USA Editor's Picks The World Life Inequality

Living in Portland in the age of Trump

The day before I sat down to write this piece, Portland police swept the camp that had occupied land around an office building used by ICE.

It was more than a month after the occupation had begun. During that time, the camp had operated as a temporary autonomous zone, with a camp kitchen, a medical tent, a communications tent complete with WiFi, daily general assemblies to discuss camp affairs and nightly vigils in remembrance and solidarity with the families being separated and detained at the border, and the people being deported back into often deadly danger.

To live in Portland right now is to engage in an endurance test of your capacity for cognitive dissonance. The city, much vaunted for its liberal character these days, is the whitest big city in America. It stands on ground stolen from the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, and other tribes, in what was originally founded as a whites-only state.

Over the past two years, Portland and cities like it have become centers of resistance to the Trump administration’s regressive and oppressive agenda. At the same time, the city government’s and local police’s militarized response to left-wing protestors, and relative tolerance for right-wing provocateurs, showcases the limits of the municipality’s tolerance for any kind of major political overhaul. That has become especially clear this summer, as Portlanders responded to the Trump administration’s family separations policy at the border.

Oregon is not exactly what people think of when they imagine a border state. Sure, technically the coastline counts, but it’s not exactly a hotspot for entry into the U.S. And we’re insulated by the long stretch of California from the border Trump is most concerned about. Yet Oregon, and specifically Portland, has become a major flashpoint for a national showdown over immigration policy and enforcement.

On June 17th, Father’s Day, a group of activists staged a demonstration outside the Portland ICE office. Some of them decided to stay and camp out, demanding an end to ICE activities in the city and calling for the abolition of the agency entirely. Over the course of the next few weeks, the camp grew. It also inspired a series of similar occupations at ICE facilities across the country, some of which continue today.

The first night I attended a vigil at the camp, representatives from Portland’s Native community led the people assembled in prayer, then performed traditional songs and dances from their tribes. Behind us, cars driving past the occupation honked and waved in solidarity, occasional voices cheering out the windows.

Several nights later, I read reports on Twitter from some of the occupiers that Proud Boys, a group of chauvinist, reactionary right-wingers, had driven by the camp during the night and flung water balloons filled with human waste at it. I watched the story unfold through my phone screen and marveled at the combination of privilege, timing, and luck that insulated me from the more sordid attacks on the protesters I had stood with just a few nights before. 

For over a week, the occupiers managed to actually shut down ICE operations at the office. Amidst the horror of family separations, the cause was popular enough that Portland mayor Ted Wheeler put out a statement saying that local police would not take part in any efforts to clear the camp. Eventually, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers turned up and cleared the entrance to the office so that ICE agents could resume their work of ethnically cleansing the United States.

Those DHS agents put up fencing around the ICE building that blocked parts of the sidewalk, limiting accessibility in a way that occupiers had been careful not to. They blocked off a street in front of the building that occupiers had been careful to keep clear, since it impacts a bus route and access to a nearby hospital. And they grew increasingly violent in their attacks on campers. And yet life in the city in many ways continued without regard for the struggle happening within its bounds. My life continued: I went to the gym, I grocery shopped, I bought bags of ice and sprawled prostrated in front of a box fan to fend off the heat wave sweeping Portland. Around me, hundreds of thousands of people did the same, their lives unfolding in typical mundane fashion. 

That continuity felt senseless to me, almost disorienting. How could so many of our lives proceed as usual, when families were ripped apart and children were abused and parents were deported without their kids? For me and countless others, the obvious answer is privilege. But as the news staged an ever-more aggressive occupation in my mind, the physical occupation of the ICE facility felt like the only place the world made sense. But for various reasons I always went there alone, and my natural introversion made it hard to connect with people, even as it calmed my chaotic mind to stand among other people who recognized the urgency of our moment and were taking direct action in response to it.

Another night when I went to the occupation, dancers from Portland’s queer, mostly non-white drag ball scene were staging a performance. I walked past heavily armed DHS officers whose hands resting on their weapons made my skin crawl. But when I got past them, I was greeted with a joyous call of “Welcome, comrade!” by several people near the entrance to the camp.

The presence of the DHS officers nearby and the ongoing operations of ICE confirm that we live in dark times. But watching the queens of the House of Flora vogue on the asphalt in front of a cheering crowd of people united in the fight for a better world confirmed that our struggle does not always have to be grim. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, our revolution not only can, but must include dancing.

Eventually, Wheeler went back on his word, and Portland police swept the camp, pushing occupiers out. But they are already organizing meetings and vigils, teaming up with new and long-standing immigrant and racial justice organizations, and planning new actions.

After their performance, Brandon Harrison, father of the House of Flora, held out a basket full of wildflower seeds native to the Pacific Northwest, and urged everyone who had watched to take a handful and scatter them around the camp and the city, to grow something beautiful.

Anyone who went to the camp over the course of the past month has taken with them a seed of resistance with which to help grow a more beautiful world.  

By Laura Muth

Laura Muth is a writer and researcher with a BA in political science from Johns Hopkins and an MA in international affairs from Boston University. They write at the intersection of security and human rights issues, with a special interest in gender, nationalism, racism, and religious identity. Laura loves connecting specific current events with larger trends in global politics.