The organizers told him that he had only a minute and a half to speak.
Gregory McKelvey had urgent things to say to the thousand or more Bernie Sanders supporters (and protestors), who had endured a dozen speakers already, and time was running short: the presidential candidate was to give a telecast in less than an hour, and the rally had run over time.
As McKelvey approached the stage, the organizer said, just get up there and say something short. Others were waiting to give their own speeches.
“My time is probably already half over,” McKelvey said to the crowd, practically shouting as he introduced himself as a 22-year-old law student at Lewis & Clark—“so I’ll get started…I’m sure that my being black was a factor in why I was asked to speak here today.”
On that rainy afternoon in Portland, the whitest, most liberal, fastest growing city in the union, there was no time for pandering or pretend. McKelvey acknowledged the incredible amount of privilege it took for him just to get to the stage: his amplified voice alone was a life accomplishment in and of itself, one he knew none of his close-knit childhood friends would ever be granted. He said so to the predominately white crowd that had, one speaker before, chanted “Black Lives Matter” again and again, with excessive gusto.
Last summer, McKelvey, along with a group of leaders in the community that believes black lives matter, sat down with Senator Sanders at the Moda Center to talk about why the candidate’s campaign didn’t seem to be reaching certain demographics.
“So many people around the country are not being listened to,” they told Sanders. “Before you speak in cities, sit and talk with groups like ours. Listen to what they’re dealing with, and specifically mention these things on stage,” they suggested.
Don’t tiptoe the political line, they said. These are life and death situations we’re dealing with.
Sanders didn’t speak much during their conversation.
“In every city he’s been to since then,” McKelvey says, “Bernie has done that.”
Despite his support for the Vermont senator, McKelvey isn’t dependent on Sanders’ election for progress on solving local problems. Unreasonable arrests and homeless sweeps are happening now, he says.
“Regardless of whether he’s elected, Bernie Sanders’ platform is so important because he continues these conversations.”
Many of the community matters McKelvey addresses involve privilege (police issues are his main focus), and he doesn’t seem cocky about his own. The things he’s been able to do – meet with Senator Sanders; visit remote villages in the Congo and Mexico; speak at the rally on Saturday – “have nothing to do with my own talents,” he says, “rather the positions I’ve been lucky to be in.”
He says that it’s important for him to use that platform that he has “neither earned, or deserves” to give voice to the people who have earned it or deserve it “as much or more” than him. (He says he felt bad about the length of his speech, especially after seeing the disappointment in the eyes of a man who didn’t get to speak because McKelvey went over his allotted time.)
Walking the Talk
“Portland is very liberal, McKelvey says, “but I don’t want people to become content with the virtue of their values. The values are worthless if you don’t actually progress.”
To really progress, he says, Portland has to come to terms with two things:
1) People are going to continue to come here.
“We have to find a way to deal with that, and build an infrastructure that supports it.”
2) Just because we’re a liberal place, we have to understand that those values may not work for everybody.
What struck me about McKelvey’s speech was not just his proclamation of privilege, his ceaseless energy, or the fact that by the end of his eight-minute speech, his voice was shot – it was that, for a first year law student, he spoke with as much vulnerability and perspective on community and political issues as the entirety of the presidential candidacy, including Bernie Sanders.
“I am terrified of the people who are supposed to serve and protect me,” he said. It’s a common story.
The struggle of the young black man is the most poignant underdog material in America today. It is reason enough to rise against the wall of willful conservative ignorance currently being washed with the worst of American values: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, exploitation — values whose common denominator rests in the division between people: whether the physical differences between you and I are real, the effects are real, which validates the differences. He who draws the line between us bears the power.
But McKelvey doesn’t hold contempt for the other side.
“All I listen to is Fox News and right-wing talk radio,” he says.
When he first started paying attention to conservative politics, he hated them, just wanted to know what “these people” were up to.
It didn’t take long for him to realize, “Conservatives are good people. They’re just wrong.”
