What Portland feels like right now

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Portland is in the national news right now and if you didn’t live here you might be forgiven for thinking our city is a hellscape of crime and chaos. That is not my experience.

Excepting about a four- to six-block area downtown, Portland in mid-July feels to me like it did in late May, before the protests started. Businesses are closed and streets are quiet, because of the Covid shutdowns and associated economic trouble.

In certain public areas, encampments of people without houses are larger and messier than they were in March. This dismays me for a couple reasons — I have a physical revulsion to the mess, and I’m angry that our society is failing so many people. But as with businesses and street traffic, this has nothing to do with protests, either.

My experience in Portland since I first moved here in 1998 is that it is a physically very safe city, for a small white guy anyway. There is nowhere I wouldn’t walk alone during the daylight, and few if any places I wouldn’t go at night (I can’t think of any offhand). I have experienced property crime — my car broken into, things stolen off my bike, that sort of thing. Probably no more than in any other city of our size. Because homeless camps are getting bigger and messier, and because they are more prominent downtown, I am more conscious of where I park my bike and how well I lock it. But on the whole Portland has been getting continuously safer during the last 22 years, and in fact the past two months have been even safer than average — and the police have very visibly been not patrolling the neighborhoods outside downtown.

The neighborhoods outside of the small area downtown, including our neighborhood, have felt pretty much the same since March. I feel very physically safe in Portland, and I especially feel no danger from menacing antifa footsoldiers. That is just a goofy story cooked up to scare people who don’t live here.

My morning bike rides usually take me into and over the West Hills, and I often return through downtown. And because of the geography downtown, it’s hard to avoid that four-to-six block area where the protests have concentrated. Prior to Thursday, here is my impression of that area:

Government buildings have a lot of sloppy graffiti. Most are boarded up, and there are temporary fences in unusual places.

Some nearby businesses are still boarded up. Usually banks and financial institutions, and a couple of the Starbucks. Most are not boarded up, however. I think looting has not been big problem downtown since the first few days of the protest.

After repeated (minor) vandalism, the elk statue between the parks has been removed. I didn’t notice that it was damaged, but protestors have been messing with it continuously. Hanging things from its antlers, dressing it up, that sort of thing. Its plinth and fountain are graffitti’d.

A couple of parks had become home to a kind of semi-permanent encampment, reminiscent of (and in the same place as) Occupy Portland a few years ago, but smaller and generally without full-time “residents.” There are a couple of groups-that-border-on-businesses (Riot Ribs, the Snack Van, outposts of established businesses like pizza or donut shops), that give out or sell food, medical supplies, and some protest supplies like masks and homemade shields. There are always a few people — not a crowd, maybe a few dozens — in this area during the mornings, which is usually when I experience the area. As with Occupy, these folks make attempts to maintain the physical space. They voluntarily clean the public bathroom, they haul away trash, that sort of thing. But it was still quite sloppy and rangy in this little area, there was a kind of shantytown aesthetic. As a law-abiding neatnik type, I am not a fan of this kind of arrangement. But I never felt myself in any danger riding my bike or walking through it. There were inevitably a few cops on foot — always in small groups of two or three, standing catty-corner to the little protestor bases, and maybe 50% of the time in the ridiculous body armor cops feel compelled to wear sometimes.

I stress: none of the raggedy “antifa” types hanging around this space (during the day, at least), made this area feel at all unsafe to me. For that matter, neither did the cops.

All this changed on Thursday. By dumb luck I had chosen Thursday morning to ride down Salmon Street past this park, and the vibe was very different and very scary. There were dozens, maybe a hundred or more cops with their backs to one of the parks, and with weaponry and riot gear. They had pushed a perimeter into the street, and it was tricky to ride past. (I later learned that they had pushed another cyclist to the ground for riding too close, probably only a few minutes after I rode past). This was just before they “closed off” the park and confiscated all the Riot Ribs stuff. Later that day was when unbadged federal officers pulled people into unmarked vans without arresting them.

Since Thursday, Portland does feel a little scary. It has nothing to do with protestors and everything to do with the cops who keep beating them. And the cops who are now making them disappear, or at least practicing to do so.