Portland is Not the Problem: Political Violence Demands a National Response

Western States Center
6 min readAug 25, 2021

By Eric K. Ward

Independent journalist Maranie R. Staab after being attacked by demonstrators in Portland on August 22, 2021. Photo: Daniel Steinle / @catdaddypdx

Anti-democratic violence is a threat that strikes at the heart of who we are as a country. It’s time to act like it. The idea that Portland, or any city, can single-handedly defeat white nationalism is a fallacy. This should be a wake-up call for elected leaders at every level.

Those quotes from our statement in response to last weekend’s episode of the escalating political violence in Portland were printed in The Washington Post and tweeted out by an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter. Coverage in The Guardian before and after Sunday’s melee carried our call for broad and deep coalitions of community leaders and elected officials to unite in support of inclusive democracy.

The question now is: Who’s listening?

Armed protests are picking up, and a new study says they’re more likely to turn violent.” That was the headline in USA Today last Sunday even before weapons were brandished in political street fights in Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood and downtown.

The anti-lock-down protests of 2020 have morphed into violent anti-mask, anti-vaccine attacks on city streets, in school board meetings and legislative hearings, and targeting medical staff from Missouri to California.

And yet too many continue to act like what’s happening is simply a Portland problem. Portland does have serious problems; you’ll get no argument from me there. Black people are more likely to be killed in Portland than in any of our nation’s big cities — that’s one example. Our ideologically biased police force is another.

But no matter your critique of Portland’s problems, socially ostracizing a liberal mayor is a simplistic obsession that feeds the myth of Portland exceptionalism. It’s a distraction from what’s really going on that’s making folks drop the ball on what’s really needed.

Authoritarian Insurgencies & the Narrative of Decivilization

In other countries, we recognize an authoritarian insurgency when we see it. That’s what our growing epidemic of political violence is: an authoritarian insurgency. From Charlottesville to the attempted kidnapping of the Michigan Governor, from every day hate crimes (up by 40% last year in ultra-liberal Eugene, Oregon) to hate-based mass shootings: it’s time to see the big picture.

Bigoted and anti-democratic groups aim to sow chaos to promote their dangerous and exclusionary agenda as an alternative to local government.

Violence at these events isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. These groups know they stand to benefit from a perception of lawlessness and fear. That’s what they planned to communicate about Portland through national headlines last weekend, and they succeeded.

When municipal governance in Portland can be discredited and disrupted, when Portland is left on its own, the narrative of decivilization — essential to soften the ground for authoritarianism — is the winner.

This can’t be about Portland versus the rest of Oregon. It can’t be about our cities versus suburbs and rural areas. It can’t be about Democrat versus Republican, or progressive versus conservative. This is about those of us who love democracy versus those who would tear it down, and use violence to push their dangerous and bigoted agenda.

Our state and our nation — not just our city — are facing an existential threat aimed at the heart of our democracy. It’s time to act like it. It’s time that we act together as urgently as this crisis requires.

How many more municipal officials and local elected leaders will be driven from public service over fears for their safety before we understand this is more than a Portland problem and that local democratic institutions need state and federal support to withstand attacks?

Will Ammon Bundy — leader of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation — permanently reshape the electoral landscape in this country in his run for the Governor of Idaho before national civil society leaders get that what happens in the Northwest affects the viability of democracy nationwide?

Portland Standing Alone Vs. A State-Level Response to Rising Authoritarianism

What gets lost in the overly simplified and too often unprincipled critiques of Portland’s Mayor is the bald fact that Portland was left to stand alone.

Portland, County and Metro elected leaders did the right thing. Ahead of last weekend’s far-right incursion into Portland, community leaders and Portland elected officials spoke out clearly against this action and raised the alarm about the threat of violence, but once again our region, our state, and the federal government left the city publicly standing solo as paramilitaries from outside the community descended on Portland to spread bigotry and engage in intimidation.

The majority of organizers of violent alt right events in Portland regularly arrive from outside of the city itself. Yet rather than taking a stand against political violence, elected officials in neighboring jurisdictions simply chose to look the other way. Despite every indication that participants at Sunday’s rally were coming to Portland with the intention of inflicting destruction, far too many local, state and federal leaders made the decision to ignore the danger posed by anti-government and white nationalist groups as if closing their eyes to the threat of violence would somehow make it go away.

Elected leaders from our neighboring jurisdictions, our state and our federal government need not only to raise their voices against white nationalism and political violence, but to enact policies that tackle this threat head on, including stronger laws and enforcement to prevent dangerous paramilitary activity, more training and support for government employees and local elected officials combating anti-democratic attacks, examination of political bias in law enforcement, improved information sharing across municipalities and agencies, and a dedicated desk at the Department of Justice focused specifically on anti-democratic and hate groups.

These are just some examples of meaningful policy reforms that Oregon — and other states — could explore to have a broader, more sustained pro-democracy platform to respond to the threat that rising authoritarian insurgencies pose to inclusive democracy.

We need parallel actions at the federal level, along with federal and civil society investment to address the underlying systems of inequality that make us vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Unifying Civil Society in Defense of Inclusive Democracy

Those of us who care about democracy — who reject hate and love Portland and love our country — aren’t powerless. Just the opposite.

When elected officials, nonprofit institutions, faith leaders, the business community and ordinary citizens join together to make clear that we reject white nationalism and reject efforts to undermine Portland’s civil society, we begin the important process that closes the door to political violence and stops anti-democracy extremists from mainstreaming their tactics and agenda nationally.

We did it last October in Portland. We can do it again.

I’m proud of the broad coalition of leaders and community members who raised their voices on behalf of our city last week. And I’m dismayed by those who were missing.

This is a national problem that demands national collaborative engagement. Anti-democratic violence is a threat that strikes at the heart of who we are as a country. It’s time to act like it.

It’s time to reject the politics of fear and division, and build something much stronger, more inclusive, and more lasting.

P.S. Another way to answer the question of whether we’re taking the authoritarian insurgency seriously as a nation is to look at Proud Boys’ leader Enrique Tarrio’s sentence for burning a church’s Black Lives Matter banner and bringing high-capacity rifle magazines to Washington, DC. Five months. People go to jail for longer than that for stealing a loaf of bread. This guy tried to steal democracy. Josh Williams, a 20-year-old racial justice activist arrested for protesting for police violence in Ferguson, was sentenced to eight years. “That’s longer than other Missourians who committed similar crimes, including a 28-year-old man who started a fire that caused $1 million damage at the University of Missouri and Stephens College, who was sentenced to six and a half years,” NPR noted.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.