The city of Portland has been one of the main cities that has continued protesting since the killing of George Floyd. In fact, up until last Saturday they had been protesting for 90 straight days. From the early days of the protests to federal troops being brought in to stop the “rioters,” as president Trump calls the demonstrators, Portland has not stopped.
The night of August 31st was a different event however. Aaron J. Danielson, a 39 year old resident of Portland, was shot and killed yesterday during a protest. According to reports by CNN, a “Trump 2020 Cruise Rally” had started in the nearby city of Clackamas, where a large number of Trump supporters had gathered. With cars garnering memorabilia that supported police and president Trump, a caravan of those who had been a part of the earlier rally made its way down to downtown Portland, as a part of the “Trump 2020 cruise rally route.”
This was of course going to incite some sort of tension, as Black Lives Matter protests were still going on in the city. Trump supporters engaged protesters with mace and paintball guns, and violence between both sides inevitably took place.
While there are videos circulating showing some events before the shooting, there is still little information about what happened to cause it. In fact, as of today, the shooter is still at large.
A quote from a friend said that Danielson was a “good and decent man.” One piece of evidence shown on Danielson paints him in a different picture.
Danielson’s friend and business partner Luke Carillo said that his friend “was not a radical. He was not a racist and was not a fascist. He was not an inciter or an instigator. He was a freedom-loving American who died expressing his beliefs."
New York Times reporter Mike Baker states that Danielson was wearing the insignia of the group Patriot Prayer, a far right militia group that has clashed with protesters in the past. In fact, the group organizer of the militia issued a statement about Danielson’s death, stating ”he had a huge heart and God bless the life he lived.”
The city of Portland, with all of its perceived progressiveness, has deep racist roots starting from the very beginning of what we now know as Oregon.
A closer look: Oregonian systematic racism
The state of Oregon has a long history of racism, which while not foreign to any state in this country, is rooted a bit deeper. There is a phrase about Portland being the “whitest city in America,” but that statement actually has some darkness behind it. Oregon actually was a white only state. While the state did ban slavery, it also banned black people from actually living in the state at all. If a black person lived in the territory for over three years, they would be flogged 39 times every six months, until they left Oregon.
Other exclusionary laws were added between the 1840s-1850s, such as banning African Americans from coming into Oregon all together. In 1857, the state adopted a constitution that stated that African Americans could not reside in the state, come into the state, or own property.
Essentially, Oregon was built as a haven for white supremacists. And yes, although the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments made those exclusionary laws unconstitutional federally, Oregon didn’t ratify the 14th amendment(Equal Protection Clause) OFFICIALLY until 1973. The 15th amendment, giving African Americans the right to vote, was not ratified until 1958. Even if black people were allowed to come to Oregon by 1870, it did not mean they were welcome at all.
Although the number of black people living in Oregon went up to about 1,000 by 1890, life was nowhere near safe. The reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s brought Oregon the most Klan memberships per capita. Former governor Walter M. Pierce was endorsed heavily by the Klan and people from sheriffs in local towns to the district attorney had pictures and support from the Klan. Measures such as literacy tests to vote in the state were implemented as well. It’s no wonder that the population of black people in the state only went up 1,000 in the next 30 years.
A migration of African Americans into the state during World War II saw an increase in population to almost 20,000, with a majority of them living in an area called Vanport, a port city between the cities of Vancouver and Portland. Darell Milner, a professor of Black studies in Portland State University, stated that the mayor of Portland wasn’t too happy with African Americans living in Vanport. In fact, the mayor commented in a newspaper that black people were not welcome. So as jobs became scarce for Black Americans after the war in Vanport, and with the complete flooding of the city by the Columbia river in 1948, African Americans in Vanport had to look for another place to stay, if they wanted to stay in the state. That’s where Albina comes into play.
Albina was a neighborhood popular for black potters and it was the only place that black people could legally buy homes, made possible by a 1919 code of ethics by the Realty Board of Portland, which forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans to minorities for properties located in white neighborhoods. After the flooding of Vanport, nearly 7,000 African Americans migrated to the neighborhood, making it the epicenter of black existence in the city. However, state and local legislators, along with business tycoons have looked at the neighborhood as a “renewal project” since the 50’s.
From the building of an arena in 1956 that destroyed 476 homes (half of them were owned by black people) to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 (affecting north Albina in particular), the neighborhood of Albina has routinely been violated against, in the name of “urban renewal.”
These calculated acts of displacement on the neighborhood of Albina had severe long term effects, particularly in the context of creating a close knit community. Redlining, the wicked process of banks being able to deny loans based on location, hit Portland hard in the 70’s and 80’s. The Oregonian published an investigation in 1990 that found that all of the banks in Portland combined had made only ten mortgage loans in a year span, covering a four census tract area in Albina. The investigation showed that it was merely 1/10th the number of mortgage loans being given to other similarly sized census tracts over the city.
These factors make it hard for African Americans to create that deep tie with the city, and a reason on why Albina is essentially gentrified.
So why tell you all of this? Well, it sets the context for Saturday nights events. It creates the scope for how Portland should be viewed.
While Portland has been lauded as a progressive city over the years, the racist legislation that has plagued the city for years still plagues it today, and has deep underlying effects.
No longer are the days of Black people not being able to own land in the state. However, gentrification has pushed long time residents of neighborhoods such as Albina to “the numbers,” a name given by Portlanders to the low income neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. The constant struggle for black voices to be heard in a predominantly white city is a struggle that Portland, no matter how progressive the majority of residents may seem, has not come to terms with.
Which is why Saturday is not a shock. Portland is the capital of one of the most historically racist states, in a country that still endures profound racism. While not as in your face, as resident Paul Kanuls states, “Everything is under the carpet. The racism is still very, very subtle.”
The death of anyone at a protest should not be condoned, and to say that Danielson deserved to die is absurd. There are not enough facts in the case to determine one side was right over the other. What is known is this: Danielson, with ties to a far right militia group, was present at a crossroads between BLM protesters and far right protesters. With his hat, he showed which side he was there to support.
In a city like Portland, to the black residents of the city who know the history of their people in this state, incidents like these can’t and don’t feel as a surprise at all.