In late July, Portland, Ore., held a grand reopening of its downtown. Hollowed out by the pandemic, which banished office workers and tourists, the neighborhood became the site of massive demonstrations against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. Throughout the summer of 2020, protesters faced off against local and federal law enforcement in nightly clashes that inevitably ended in tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and arrests. Even after direct actions became small and sporadic, many storefronts remained boarded up—a detail often mentioned in a barrage of media coverage characterizing the Rose City as dangerous, trashed, even dying.
Resurrecting downtown Portland, and the city’s image, has been a major focus for Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city leaders this year. By the reopening event, much of the plywood had come down; the band Pink Martini led a sing-along for a crowd in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and city commissioners Carmen Rubio, Mingus Mapps, and Jo Ann Hardesty cut a red ribbon to mark the opening of a new pod of food carts, several of which had been displaced from their previous location a few blocks north by the construction of a 35-story tower that will house 138 luxury condos and a Ritz-Carlton hotel. “Today is the beginning of a new Portland,” Mapps told the crowd.
What this new Portland should look like—and whom it should serve—remains a matter of fierce debate. To many Portlanders, the months of sustained protest that followed Floyd’s murder were historic, electrifying, and potentially transformational for a city with a deep history of racial exclusion and police violence. Portland’s Black residents, who make up 6 percent of the city’s population, have for decades endured harassment from police officers. The city has one of the worst racial disparities in arrests in the United States, and for nearly a decade the Portland Police Bureau has been under the supervision of the Department of Justice because of a pattern of using excessive force against people with mental illness. Though efforts to reform the bureau began decades before last year’s uprising, never before had so many white residents been attuned to the issue. Longtime activists sensed a remarkable opportunity. “Ain’t nobody scared of police no more,” Kent Ford, who founded the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, said recently. “If I don’t see nothing else, I’ve seen how it came together here.”
After two weeks of demonstrations, the police chief stepped down. The City Council redirected $15 million from policing to communities of color and to Portland Street Response, a non-police pilot program intended to assist people in mental health crises, and dissolved a handful of controversial police units. In November, 80 percent of Portland voters approved a new independent police oversight board, which will have the power to discipline and fire officers for misconduct. It was understood that all of this would be only a start toward making the whitest major city in America more equitable. Black-led organizations developed a sweeping agenda to dismantle systemic racism not only in policing but also in housing, transportation, education, economic development, and health care across the state.