Statement on 2020 Uprisings

In the last weeks Portland, with the deployment of the Federal Protection Service, has seen a terrifying escalation of police violence against our people. People kidnapped without warning while walking down the street, pulled into unmarked vans by federal officers.¹ A protester with his arms above his head shot in the head by an impact munition fired by federal agents, fracturing his face and skull and requiring emergency facial reconstruction surgery.

This is after protesters have been in the streets for more than 50 consecutive nights, pushing to defund the police and protect Black lives, and met with a nightly escalation in repression from local Portland police: children tear gassed, impact munitions fired indiscriminately at crowds, marches declared riots within minutes, protesters kettled, knocked to the ground while walking, while filming, while biking. 

This escalation makes clear what Portlanders already know. The police - federal or local - are a source of trauma, violence, and pain for our communities, a point that they themselves are driving home every night in the streets.

This is why Unite Oregon is committed to continue working with our partners to push for deep changes in how we envision safety. We believe we must defund the police. We believe our community can create a new approach to community safety, and that we need the resources and space to bring these models forward.

Some have adopted a false narrative about what is happening in Portland, promoted by the Trump administration, that distracts us from this goal. The narrative is that protesters themselves are responsible for the police violence against them. It seeks to delegitimize protesters’ tactics and outrage, to legitimize police violence and repression, and distract us from the demand to transform our criminal-legal system, abolish policing, and build a world that is safe for Black people.

Unite Oregon has been engaging with our partners in this conversation, and want to take a moment to make it abundantly clear where we stand today.

In Portland, there have been vigils, marches led by elementary school children, violin vigils, rallies, public art projects, marches to the federal building, police precincts and union halls. Tens of thousands of people have participated, of all ages, genders and races, some going out night after night. Unite Oregon has supported this uprising. We have been present at many of these, and our Executive Director and other staff have participated, led and spoken at events.

From day one, protests have been met with excessive force by the Portland Police, including the indiscriminate use of tear gas and impact munitions on protestors, bystanders, and children during a respiratory pandemic, even after a class action lawsuit by Don’t Shoot Portland won a federal judge’s order² requiring them to stop. In a late June emergency legislative session, HB 4208 was passed which requires riot conditions before police can deploy tear gas. Four days after the bill was passed, the police declared a peaceful march to their union hall in North Portland a “riot” just minutes after it arrived, using tear gas as the crowd chanted, “I don’t see no riot here! Take off your riot gear!”

It is no surprise that the police, in Portland and nationally, have responded to this uprising with violent escalation. Police spend seven times more hours training on how to shoot a weapon than they do on de-escalation. As an institution, the priority of the police is the control and submission of the bodies of BIPOC, people with disabilities, immigrants, trans and gender non-conforming people, and of people protesting against police violence, too. The police are mobilized to protect private property, and uphold a political, economic and racial caste system where marginalized people, particularly Black people, will always lose, and where “respectable” forms of protest will be ignored.

The property destruction that so many point to as “chaos” or in a gross misrepresentation as “violence” has most famously targeted the downtown federal building, as well as a police precinct, the police union hall, and downtown corporate retail locations. Unite Oregon understands these actions as a valid response of marginalized people to a violent reality, when no real alternatives for making change exist. The protesters' targets are institutions that have been sources of violence and pain in our community: the same institutions we are trying to defund. Peaceful protest as a pathway to change is something that many of our communities rightly feel, under life-threatening conditions of structural and state violence, they cannot afford.

It’s important to remember that police violence against people’s bodies creates generational cycles of trauma, injuries, and illness. Police violence is fundamentally different from the destruction of property.

Beyond this, when we focus on property destruction, we are allowing the police, press, and regressive politicians to reframe the conversation.

When police and vigilantes are killing Black people in the streets, when millions are afraid to leave their homes, when we spend half of city budgets on policing and people go unhoused, unfed, and without access to life-saving healthcare, we don’t have the luxury to focus on the destruction of property.

We need to focus on: 

Why do we still entrust the police with our safety when they prove repeatedly that they will use lethal violence when de-escalation would work better?

What would abolition of policing as we know it look like and what new skills, resources, and infrastructure do we need to keep our communities safe?

How is this uprising creating an unprecedented opportunity to move through policy and structural change that our communities have demanded for years?

The protesters that continue to show up night after night are heroes. The uprisings of the last 8 weeks are not only justified, but have been very effective. Building on centuries of Black leadership, the protests have made space for wins that we could not have imagined two months ago.

In just 8 weeks, Portland has cut $15 million from the police budget, ended programs that put Portland Police in schools and on TriMet, and expressed a commitment to work with community groups towards defunding the police and investing in essential services that increase safety instead. The legislature called a special session and passed a slate of criminal-legal system reform bills. These are wins that Unite Oregon, in partnership with other organizations, played a significant role in and we will continue to push for more.

Other cities have made enormous leaps as well: Minneapolis is disbanding their police department and reimagining public safety³, the Los Angeles city council is considering $150 million in police cuts and $250 million in increases to social services, and the list goes on. These are victories that we have been pushing for for years, suddenly made possible by the uprising in the streets, the interruption of business as usual.

On the national level, the Movement for Black Lives just recently released the BREATHE Act, which would divest resources from incarceration, provide resources for new approaches to community safety, education, housing, studying reparations models, and to address many other needs.

Public opinion has been shaped as well. Just three weeks after the uprisings began, 60% of voters said police departments need major reforms or a complete overhaul, and only 5% said there were no changes necessary⁴. The Black Lives Matter movement gained more support in two weeks than it had in two years, with the general public now supporting it by a 28 point margin⁵.

We are in a new moment, with new horizons of what is possible. Unite Oregon, like many in our community, has been changed by this moment. After years of advocating for gradual change in policing and criminal justice, we acknowledge that this is a moment to evolve. We are committed to the internal and external work to align with other Portland-based Black-led organizations and push to Defund the Police, an abolitionist demand that seeks the freedom of the communities we serve.

As we move humbly into this new moment as an organization, we ask our community, allies, and members to join us in learning.

We ask our non-Black POC-led organizations in particular to continue learning and evolving together, and to speak up about what that means for you. We ask you to address anti-Black racism within your institutions and the communities you serve.

We ask all of our partners to continue to engage with us in critical conversations about narrative and strategy, and what it looks like to move collectively towards an abolitionist agenda.

We ask you to hold us accountable as we shift to meet the moment, and we pledge to do the same.