On the way home from a trip to the store the other day I was taken aback by the sight of a dozen or so white people in the mid-day Georgia heat hoisting “Black Lives Matter” posters. And not a Black protester among them. None.
Now I suppose I should not have been surprised given that this small group is a microcosm of the many multi-racial images of protesters marching, bearing BLM signs and, in some instances, getting tear-gassed across our nation.
Which takes us to Portland, Oregon, a northwest city that has been dominating the nightly evening news with grainy images of protesters marching arm in arm through smoke-filled streets against heavily armed law enforcement personnel.
This also took me to an eye-opening New York Times article on the city of Portland I had read earlier that day by Thomas Fuller, “One of America’s Whitest Cities Is at the Center of B.L.M. Protests,” where in it joked Seyi Fasoranti, a Black chemist who located from the East Coast to Oregon six months ago, “There are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than Black people.”
Now all this got me wondering about the motivations of those twelve or so protesters not far from where I live and the questions in the minds of those who passed them by. My thoughts on that further down.
But it also got me thinking more about Portland, Oregon, a beautiful city in the Northwest I had visited years ago to attend conferences sponsored by Reed College. Thinking back, my week-long visit there left a positive impression on me. Quite frankly, I never noticed the racial mix of the city on several bus rides back and forth from the campus to downtown for dinners and sightseeing. What I did learn from our host was that Portland had a long history of producing some of the best Jazz music and many famous Jazz performers included stops in that city during their western tours. Thus, I did not think seriously about the racial mix of the city. That changed upon reading the Fuller piece.
“Of the 35 cities in the United States with populations larger than 500,000, Portland is the whitest. According to census data, with 71 percent of residents categorized as non-Latino white,” wrote Fuller.
“Loud advocacy has been a hallmark of Portland life for decades, but unlike past protests over environmental policies or foreign wars, racism is a more complicated topic in Oregon, one that is intertwined with demographics and the state’s legacy of some of the most brutal anti-Black laws in the nation.”
But like much of America, Portland seems to be coming to terms with its racial past and is changing.
During over 50 nights of protesting, throngs of largely white protesters have stepped into action alongside Damany Igwe, a Black salesman who has taken part in many of the protests. In a show of solidarity, many of those white protesters made sure that he was not singled out based on his skin color. “I feel the most protected that I ever have in my city,” Igwe said. “White people can’t understand we’ve been through completely but trying to empathize. That’s a beginning.”
Back to the protesters in my neighborhood.
From the “safety” of the front seat of my Jeep, I could not help wondering what thoughts ran through the minds of those who passed them by on that busy corner. Did it cause any to look at the person in the front seat mirror and ask, “what are their true motivations?” “Should I be among them?” Or “how would I respond to the inquisitive young person in the back seat who asks, “daddy, why are they out there protesting?” Or what do you say to “Uncle Jim” who swears and mumbles “don’t all lives matter?”
So, to those multi-racial protesters, national and local, know that we’ve noticed you and hope that you’ve heard the car horns blowing, heard the cheers and saw the waves from those who admire and support you.
And be assured that we respect you for your courage and your convictions more than you can possibly imagine.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Echo World, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org