PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) — As one of the United States’ whitest major cities, this Northwestern outpost has captured headlines for its large and sometimes raucous protests for racial justice and the aggressive law enforcement crackdowns that followed.
Now the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen who shot three people, two fatally, at a protest march in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, has added more fuel to the Portland activist movement.
“We are trying to draw attention to the fact that it’s incredibly dangerous to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’” the Rev. Lenny Duncan shouted into a bullhorn outside of Providence Park, a soccer stadium in downtown Portland, on Sunday (Nov. 21).
Duncan, an activist pastor now based in Portland, and other faith leaders staged a “die-in” of about 150 people after snaking through Portland on Sunday.
Activists lay on the cold sidewalk and in the street, surrounding police cars. From inside the stadium, a few angry outbursts could be heard from soccer fans, and in the street, people wearing Portland Timbers scarves and hats gingerly stepped over activists.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal drew praise from gun-rights groups and conservative
commentators but horror from racial justice organizers, sharing Duncan’s view that the Wisconsin verdict sent a message that armed provocateurs can kill protesters with impunity.
Though the people Rittenhouse killed or wounded were white, the shootings occurred during a protest against the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black Kenosha resident, by local police.
Sunday’s protest was organized by clergy with the BIPOC Faith Leaders Council for Black Lives and the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. “We are not afraid,” the activists chanted. Other chants included “F– you Kyle” and “Black Lives Matter.” (BIPOC stands for “Black and Indigenous people of color.”)
Portland has been rocked by political violence since before the death of George Floyd ignited the Black Lives Matter movement in May 2020. Even at peaceful protests, said one activist, D.X., who asked to publish his initials only because he has a lawsuit pending against public safety officials, it is common for armed and unidentified people to stand by menacingly. Far-right groups such as Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys routinely clash violently with black-clad leftists during demonstrations.
Protests have also cropped up over COVID-19 restrictions, notably from evangelical Christians opposing the closure of churches. In August, when Christian musician Sean Feucht returned to Portland on the anniversary of his 2020 “Let Us Worship” rally, members of his security detail shot fireworks from their pickup trucks as night fell, and anti-fascists threw metal spikes on the road in response.
The same week of the Kenosha shooting, Patriot Prayer member Aaron “Jay” Danielson was shot and killed just minutes from where clergy marched in Portland on Sunday. Left-wing activists are quick to note that federal agents later shot and killed Danielson’s suspected killer, Michael Reinoehl, a self-described anti-fascist activist, whereas Rittenhouse was acquitted.
The prospect of more violence has perhaps acted to quiet Portland’s long season of unrest. After Sunday’s march, local pastor Brendan Curran said the relatively small turnout was due to the community fears about violence from armed vigilantes.
“There weren’t thousands of people pouring into the streets to protest this verdict, were there?” Curran said.
But by the end of the march, the faith leaders had gained at least one supporter. As the protest ended, Eric Singleton walked from his nearby apartment and approached the small group of organizers.
“This protest is awesome,” Singleton, who is Black, said. “Who organized it? I want to get involved.”