Aunt Bell used to pay visits to her extended family’s homes in Kelso, WA, would gather up all their Indian artifacts she could find—objects that had been handed down for generations—and threw them away.
Portland Artist and Totem Carver Ray Losey, the grand-nephew of “Mean” Aunt Bell, tells the story of how the family began hiding their cultural treasures, that Aunt Bell wouldn’t find them. They buried old rounded-head stone hammers and fishing net weights (flat river stones the breadth of a large outstretched hand with a center-bored hole about the width of a fresh chestnut) in the cement foundations of homes, porches, stairs, whatever needed to be built.
Indians unrecognized as Indians by the U.S. Government hid them. Aunt Bell kept the family members from registering for their Indian “numbers”—a kind of census registration that earned individuals money from the U.S. Government—because Aunt Bell wanted the family to be White.
Aunt Bell wanted her family to survive. And like her strong women ancestors—the chief negotiators, for example, who for generations boarded the European longships to administer trade between Indians and Whites—Aunt Bell usually got what she wanted.
But not always.
When Ray Losey’s father, Rex, was 11, his mother died. Aunt Bell demanded he attend the Indian Boarding School, one of the educational institutions infamous for eradicating everything remotely Indian from Indian children. The boy’s grandmother had been a ‘half-breed’, as they called those born half-Indian, half-White. She was murdered by a group of Whites tramping through Eastern Oregon, in a cave where the family lived. The killers needn’t have concerned themselves with repercussion: these were the days before the US courts officially recognized Indians, Blacks, and Chinese as people.
Lucky for the future boy, his grandfather soon married a White woman, which superficially relieved future Rex, insofar as his new grandmother would facilitate the boy’s assimilation into the dominant culture. Nevertheless, Rex kept his 1/4 Indian blood sacred, along with the culture, the stories, and the art of his grandmother’s people. His people. He soon began to share these treasures, through storytelling and totem-carving.
In 1971, when his son Ray was grown, Rex passed on the family arts to the young man. The first pole they carved together now stands tall outside Ray Losey’s home on in Portland’s Southwest Hills.
Topped with wing-spread Eagle, the pole is painted in bold, bright colors with the distinct “formline” style for which Northwest native art is well-known, the totem art is a treat for hikers on meandering trails nearby.
Ray Losey has been making totem poles, telling stories, and performing dances with masks for decades. Now 67, he verges retirement. He has passed on the art to the swaths who snap photos of the totem pole near the house, but has yet to encounter some young version of himself on whom to impart the knowledge, and technique.
Years ago, he says, he held workshops in search of a young apprentice to pass on the art—ideally, a teenager eager to learn the stories and cultures that birthed it—to no avail.
Storytellers know better than most that stories live longer than people. When Losey talks about retiring, his voice slows and lowers.
“My contribution,” he says, “is carrying the art into the 21st century. I’ve done that.”
Most of his sharing is the sheer volume of people who walk by his house. Where did you get this totem pole, they ask.
Target, he says, deadpan.
Ray Losey’s artistic legacy has spread across the country. The totem pole he’s currently working on lays prone across two sawhorses under the house, will soon find home at a YMCA camp in Iowa, far from its native Northwest.
If Aunt Bell’s confiscations led to the long-term preservation of artifacts in concrete foundations, then Losey’s open-air, dirt-ground, totem-carving workshop under the house reveals a great irony: his work unveils that which was necessarily hidden for so long. He keeps it close to the ground, like the “low man on the totem pole,” who, in Indian belief—contrary to common assumption—is actually the most valuable and highly regarded, for one’s connection to the earth is precisely what allows the ravens to fly.
“Four years ago,” he says, cupping a soft, meaty hand near his sternum, “I had a beard down to here.”
With a more-pepper-than-salt ponytail, Kevin Ketchum is clean-shaven, wearing a blue and green plaid button-up over a blue t-shirt. I tell myself he has dressed up for our interview.
Immediately I want to ask about those razorless years, during which he must have watched Portland change immensely from the outside in, as the buildings rose around his slapdash sidewalk nest. Did he stand on street corners with a cardboard sign, training for the vaguely elevated caste he’s attained of Street Roots Vendor? And if so, what did the cardboard read? Who stopped for him? What kept him from taking advantage of Portland’s inexhaustible resources for the homeless and depraved? What finally inspired him to shave?
