The fatal shooting last weekend of a protestor in downtown Portland should give all of us pause, regardless of which side of the “political divide” we find ourselves. What we are witnessing here in Oregon is the ultimate test of the great American experiment, launched almost two and a half centuries ago. The central question is whether it is possible to establish a government “ruled not by accident and force, but by reason and choice.” How we choose to proceed in Oregon will, at least in part, answer that question. And the nation is watching.
I shared some views on the protests in my July 26 blog post and certainly do not want to second-guess our elected officials who are charged with managing this situation, nor am I privy to the strategic thinking among the leadership within the Black Lives Matter movement. It seems to me, however, that there are a number of interrelated issues here that cannot ultimately be resolved in isolation from one another and it is worth examining them. The most urgent issue is the need to deescalate the violence, which has hijacked the message of social justice. Only by doing so, will we be able to move on to the other issues which, together, offer the framework for dismantling institutional racism and effectively addressing the conditions of injustice that exist within our society. These issues include:
(1) What appears to be a shift in focus, or at least in emphasis, towards “defunding the police” as a central goal of the movement – which, if true, seems to be an oversimplification of an issue that runs far deeper than law enforcement;
(2) The fact that addressing the historic socioeconomic disparities and inequities in our society will involve a profound change in the pattern of our public expenditures, with a far greater investment in very young children and in their families, in neighborhoods and in communities—including investments in transportation infrastructure, technology infrastructure and in community development. This, in turn, will mean ceding wealth and power accumulated over decades to those who have been excluded and to resource-poor communities;
(3) The fact that the impact of these investments will not become apparent over the course of a single biennial budget and yet, to be effective, must be sustained over the course of three or four biennia; and
(4) The fact that the current devolution of civility and the increasingly violent confrontation between “left” and “right” is rapidly poisoning the forum for dialogue and the collaboration that will be essential if our state hopes to weather the $4 billion revenue shortfall that is bearing down upon us and still keep the Oregon community intact.
Concerning the troubling situation here in Portland, I would offer these observations. A strategy to deescalate the violence must be a top priority, not just for our elected leadership, but for the leadership of the movement itself—backed by strong support from business, labor, civic and religious leaders. Why? Because there is a critical connection here between means and ends. Peaceful protests can drive the change we so desperately need, but the change itself will not happen on the streets—it will, however, be shaped by what happens on the streets.
The energy and passion of the demonstrations that have been taking place over the past few months to protest systemic racism and the kind of police brutality that we witnessed with the senseless murder of George Floyd, and the more recent shooting of Jacob Blake, are long overdue. It is critically important not to interrupt the momentum that has been built towards meaningful solutions; it is important to keep the issues of racism and injustice in the forefront of the public mind and at the top of the political agenda.
At the same time, the growing violence that has become associated with many of these demonstrations, violence which culminated over the weekend with a fatal shooting, is taking us in the wrong direction. This violence, the fires and the property damage—some of which has hurt those who support the movement—lends credence to the political rhetoric that America is lawless and out-of-control and needs the kind of strong federal intervention that we saw earlier this year when the Department of Homeland Security sent federal agents to our city. This law and order narrative – which is already taking root as a central theme in the 2020 election cycle – is drawing attention away from the difficult and urgent social, economic and public health issues that should rightly be the focus of our collective concern and action— including the need to address socioeconomic disparities, institutional racism and the inequity of services experienced by communities of color.
I am not suggesting now – nor would I ever support – ceding the field to those whose agenda is to defend the status quo, or who seek to simply turn a blind eye on the disparities and discrimination that exists today in our society – a burden disproportionately born by black and indigenous peoples and other communities of color. While those who believe in peaceful protest as a path to social justice cannot control the actions of all those who show up on the streets, they can control how they choose to respond. They can choose not to be drawn, either inadvertently or by design, into violent confrontations that undermine and replace the central narrative of social justice with an authoritarian narrative about law and order.
The central question today, as it was a month ago, is how to find a path that can defuse the violence and the confrontation. I suggest again that the leaders of the social justice movement—and all those who believe in courageous but peaceful advocacy for change—consider calling for a short moratorium on the protests and urge their followers and those who seek only to exercise their right to peacefully protest, not to congregate in downtown Portland during this time.
This is not a call to end the protests, which must continue. On the contrary, it is an intentional tactical decision to separate, for a time, peaceful protesters from those who seek violence and disorder—to create a space in which to regroup, in which to develop new strategies, in which to develop clear policy and budgetary outcomes and to establish the partnerships and commitments necessary to realize them. In short, it is a choice, a command decision, if you will, to create a space, a moment in time, in which to refocus and reclaim the movement—a commitment to make it more intense, more powerful, and more effective in addressing the underlying conditions of injustice that have given it such a powerful foundation of moral legitimacy in the first place.