black history and why Black Lives Matter is a needed movement.
“If they don’t educate themselves, none of the protests are going to help [the Black community],” Hester says.
The Black Youth Movement and Moms United for Black Lives are just two of several groups organizing direct actions like protests and marches in Portland, not to mention all of the adjacent pop-ups and community events in support of the movement for Black lives.
Recognizing that it’s hard to have a complete scope of all of the various actions happening each day, a collective of BIPOC and White allies joined together to organize PDX BLM Events, which is not formally affiliated with the national BLM network. The online calendar and Instagram account aggregates the day’s events.
By compiling local event information in one place, the group aims to make it easier for people to participate in local actions by removing the time-consuming process of scouring various Instagram posts, Facebook events, and Tweets for the latest events. Within the first five days the calendar was published, the site had about 50,000 unique visitors, according to an emailed statement from PDX BLM Events.
“We see our calendar project as one part of a broader movement support infrastructure, which also includes organizations distributing food and safety equipment, medics on the frontlines, loved ones at home cooking meals for protesters, and trauma counselors,” the group states, acknowledging the expansive protest community.
On August 20, that 84th night of protest, BYM’s march made it to the police union building and back to the park without any police interactions, free to express their anger and joy through passionate speeches and exuberant dancing alike.
Meanwhile, across the city, another group of protesters were gathering for a demonstration outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building, organized by a group called Safe PDX Protest.
Read part 2 of this three-part investigative series about Portland’s sustained protest movement here.
Isabella Garcia is a former solutions reporter and former editorial intern for YES! Media. Her work has appeared in The Malheur Enterprise and YES! Magazine. Isabella is based in Portland. She can be reached at isabellagarcia.website.