Ketchum’s chaliced hand, held under his heart, slowly drops. His uncertain smile twists, and falls. Perspiration forms across his kind, round face.
I do not know if the sensitivity I feel right now is his, or mine. It may be both.
I am not a veteran interviewer, nor a seasoned, scales-for-skin journalist. In fact, since we met here for coffee in the Westmoreland neighborhood, I have mostly projected my stories upon him, as passerby are wont to do, when I asked him specifically to share his:
Ketchum was born and raised in Portland, and never really left. In the early Eighties, just out of high school, he worked at the Hilton downtown, paid $155—half a paycheck—for a studio on SE 12th and Belmont. The building is still there. Rent has risen since then, just slightly.
Back then, Huey Lewis and the News rattled the radio, and Ronald Reagan occupied the oval office.
“That was when you first started seeing people sleeping in their cars,” he says, looking out the window. Eye contact between us is rare.
Were there no homeless people?
Ketchum remembers “bums, winos and transients” living under the Burnside bridge, but seeing families sleep in cars in the Reagan years was his first evidence that the economics had changed.
“When families are sleeping in cars,” he says, “you have a more serious condition. People aren’t choosing that.”
Rents were not skyrocketing then; jobs just seemed to vanish. Evictions arrived, people moved outside.
When did you lose your job?
“I did alright in the Eighties. I did restaurant work, and when I lost a job, I was always able to get back in.”
Eventually, Ketchum found himself working in a plastic molding plant, Molded Container, in Southeast Portland, where now lives an Orwellian cluster of mysteriously quiet townhomes.
Ketchum had one week off a year until the plastic factory shut.
“I worked mindlessly, he says. “It was nothing spiritually fulfilling.”
He shifts his focus from the window to me, finally, and beams at me like a grown boy elated that someone is still listening.
He says the corporation moved to a more “business-friendly community” somewhere in the Midwest. (Online records show the corporation—founded here in 1957—is still located in Sellwood.)
“I think the problem is that Portland discourages business from coming in,” Ketchum says. “There’s a lot of environmental concern, you might say.”
Or, he suggests, it’s got to be the “right kind” of business.
“It puts people out of work,” he says, “but on the other side, whatever they put in, puts other people to work.”
Though he identifies as a “deeply-rooted Christian,” I wonder if Ketchum’s quasi-Buddhist perspective has kept him afloat all these years, still able to smile despite living in only a ‘sleeping room’—a situation he resists describing in detail but I sense is not particularly safe or comfortable for him.
I tell him that every summer, I commercial fish in Bristol Bay, northeast of Dutch.
Kevin’s face brightens. We reach out for a high-five, and instead our hands clasp. For a long, quiet moment, we exchange waves of empathy, even brotherhood.
I’m don’t think I’m projecting this time: we’ve both been soaked by the mad ocean, pushed to our physiological and mental edges by interminable days and nights of grueling work through high seas and big storms.
Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to that edge. Some never leave; others never escape.
I feel oddly connected to this man, to his story. Suddenly, it is our story.
I tell him how, at the beginning of the recession, I lived in my car, near penniless, with my girlfriend and dog, for months on end; that the sunroof broke and the rain poured in while we slept; that the police tapped too often on our windows as we reclined in sleeping bags, reading ourselves to sleep by headlamp.
“Yeah,” he says, “you have to find three or four places to alternate, so you don’t raise any eyebrows.”
For me, I wondered, where was this kind of support back then?
The community of people who just get it, whatever it is—whether commercial fishing, homelessness, or drug addiction—supports the survival of the individual. I never had that—in fact, out of judgment, I had refused even to communicate with other homeless people.
For me, the vast hopelessness set in quick—the kind that, fermented and concrete, leads to chronic homelessness. Young and arrogant, I refused to apply for social assistance and unemployment, figuring I had to pull myself—and girlfriend and dog—up by my bootstraps. That’s what the free market said I was supposed to do, right?
What’s your relationship to drugs?
Ketchum’s reply rolls off his tongue, an unpoetic recitation: “I haven’t smoked marijuana in twenty years. Alcohol in twenty-five. Wish I could say that about tobacco.”
This time, I choose compassion and understanding over judgment and criticism.
Where do you see yourself, and Portland, five years from now?
