By Midge Pierce

Portland has a new police chief, a revamped police budget and is on its way toward significant police reform influenced by momentum gained outside SE Portland’s Revolution Hall for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Racial justice champions started gathering at the former Washington High School site on lower Stark St. more than a month ago to protest the police brutality that caused the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

They continued for weeks since then to organize marches, hear BLM speakers, sign up voters and demand meaningful change ranging from police restructuring and reimagining, to outright defunding of the bureau.

Regardless of individual opinions about reform specifics, thousands have now challenged the status quo, raising awareness of the dangers of living Black in Portland.

At Revolution Hall, the mostly-masked, mostly-respectful assembly of up to 10,000 BLM supporters featured speakers including Trail Blazer Damien Lillard who stood up for nonviolent reform before leading the crowd across the Morrison Bridge.

On the heels of marchers, change has come.

First was the resignation of Police Chief Jami Resch who had been on the job for six months, followed by the appointment of Chuck Lovell, an 18-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau and Black veteran of community policing.

Chief Lovell has commented that right-sizing and right-funding is the answer, not abolishing police. He has acknowledged the need for accountability, but warned that volatile confrontations at the Justice Center downtown have caused delays in emergency responses elsewhere. Since demonstrations began, police overtime has cost more than $6 million.

By mid-June, City Council had passed a budget that will transfer $15 million into community programs from police units, including the gun violence reduction team, school resource officers and TriMet transit cops that, according to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, perpetuate racism.

While the defunding fell short of the $50 million some activists sought, Hardesty described the progress as “the most police reform we have ever seen in the history of Oregon,” and vowed to press for further equity in schools, healthcare and housing.

Neighborhoods, including those in SE, have been charged with a history of red lining and discrimination.

The sheer number of protests and protestors, weeks of disruptions and fears about pandemic and personal safety, have left many SE residents on edge. For the most part, Portland has been like a tale of two cities.

Eastside marches from Revolution Hall to bridges and interstates have remained nonviolent.

Across the river, late night Justice Center demonstrations have devolved into melees with property destruction by agitators and use of force by police. Hardesty and other Black leaders have denounced rampages that have set fires and ruined small businesses. The Mayor, calling for pragmaticism in the face of revolution, has pledged to root out racism, but not safety.

As the state legislature began to mull police reform at the special session called in June, the question was how positive change is best accomplished.

The protesters rally and march still. Despite crowds, bridge and interstate blockages and pandemic-fueled tensions, Revolution Hall’s relative calm seems to have galvanized a huge portion of SE’s predominantly white population to support reform.

Validation has sprung up on corners of Stark, Belmont and Lincoln Streets as well as side streets where BLM yard signs sprout. At Division and 50th horns honk for a group of mostly women showing up nightly, occasionally with kids in tow. Participant Libby Scozza said they would stay the course about the need for police accountability and encourage Portlanders to be on the just side of history.   

Entering the fourth week of protests, weekend Eastside events took a festive turn during Juneteenth’s anniversary marking the end of slavery in 1865. Disc jockeys readied music outside Revolution Hall as BLM supporters gathered, far as the eye could see.

At the Eastbank Esplanade, a group called Snack Bloc saluted with song and dance. Off Hawthorne Blvd. near Mt. Tabor Bread, passers-by followed the alluring voice of local jazz artist Marilyn Keller to a home where she performed at a fundraiser for Don’t Shoot PDX. She called the event one of many in the “gigasphere” supporting human rights.

Other groups like Rose City Justice have been nightly fixtures at Revolution Hall, handing out masks and water as precautions against COVID-19, before moving to other venues in the city.

Despite future discord that could arise in Portland’s racial tinderbox, the peaceful protests that radiated from SE Portland are transforming society at a pace that could well be considered revolutionary.

Photo by Midge Pierce