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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hip Portland Confronts Its Nihilists

Portland cops created a human wall of sorts beneath the off-ramps of a bridge on Saturday to thwart the violent confrontation of young thugs who have paralyzed the city on several occasions in the last three years. Can this successful tactic mean an end to a nastiness that has tarnished the Rose City’s image as a hip and edgy culture of acceptance and peace?

Portland, OR

Perhaps even the violent young men who strive for confrontation have finally had enough— by early afternoon they had begun drifting away, some ushered across a bridge to Portland’s eastside and away from the fighting grounds at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, which joins downtown to the Willamette River. 

The Morrison Bridge spans the river and waterfront park. Police used the span to create a human shield with right-wing protesters on one side and left-wing protesters on the other. The tactic contained the majority of the venom; there were only isolated injuries and arrests, mostly after the organized protests disbanded. 

Portland has not become a micro version of Hong Kong; most of the activity is not directed against a repressive government. It’s primarily a staged event for social media, used to recruit for a motley assortment of fascists and white nationalists on the right and masked and violence-prone pushback on the left. Right-wing groups ally themselves with President Donald Trump, and were delighted when he called out antifa leftists but did not deliver an equal scolding to the rightists. Many if not most of the rightists appear to be from outside the city, but a major leftist group, Rose City Antifa, is homegrown.

Why does this keep happening in Portland? New York Times regional reporter Kirk Johnson, following an Aug. 3 clash, observed that “Insularity, and the idea that some kind of different society — whether racist, utopian, progressive or something else — could be conceived and built at the Northwest fringe of the continent, still runs deep in the culture.” 

Johnson is correct on this point. There is an air of exceptionalism about the city; the TV comedy Portlandia (2011-2019) contributed to an image as a sort of goofy place, a bit hapless but well-meaning and quite nice in a woodsy way. Violent protests and bloodied heads do not play well on this stage. Johnson—as have many others—points to the city’s lack of diversity and its 19th century birth in a state that banned blacks in its original constitution. Portland is still very white (77 percent). Racism is part of the discussion in Portland, but overshadowed by issues relating to housing, neighborhoods and homelessness. The protests and violence are played out in Portland because the city’s liberal, “whatever” culture appears to encourage it. Most Portlanders are fed up, but the audience is not the city or its citizens; the audience is the world of social media.

Based on my 17 years as a newsman in Portland (1970-87), I’m confident the city will move beyond this anomaly and live up to its reputation for livability and innovation. I say this because I was there when a similar challenge arose—and was met with an event that foreshadowed the way Portland and Oregon was shaped for the new century.

It is ironic that Saturday’s confrontation played out largely at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. On an August day 49 years ago, there was no waterfront park, only a strip of vacant land along the river; it was downtown that was targeted by a ragtag assortment of Vietnam War protesters that called itself the People’s Army Jamboree. They targeted the annual convention of the American Legion, a staunch backer of the war and President Richard Nixon. The convention was scheduled for Portland and the FBI warned Oregon officials to expect an intrusion of thousands bent on mayhem. Tom McCall—he of the future park—was governor and seeking a second term. The race was close, and McCall—always a nervous candidate—needed a solution. 

An ad hoc group of young men working with McCall’s staff came up with that solution: Vortex, the nation’s first (and only) state-sponsored rock festival. This was the Woodstock era, and the governor bought the idea that Portland young people, who might be recruited by the Jamboree to become “cannon fodder” in violence and damage to people and property, could be lured away from the city for a free rock show at a riverside park 33 miles from town. Fully realizing that a major incident of drug abuse, or injury or even death from drowning could end his political career, McCall signed on and went on television to sell his crazy idea. 

It worked, and McCall went on to a second term that made him the icon of a state that pioneered land-use planning, recycling, public beaches and a host of environmental accomplishments. Among the bulwarks of what we called “The Oregon Story” was the birth of a new Portland, with an innovative light-rail system, a revived downtown and other innovations. One of its highlights was to take that barren strip along the Willamette for a wonderful park that today serves as the city’s link to its river, with trails, bike paths, celebration spaces for groups large and small—even political protests. They named that park for the plucky governor who figured out how to deal with outside agitators bent for mayhem in the Rose City.

Vortex was a pivot point for Portland and for Oregon; we will never know if the predicted mobs and violence would have actually emerged, but we do know that Oregonians felt as if they had done something special; and they went on to do a lot more. That image for many years shaped Portland’s uniqueness for longtime residents. 

It may have run its course; today’s young and hip enjoy the results without appreciation of their origins. The city can ill afford to allow violent young nihilists to fashion a new iconic moment for Portland. Participants in the Saturday rallies have promised to return; the city needs another “Vortex moment” to keep pushing back.

Image by Jacob Johnson from Pixabay

Floyd McKay
Floyd McKay
Floyd J. McKay, emeritus professor of journalism at Western Washington University, covered Pacific Northwest politics as a reporter and opinion writer for four decades, primarily in Oregon. He was commentator/news analyst at KGW-TV (King Broadcasting) from 1970 to 1987. Previously a print reporter, he returned to print and online reporting and commentary from 2004 to 2017 with the Seattle Times Op-ed page and Crosscut.com. He is the author of Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State (Oregon State University Press, 2016). He lives in Bellingham.

2 COMMENTS

  1. What a treat to be reading the estimable Floyd McKay again! The man is the knowledgeable conscience of the Northwest and an inspirational reporter. Welcome, Floyd!

  2. So pleased to again be a part of a David Brewster brainstorm! Looking forward to exchanging ideas and comments with this community.

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