“I’m really discouraged about all this housing they’re building. A lot of people need housing. But that’s not happening. People are moving here, and people on the streets are going to keep living on the streets.”
This paradoxical reply seems to me to make perfect sense: developers will continue building housing, but those who really need it aren’t going to get in, except perhaps in the future affordable condos of what was once St. Francis Park.
Today, the Portland Tribune announced that Portland City Council recently approved the move of the staple homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too from its location off Burnside in Chinatown, to SE 3rd and Harrison, in the industrial district across the river, out of sight. Perhaps more peaceful.
At Burnside and Fourth, R2DToo’s conspicuous current site, in the middle of the “homeless district” was already purchased by the PDX Development Commission, and shall be “redeveloped.”
Of course it will.
The upshot is that the new camp, presented by City Repair visionary Mark Lakeman and the Communitecture team, will be bigger, more beautiful, and feature more facilities.
Lakeman says the new camp was designed “to be duplicated” in cities around the world.
The move has been three years in the making, a star leg of Mayor Charlie Hales’ ongoing plan to deal with the homeless crisis in Portland.
Children and elders stroll past with alarming frequency. Visiting parked vehicles over-occupy the local dearth of curbs. Test-riding bicyclists from the local shop take this street invariably; the chck-chcks of derailleurs changing gears ubiquitous as a cuckoo clock.
Time passes slowly here. I haven’t seen anyone enter the convenience store in months, yet they seem to pay the rent.
When we landed here, we were told Sellwood was one of the safest neighborhoods in Portland. In a span of five months last year, I had a truck stolen and the window of the vehicle I bought to replace it shattered—during the peak of the rain! Auto theft and burglary are relatively common: our neighbors moved into a house, and that night, the daughter woke up to someone climbing through her bedroom window.
Socks, board games, toys,, tea, coffee, spices, shoes, antiques—for which Sellwood/Moreland has long been known—all get their own stores. On wheels, Sellwood would be a quaint caravansary. The local bank is a five-minute walk from my house; for the first time in my life, the keepers of my money know my name. I hail from the out-of-town, from the commuter clan, the familiar but foreign zip code.
Living in the center of things offers me unlimited access to distraction.
This building is a mystery. No advertisements, no signs, no clues to its business but a handful of old microphones sitting in a glass case inside the door. The owner of Jade Bistro, across the street, said that the actor Sam Elliot lunched there one day, and when he left, he walked into the mysterious orange building.
At least five Southeast Asian cuisine spots live within three blocks of one another. Another could have emerged in the last hour. Coffee shops and roasters, art supplies, a poorly-designed food cart pod, and one of Portland’s famous rubberstamp libraries occupy space within pajama distance of my bedroom. An apothecary peddles tinctures and crystals; the mortuary is the largest single building for what seems like miles; in fact, its west-facing wall, formerly a concrete pad facing Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, was muraled to mirror the birds and mammals once hoped to occupy the man-made wetland.
The Refuge, which lays low between a high bluff of neighborhood and railroad tracks, plays a significant factor in my wanting to live in this area. Apparently, the view is important to others who also live here, and possess chainsaws.
At night, despite the static din of the almost-visible interstate across the Willamette, I walk the trails through the trees ’til I can almost pretend I’m not in the city anymore; threats of cars speeding down 17th abate, the operating room glare of the new LED street lights fades into the traditional spectrum of urban light pollution; frogs croak at such a volume that I can’t hear my voice, and all goes relatively silent in my city brain.
Oaks Bottom Refuge lends its name to a small amusement park across the railroad tracks. Bright white, the mathematically designed, cage-like beams of a roller coaster face eastward, toward the wild zone. In effect, the creatures that live in and visitthe refuge operate in a hall of mirrors, an unfenced zoo, observed by humans in the wild.
Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is an experiment growing from the dumping grounds of the displaced dirt when the interstate was built, a noble attempt to re-invent a wilderness where one had been destroyed. As Oaks succeeds or fails-however that line is drawn-humans learn that it’s okay to destroy wilderness, because we can just build it back.
Today I found at least three things that were new to me along corridors I’ve walked, ridden, and driven hundreds of times. Not to mention, the cherry trees are popping!
What’s under your nose, in your backyard, down your street?
