Gray-haired black Portlanders are playing cards in one of this barroom’s street-side corners, next to the jukebox. There are no windows in the bar of the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a historic site once known as Portland’s “colored YMCA” that all but abuts the city’s gentrification ground zero. The only view outside comes from CNN. On the flat-screen above the bar it shows riots.
An hour earlier, down the lodge hall, I had been huddling with participants in an NAACP-sponsored historical night called Black Legacy. The seminar was about the disinvestment in black neighborhoods — redlining, block-busting, subprime mortgages — that had stripped the possibility of accumulating wealth from black homeowners. Eliot, the historically black neighborhood where the Billy Webb Lodge stood, was itself a prime example. In 1960, it was 69 percent black. By 2010, that was down to less than 23 percent. Now the share is undoubtedly lower.
Peering up at Portland through CNN, we mostly see Americans determined to lead the unraveling. If you cock your head a certain way, the rioting Portlanders look less like the vanguard than just another edition of white people wilding out. Outside, the American resistance has turned out to exercise the right to protest, and a hardcore contingent is trying to coax an extra level of outrage. For CNN, it’s compelling news content.
Q: What do you call a black anarchist?
A: By his inmate number.
In the hall there had been a mix of sixty or so older black women around the periphery, and a core of young whites who seemed to yearn for reconciliation — what had their people just done? It wasn’t the constituency I’d tweeted to bring forth, but for those who did show up it was an opportune time to talk about the destruction of black neighborhoods and livelihoods. Liberal pundits had been talking about how so many whites had voted against their self-interest to cut the safety web of social services. But it didn’t seem that way at all, really.
Damon Young, of the website Very Smart Brothas, has this right:
“In this election, White people did not vote against their self-interests. They may have voted against a self-interest — a few actually — but not their most important one: The preservation of White supremacy. Retaining the value of a Whiteness they believed to be increasingly devalued superseded everything else.”
A little before retiring to the bar, I’d handed the microphone to a robust lady from the Billy Webb neighborhood, a fiftysomething survivor of all the changes — segregation, block-busting, crack, prison — visited upon her Portland, a ground that the most gentrifying of rioters had moved into.
Her grandparents went back to the days of Beatrice Cannady, the college-educated jazz singer from Chicago who helped set the stage for this local NAACP chapter more than a hundred years ago. And she had suffered through the black Portland indignity of feeling a stranger in her own neighborhood. The election of Trump had proved the deal-breaker. She’d turned to the white kids who were the room’s creamy center.
“I’ve never seen such disrespect for human beings. People know my dog and they don’t know me. People walk by and don’t speak to my 85-year-old mother, who has lived in that house for over fiftysomething years,” she said, her voice rising in intensity. She wasn’t going to work with white folks anymore, she said. She was done. One neighbor bowed her head as the woman spoke. The cohort of white youngsters applauded.
The night after the election, Portland’s first night of protest, I’d walked over the Burnside Bridge, against a tide of young people fresh off the adventure of shutting down Interstate 5. “There is no way to remove two thousand people who don’t want to be moved,” said police bureau spokesperson Pete Simpson. But any conscious person would know that if, say, Don’t Shoot Portland had put up two thousand black people on I-5, the cops would have figured something out.