The View from Portland

Part One of a Look at Our Dramatis Personae

Hello from Antifa HQ!

It was a running joke in my family that we ended up in places just before they were beset by misfortune and disaster. Pearl Harbor? Yep, had family there when it was bombed. The Holocaust? You bet! 9/11? I watched it unfold from my window. Perhaps it’s the Jewish experience, or the Slavic experience, or, just maybe, it’s that horrible things are happening most of the time. 

So, here I am, a relatively new resident of Portland, Oregon. I moved here with my now wife at the end of 2016, at the tail end of the “Put a bird on it” era. Now, we live in a city which has always been a symbol of… something, become a symbol yet again; of out-of-control rioters, if you live in one information ecosystem, of out-of-control cops, if you swim in the other; and, no matter which side you are on, a city with a doofus for a mayor. 

Since it can be hard to keep track from the outside, here’s my first, by-no-means exhaustive, rundown of the local political players. I’ll keep doing these until morale improves or I run out of locals to write about.  

Mayor Ted Wheeler: Mayor Wheeler is, inexplicably, in the midst of an election. He faces a runoff in November against Sarah Iannarone after juuuust barely failing to win with 50% of the votes in the wide-open race earlier this year. At that time, while people were irritated with him in the way that you should always be irritated with your Mayor, sentiment was at least neutral. Now, not so much. The man moves so slowly he’s like a chopped and screwed version of an actual Mayor. He did manage to show up to the larger anti-federal protests over the summer until he got tear gassed, which is commendable, I guess? It’s a close corollary to the parable of the bowls of shit from the Wire. Nevertheless, he is also the police commissioner — twist! — but steadfastly refuses to actually bring the Portland Police to heel. The reason is some combination of the fact that he can’t or he won’t. It was his birthday this week, too, and if nothing else, he looks great for 58? It must be the fact that he doesn’t like being Mayor very much and so avoids doing anything related to mayoring whenever possible. 

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty: Portland has an asinine municipal setup, with five city commissioner slots, one of which is designated for the Mayorship. The commissioners divide up various portfolios. So Wheeler is the police commissioner while Hardesty is the fire commissioner, for example. Elected in 2018, Hardesty is the only Black person ever to sit on the City Council. She’s probably the most outspoken about topics that make locals here wring their hands and fret about how tolerant they really are: homelessness, racism, and police reform. She’s called for Mayor Wheeler to give her the police commissioner’s role, which he’s declined for now, claiming he wants to wait until the new year to do so. OK, Ted. If there’s anything the last six months have shown, it’s that we should listen to her more. A lot more.   

PPB: The Portland Police Bureau, our local police force. Historically, they’ve been terrible for many, many years. More recently, they’ve been focused on abusing the hardcore contingent of around 250 protestors that show up on the streets night after night in front of various precincts and the union building. Their likes include: firing nonlethal munitions, using flashbangs, pepper balls, tear gas, batons, and their fists against protestors after they declare a riot; chatting with alt-right groups and looking the other way when they come into town to stir up trouble; and being petty little dictators in the way that cops often are. Dislikes include: living in Portland proper (just 14% of them do), being held to account, being told what to do, or conceding any kind of point. Like cops in a lot of places, they are in a difficult position. There’s a major homelessness crisis, for which they are understaffed and uninterested in dealing with on a regular basis, and they have zero trust with the BIPOC community. And, because this is the Pacific Northwest, there’s a considerable number of guns floating around, and the biggest problem those guns create is not that the owners fail to clean up their brass afterward. Oh, and after the city council voted to defund their Gun Violence Reduction Team, they’ve been dragging their heels responding to 911 calls of any kind. 

PPA: The Portland Police Association, aka the union, from which the cops get so much power. It’s the oldest police union in the country, which should tell how passionate they are about not being held to account. To take just one small example; their CBA requires that city discipline PPB officers in a manner “least likely to embarrass them” which doesn’t lead to a lot of discipline being made public. Yes, there’s now a list of officers who have been disciplined, but it’s hardly extensive or effective when the union can fight so hard against the discipline being handed down in the first place, and it only traces officers who have been disciplined since, uh, June. Basically: they are the main roadblock to any kind of meaningful police reform in Portland. 

Heavenly Donuts: is across the street from the Police Association building on Lombard. They’re open 24 hours. There will come a time when I don’t find this entertaining, but it hasn’t happened yet.  

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt: Elected by a 2-1 margin earlier in the year over the status quo candidate supported by the outgoing DA. Promised to rethink how criminal justice was applied in the county. Has an enviable head of hair. Immediately angered everyone by announcing he wouldn’t prosecute low-level crimes associated with the protests, I would say correctly, given the fact that PPB has not shown the ability to control themselves to the point that they are covering identification on their uniforms. Can’t get on a Brady list if people don’t know who you are! Anyway, the Multnomah County Sheriff and the PPB were incensed by being told what to do by the person who is their boss, leading to the federalization of Oregon State Troopers to do the dirty work of arresting the antifas and making sure those charges stick. Schmidt is oriented towards doing what is correct and necessary but, of course, we all know the kind of thanks one gets in municipal politics for doing that. He only took over the office a month ago, so how it all plays out remains to be seen.   

Governor Kate Brown: The subject of many recall campaigns, all unsuccessful, because she dared to be the Governor and also a woman. Rural Oregonian types hate her because she’s from the urban part of the state, where the people and money are. In my estimation, she’s bent over backwards to accommodate their demands, despite the walkouts in the state legislature to slow down or stop the passage of laws they hate relating to timber and the environment. It’s a shame, really, because protecting the environment and keeping the timber industry local — it is not the case at the moment — is an issue that could transcend partisanship. I also felt like she didn’t get enough credit for creating the work group with Washington and California in the early days of the pandemic, but it feels like ages ago.  

Look for another installment of this just as soon as I get angry enough to write more!