This place just doesn’t do it for me, a friend recently said about living in Portland.
I need more diversity, she continued: more interaction with people who aren’t like me.
And it’s sad that most of the people of color I see are homeless, or something like it.
Someone else piped up: this city is more diverse than you think. We have a tendency to invisibilize groups of people just because they’re minorities.
What’s the difference between invisibilizing, I asked, and just not seeing them?
The answer caught up with me pretty quick.
My choices dictate how I show up in and for the world: where I go, who I share space with, what conversations I have, the activities I pursue. If I participate mostly in white culture, that’s where my energy goes. It follows that if I want to experience cultural diversity, I might attend different events, meet people I have less in common with, and hear what they have to say.
The difference between wanting to experience diversity and actually interacting with people of different color/culture/language/nativity/belief/sexuality/class/etc is the desire, the need, the absence of said dynamics in the daily walkabout, and one’s acknowledgement of that absence.
Last autumn, I lived and worked in New York City for three months. Lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan. The wild diversity of those I worked with and around in the event production and service industries sated me to a state of normalcy. Coming home to Portland, I’ve had a subtle sensation that something’s wrong, but can’t quite put my finger on it.
I relate to my friend whose feels more alive when she visits the Bay Area; the crossover of humanity and expression is such that there is simply a smaller proportion of white people, which makes, in my opinion, a more interesting mix of human expression. I don’t necessarily feel guilty for being born white (though I bear a vague responsibility for the actions of my ancestors), but I do notice my thoughts when I’m doing the daily thing in Portland – thoughts like, that guy sweeping the pay-per-hour parking lot is the first black person I’ve seen today; thoughts like, of course that woman doesn’t like to drive stick; thoughts like, why does this Mexican heroin addict keep talking about living the good Christian life?
I notice these thoughts, and I don’t sweep them off the table. Thoughts are vital, material things that lead to verbal expression, then to action. I wonder, from what story deep inside me this or that thought might have come; what belief validates it; what has this person done to inspire my anger, or hatred?
One thought pattern I noticed while walking, taking the subway, and meandering New York City: I didn’t have such thoughts. True, I walked past Prospect Park down Flatbush in Brooklyn for a visceral taste of what I was told was a neighborhood I should “avoid at night” (I went there during the day). True, I zipped up my coat, pocketed my hands, straightened my posture and looked straight ahead when men of color approached me on the sidewalk late at night, and I ignored all but the most entertaining of panhandlers.
That fear and discomfort inspired me: thoughts are impermanent things,
like cities and mental prisons.
Last week, Willamette Week front-paged Martin Cizmar’s 28 Reasons to Love Portland Right Now, a contradictive list of privilege and pride for the quirky logic young people use to flock here from geographic armpits nationwide. Included in the list is a catalog of Portland’s pole positions in a slew of publications:
NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE
NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA
NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY
NO. 1 MOST RACIST
Just as a newly-wedded couple bears the Sisyphean weight of hope and expectation from families and friends, Portland’s bicoastal skyline is already playing the all-important role of projection screen for the newest wave of believers in the undead American Dream. The economy thrives. Jobs seem aplenty. PDX and our neighbor, Vancouver, WA, have the lowest residential vacancy rates in the nation.
It’s as if gas prices have dropped significantly — people start to buy gas-guzzling trucks again, because who cares how much [insert resource here] one uses, long as it’s cheap.
Oh, right. They have.
While I appreciate wholeheartedly Willamette Week’s optimistic gush of “enjoy this place now” attitude, there’s a chosen ignorance in Martin Cizmar’s offering that I can get pissed off about a developer “cutting down some pine trees,” or I could just forget about that, and check out all the pine trees around Mount Hood.
Hey, you can get pissed off about the displacement of black people, but you can go see them in Gresham, don’t worry about it!
I choose the role of devil’s advocate because the cost of Loving Portland is akin to the cost of Loving the New World. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying that love takes many, many forms.
Imagine the weekly colonial newspaper in Plymouth, Massachusetts, circa 1640: Six Reasones to Love Plymouthe Dearlye:
NO. 1 IN NATION’S LARGEST HOME PRICE HIKE
No. 1 RICHEST IMMIGRANTS
NO. 1 CHEAPEST CITY IN AMERICA
No. 1 MOST WHITE PEOPLE
NO. 1 BEST PLACE TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY
No. 1 LEAST DARK PEOPLE
Portland, Oregon circa 2016 is a gleaming beacon of hope for the modern world, so much of which is suffering right now. Let us not become so entranced by our own image on the convex surface of our urban bubble that we forget Portland’s uniqueness and depth for its sheer popularity.