The common perception that Portland is home to a disproportionate number of liberals was dismantled by The Economist in 2014. Things may have changed since Bernie Sanders took up touring as a temporary profession; still, nearly 30% of Portland residents are registered Republicans. (The highest percentage of voters are, in fact, independent or unaffiliated.)
Portland bears classic marks of a liberal city, McKelvey says, but they’re not all good.
He tells the story of the Northeast church in which he grew up, near MLK and Shaver. Once a conservative community of roughly 90% blacks, the pastor held the common Christian belief of anti-gay marriage. As the city changed, the church’s demographics changed. Eventually, the new parishioners, now a 75% white congregation, “ran the pastor out of town” because he held fast to his beliefs.
“The new people came into the church and weren’t tolerant of the church,” McKelvey says. “It was really awkward.”
“Because they felt they were on the right side of things politically,” he says, “they didn’t take the time to listen to the effects of what happens when they move into a city like this.”
In other words, being liberal is not enough. Portland Police Bureau still arrests a disproportionate number of black people. Their gang enforcement unit, according to McKelvey, is known on the street as the “Patrol the Blacks” unit.
“For example,” McKelvey says, “some people say, racism exists, but I’m colorblind.
“Well, it’s so much easier for you to be colorblind if racism doesn’t affect you. Some people have to be afraid of the police all the time, so we don’t get to be colorblind.”
McKelvey is the first to say that he does not have all the answers as to how we’re going to bridge the divide between the police and the black community. He says that it’s vitally important for people on every side to listen to each other.
“I want to facilitate that discussion,” he says. “I want to make people listen.”
In a city with so many resources for the homeless, sweeps are happening more and more frequently, pushing the fringe population away from the city center, into parks and quasi-public/unused private spaces in neighborhoods unaccustomed to seeing them daily.
It’s not like these people often get a voice. Mainstream media tends to put words in the mouths of protesters and the homeless. One might see in a headline, Black Lives Matters/Occupy/whatever protesters filled the streets today, but one does not often see a fairly-conducted interview with a homeless person in a front-page story about the effects of gentrification.
On a local, national, and international scale, we’re dealing with a lot of scary and uncomfortable change right now. McKelvey, like the rest of us, whether we admit it, is afraid that the world we hand to our children and grandchildren will continue to be habitable for theirs.
The simplicity of a conservative vs. liberal system no longer applies in the United States. The solutions to our problems, though easy to put into words, require complex systems of consideration, kindness, and trust in people and ideologies we may not completely understand. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism would require a shift in consciousness, as we are experiencing with Portland’s population and culture shifts.
Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, or an Oregonian shows animosity toward a transplant from California, we all experience the effects of regressive hate and division between people along lines that exist only because we have been told to believe in them.
New Portland is a reflection of New America. As humans, we change as we process new information. When we found magic was actually science, we changed. Economy and democracy are systems of change. As a society, we’re at a crossroads. If we go one way, we will grow, and life will become better and easier. If we go the other way, we will be like an engine run ever harder, its governor (the device on a vehicle that keeps the engine from running so hard that it blows up) removed by a business-run government, until we rip ourselves apart.
Gregory McKelvey represents so much more than he thinks. The only black student in his law classes at Lewis & Clark, he endures archaic conversations on the legitimacy of affirmative action and circular debates on the existence of racism.
“I’m the only one in class, so it’s like the faculty and other students are saying, yeah, you shouldn’t actually be here.”
It’s disappointing, he says. He’s able to dismiss Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s racist comments, but knows that many don’t, or can’t.
Just before we parted, McKelvey and I talked excitedly about how the quality of hip hop is found in its temporal, ever-changing landscape.
“Have you heard the new Dre?” he asks with a smile.
My hope is that soon, McKelvey is able to spend less of his energy dismissing systemic racism, and more of it packing punches into every ninety-second spot he’s given to speak for his generation.