Portland, America’s whitest big city, was debating race long before a white supremacist allegedly killed two men and injured a third in stabbings on a city train.
PORTLAND — It was supposed to be a simple job ad. Oregon’s biggest city was seeking a new police chief, and the mayor had posted a lengthy description online describing what he wanted in the hire.
But two words in it stood out. The mayor — a recently elected white Democrat — said the city had a history of “systemic racism.” He called on the new police leader to “improve relationships” with minorities.
The police union president — a more conservative, black veteran of the force — snapped back. Cops were “angry and confused, as the clear implication from the posting is that the Police Bureau and its members have supported a racist culture in the city,” he said. Police felt demoralized, he added.
Portland, America’s whitest big city, was debating race long before a white supremacist allegedly killed two men and injured a third in stabbings on a city train last week. Long-simmering tensions over skin color and policing have reached the point of an unusual feud between police leadership and the mayor over where and when it’s OK to talk about racism. The city of 632,000 is 76 percent white, 9 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian and 6 percent black. (Non-Latino whites make up just 62 percent of the nation as a whole, and are a minority in many big cities.)
The soul-searching over race in a place that touts itself as a liberal haven has only increased as residents brace for dueling “alt-right” and anti-fascist rallies Sunday. “Alt-right” is a small, far-right movement mixing racism, white nationalism and populism. City officials say they expect potentially armed white supremacists to attend. City officials pleaded with organizers to cancel the events, but those calls were rejected.
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“Portland is a progressive city. It’s a great city. … But we can’t assume that the legacy of the past isn’t impacting the present,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, whose public spat with the police-union leader has built up for weeks. He said the police-union president, Daryl Turner, simply wants to “protect the status quo” and “not lead us into the future.”
Turner said the mayor, who was formerly in state and county offices, is playing politics with flashy statements to curry favor among residents. “It is hard for me to understand that during his political career, this is the first time … that he has taken an interest in equity and diversity,” Turner said sarcastically. He acknowledged that police have “work to do” when it comes to racial disparities, but said mentioning that in a job posting would turn applicants away.
Caught between the two officials are residents and activists who have become increasingly agitated over race relations and policing in Portland.
Protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets this year, including after two deadly police shootings of black residents. Activists have shut down City Council meetings, shouting at the mayor and commissioners, whom they blame for not responding to the shootings and for what they call unnecessary police clashes with demonstrators.
The mayor has called protesters “hostile” and “abusive.” One city commissioner told his staff to not attend City Council meetings, saying they were “no longer safe.”
Tensions have increased since March, when a grand jury declined to charge an officer for the shooting and killing of a black, 17-year-old robbery suspect who police said had a replica gun.
Portlandians angry over policing tactics have rallied outside the mayor’s house over the months, banging drums late into the night. At one point, they confronted him and his wife on video. At least once, the mayor headed to a hotel after work to avoid them. At another point, Wheeler’s tires were slashed.
“We are no stranger to protest or strong opinions here in Portland, but usually it comes in waves,” said Gregory McKelvey, an activist who founded the group Portland’s Resistance, a grass-roots organization that frequently criticizes the mayor and police. “But now we have constant protests, a lot of them against police practices, and here are two top figures fighting over something that is so obvious — racism. It’s a symbol of how entrenched the problems have become here.”
The squabble over the police-chief post and talking about race in Portland isn’t the first high-stakes drama in the department, which Wheeler inherited after his inauguration in January and has promised to overhaul.
The department’s image is still recovering after a Department of Justice investigation five years ago found it routinely used “unnecessary or unreasonable force” with the mentally ill, many of them minorities. An independent law firm that evaluated police as part of a federal settlement recently said use of force and police shootings have significantly decreased over the years.
But the same firm and civil-rights groups said police have more work to do. Activists point to data over the years showing that police stop blacks at much higher rates than whites, for example.
Last June, a previous police chief was forced out of the job and indicted after allegedly misleading investigators about his accidental shooting of a friend while reaching for beer on a hunting trip. His replacement, Chief Mike Marshman, was then put on leave after allegations emerged that he had a subordinate sign him in for a training session he missed. The chief was later cleared of wrongdoing and returned to the job.
Marshman, who rose through the ranks and enjoys broad support among officers, said he never expected his position to be temporary and has put his name in for the job. Speaking about the conflict between the mayor and the union boss, he took a middle road.
“I’m in agreement with the mayor that the person coming in should have a commitment to educating other officers about the history of Portland. But when I read the job announcement, I simply don’t know if folks who aren’t from Portland will be put off or not.
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“Some folks may look at it and say, ‘OK, Portland gets it.’ But others might say, ‘This is interesting, and what is happening in Portland?’”
The history of racism in Portland has become central to Wheeler’s time in office since the new year.
“When Oregon was established as a state in 1859, by law black people were not allowed to live here,” Wheeler said in his State of the City address in late March, when he said that Portland had a “dark and clouded history around race” that “must be brought to light.”
“Oregon was the only state with such a prohibition. By the 1920s, there were as many as 200,000 Klansman in the state. What was true in Oregon was certainly true in Portland as well,” he continued in the speech.
He spoke eloquently of Vanport, a segregated community in north Portland of about 20,000 where blacks lured to the state during World War II by plentiful shipyard jobs were funneled into a shoddily built public-housing community. Vanport, once the second-largest city in the state, was wiped out by a flooded Columbia River in May 1948, tearing apart black families and depleting a growing black population. There’s now a golf course where the city once stood.
Civil-rights groups and activists give Wheeler high grades for talking about the city’s racial history and dynamics. But some have asked if he’s more about words than action.
“It cannot be denied that we have a history of racism here,” said the Rev. T. Allen Bethel, the board president of the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, a group of religious leaders that speaks out frequently on policing. He also said he was baffled by Turner’s statements. “But at the end of the day, we’re looking to see who is coming in and what will actually happen,” he added.