Choosing to belong is a prerequisite for an engaged democracy.
As hordes of suburbanites flock back into cities; as migrant youth from the reddish Midwest find that the path to enlightenment (or at least social progress) leads toward the blue spots on the map; as the millennials who spent the entire Bush administration learning to hack continue to amass their fortunes, Portland now finds itself a playground for a generation of adults whose relationship to money and responsibility was largely formed to the tune of hip hop culture and trillion-dollar wars.
Portland is experiencing rapid and vulnerable change. No one knows what the external landscape will look like in five or eight years. We have occasion, however, to mold our internal landscapes – which will, in turn, influence how we see what happens in our streets.
Before we go there, let’s back up a minute.
Hi. My name is Sean. I’m a tall, kind of awkward, white sis male. I’ve lived in Portland three years. Although I’m not particularly sorry for moving here, I’m learning that, like many places, Portland has a social history that began long before I arrived. Though I feel respectful of those who came before me, I have no idea if they would have, or do, welcome my presence.
This relatively new idea of honoring those who came before is a burden the colonists didn’t warn us about because they probably didn’t care. It’s heavy, too: as the great-great-etc. grandchildren of Euro-American “pioneers” who showed up in Native territory as cavalry or caravans looking to fill orders or find a safe plot of land, we intrinsically empathize with our ancestors (and often romanticize their quests with video games and school curriculums), but the memory comes with a dichotomous guilt, because we’re also, ideally, able to see the humanity of the colonized (read: expelled, murdered) people.
Let’s consider the name of the new pedestrian bridge that spans the Willamette River, Tilikum Crossing. After requesting the public to submit name ideas, the City refused the overwhelming consensus to name the bridge after Kirk Reeves, a famous, recently deceased Portland street performer, and instead settled on ‘Tilikum’ – a Chinook Wawa word for ‘people.’ So it was: Bridge of the People. Yes. To honor the people who lived in the region since before the last Ice Age, and who stewarded one of the most abundant salmon runs in the world until the early 1800s, when Industry arrived from the East.
It seems that everyone was happy with the name. Two installations of art donated by the The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde sits ceremonially inaccessible at either end of the crossing, flanked by subtle No Trespassing signs. Lest a curious pedestrian meander over to gander at one of the pieces (each a part of a three-piece project called ‘We Have Always Lived Here,’ by Chinook artist Greg A. Robinson), a TriMet rent-a-cop will roll up to warn you that it’s both unsafe and illegal to sit in the grass (my wife and I had a picnic next to one on Christmas day, before we were shooed away).
Regardless of name, the ceaseless machine of progress dictates that the new bridge would have gone up and been named Abigail Scott Duniway, or Kirk Reeves, or Wy’east, and would have been everything that it is now: a pretty coat of arms for Portland’s ironic commitment to sustainability. That the former curators of the lower Willamette Valley (so named for former locals also) were given an honorable mention by the great, etc. grandchildren of their murderers and captors must be a step in the right direction. As would be, for example, a better understood history of the black community’s history in Northeast by the new residents and officers gentrifying and patrolling Killingsworth St., a history all but blotted out as social decline by the city of Portland.
Frankly, I don’t know what the ‘right direction’ is. Capitalism’s penchant for growth is chasing the tail of the American Dream, a fantastical, dragon-like character I’ve read about in Hunter S. Thompson books. I only know that if I focus on the landscape that I don’t like, on the external events I do not want to happen, I will only see that which I do not like, and do not want to happen. It’s an easy downward spiral we’re wired to follow down, down, down.
The predominant culture in the United States (media, government) did not offer an effective model to teach me to take responsibility for my actions, my feelings, or my community. I doubt I’m the only one.
Through this project, Stumptown Lives, I’m trying to make up for lost lessons. I love this town, and am choosing to belong here because I haven’t another place to go. I want to be a part of the change. It’ll be a journey – one for which I hope you’ll join me, or at least hold me accountable for my mistakes along the way.
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.