It sounded like a walk in the park. I took the e-mail to be an invitation to an impromptu demonstration against the violence yesterday in Charlottesville. The start and finish for the proposed march were both nearby. Notice was short, but with dinner already sorted, I headed out.
Demonstrators met at Denny Park. I got there just before the advertised 1:00 P.M. start time, and then waited around for the proceedings to begin. Eventually there were some inaudible announcements, to which we responded enthusiastically. At about 1:30 the crowd began to move, or at least my part of it did. Then it stopped. Ten minutes later, hundreds of us were finally on our way.
The notice had not mentioned the proposed route, but I was glad to see us heading toward Westlake Avenue — no point in marching further than necessary. As we passed Whole Foods I saw one practiced black-clad demonstrator by the curb handing out water bottles. I was sure that this was overkill — I had packed for a stroll, not for teargas.
But we turned off the avenue and onto Lenora, up toward the new Amazon Spheres, and stopped again. After a while I pieced together the scenario. An alt-right group from Portland, called “Patriot Prayer,” had scheduled a demonstration at Westlake Park, even before the news of the deaths in Virginia. The police were intent on preventing our group from confronting the others. As we marched west instead of south, every intersection meant a new standoff between our leaders and the police.
The crowd was not pleased with this situation, and some began chiding the officers with call-and-response chants. I happened to be stalled at a street corner when the crowd begin yelling:
“Say her name.” “Charleena.”
This was a reference to a recent incident in which a woman, Charleena Lyles, had been killed by our local police.
“She called for help.” “They shot her.”
Well, an oversimplification of the events, but nonetheless a tragedy for the woman and her family and for the small children who witnessed her death. Also a somewhat awkward moment for me as I stood next to colleagues of the two officers involved:
“Who do you serve?” “Who do you protect?”
After a bit we were moving again, and back to criticizing bigots instead of public servants. But we would get all the way to Second Avenue before we were allowed to turn south. Individuals and small groups would try to slip down alleyways around the police lines but were always turned back, sometimes with the use of pepper spray.
Marching south on Second provided the illusion of progress, but only till we arrived at Pine. Going further would have left us in perpetual orbit around our objective, so we dug in our heels. We milled around. The Backbone Campaign had unfurled its giant “We The People” banner, 210 feet of Constitution (with abbreviated text and extra space for citizen signatures). Civic and religious leaders sang protest songs. Frustration ensued. “Whose streets?” we yelled, and then yelled back at ourselves, “Our streets!”
The police were not convinced, and, after another interval, playful Silly String was met with more earnest pepper spray, and then with blast balls, usually meant to frighten off casual participants, which might have been thought to include me. At 3:46, records show, I called home to tell Alex that an official order to disperse had been issued, meaning that I should be home fairly soon — or not. There were a few drops of rain — yesterday we had broken a record, fifty-five days without measurable precipitation.
I turned around and started to leave, but then I got to thinking. There would probably not be a lot of arrests, and the crowd, though thinner now, was still large. True, I was probably wrong about which direction the arresting officers would come from, since they clearly had us boxed in. What does it mean, if you just give up? Anyway, I decided to stay.
There was some more milling around. I helped to reef the Constitution, in case a quick rescue should be required. In the end, though, drastic action was obviated. We declared victory and withdrew: the competing alt-right occupation of Westlake Park was said to be over. Our protest no longer necessary, we would march back to Denny Park.
Most of us were probably content with this result, though on the return trip some did again try to slip through the police line. Black-wrapped Anarchists, their eyes both protected and hidden, and orange-capped official organizers, at least some of them actual Wobblies, competed for the allegiance of the returning marchers. As it was, there had probably been plenty of people at Westlake to heckle the white-nationalists anyway. After all, if tourists can get there, so can determined activists.
What the supremacists may not understand is this: once you decide that some people are inferior, who’s to say where to stop? It’s like that old gag: “They came for the [Xs], but I wasn’t an [X], so I didn’t say anything . . . ” etc. The story ends when they come for the speaker. My favorite sign from the march was simple and hand-made:
When they come to get you
I’ll be there.
Scott C. McKee — August 13, 2017