Identity in the Portland Protests

Protesting Reedies reflect on their experiences

A banner hanging near the entrance of the library. Photo by Katherine Draves.

A banner hanging near the entrance of the library. Photo by Katherine Draves.

Many Reedies have participated in the protests over the past couple of months, and the protests, which are nearing 200 continuous days of activity, have provided an opportunity for some to reflect on issues concerning identity and solidarity. The Quest sat down with four Reed students who have participated in protests to discuss their experiences.

In Portland, a typical night of protesting varies depending on location. For example, if protestors go to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building, they can expect a heavy police and federal response. An anonymous junior who participated in the protests said, “the biggest thing I think is location, because at ICE no matter how many people are there you’re gonna get tear gassed, you’re gonna get shot with pepper balls…Even if there’s like 20 people there, even if you’re just standing there.” 

Senior Theo Adriaan Matthee-O’Brien had a similar perspective, stating that “some nights, they’ll be reluctant to engage at first. Whereas other nights, they’ll stop us before we even get to where we’re headed.” 

The experiences of people on the ground are as varied as their reasons for participating.  Matthee-O’Brien, who is a white man, initially viewed the protests cynically until he went out and participated himself. “I was a little reluctant to go,” Matthee-O’Brien said. “I think before then, I was very cynical about activism and protest, because it was a very easy position to have to say that this is not gonna change anything, therefore, I don’t need to participate. But then I just went one night… And it felt very important for me to continue going.” 

Senior and head of the Students of Color Union (SOCU) Nalani McFadden, a mixed Black woman, got involved within a few days of protests and gathered supplies to make care packages for protesters, after which she linked up with her friends. 

“I kind of just woke up one day, and felt super shitty,” McFadden said. “And like, soon after the protest started here I wanted to do something and wanted to help and knew that I could at least do that by providing supplies for people that were on the ground since I wasn’t.” McFadden and her friends went on to start an affinity group that helped pack supplies to distribute among protestors and engage in other on the ground activities. 

Reflecting on identity at the protests, the anonymous student, an Asian American, discussed their privilege and the place of the Asian American community in the management of white supremacy. “Portland’s so white, it hurts,” they said. “So like, at these protests it’s just so a lot of white people just staring back at you, which is really interesting. That being said, Asian Americans, consistently uphold white supremacy, because we benefit from it… a cop is gonna, like, beat me or arrest me over like a white person that I’m standing next to. But it’s also our job as like, very privileged people of color.” 

They related their experiences protesting to the model minority myth, saying “…because Asian Americans have been characterized through this model minority as good at school and docile, we have been more able to play into the system to reach personal success. But in that process, we are exploiting Black people and non-Asian people…” 

For his part, Matthee-O’Brien reflected on how his whiteness affected his expectations for the protests and how they changed while he was on the ground. “[White people are] taught a particular view of how the state is supposed to interact with us and what we deserve and that is something really easy to hold on to in the face of these protests on the outside,” Matthee-O’Brien said. “But then when you’re a part of that, and you’re confronted with, like, the incredible unfairness of it… I think that that’s incredibly profound.” 

Senior JuCe Ty-Ju Brandon, a Black man, explored his understanding of Blackness as political identity. Brandon said, “I’ve come to realize I don’t have a connection to the term Black like I thought I would. Primarily, I do not think it’s a proper representation of the people that are trying to be described…I’ve come to understand Blackness as a political thing.” Brandon emphasized that, in part, Blackness is a political identity that was generated in service of white supremacy. “I think another thing that comes to mind with the term Black is just a lack of identity that comes with it,” Brandon said. “What a lot of people refer to as Black or rather, when the term first came around to say, was a way to remove identity from the different people that were stolen from around the world, and the way to mash them into one identity or something like that. So in essence, I see the term Black as another means to try to erase my identity and my own history of my ancestry.”

McFadden, reflecting about how her identity manifested itself, said “at the end of the day, because I’m a Black person…it’s not something that we can take on and off, and not something that we can leave behind after the night is over.” McFadden emphasized the exhaustion felt by Black people, including herself, during racial justice protests. Thus for her, the focus was on how one can sustain their energy during these protests, especially given the fact that unlike a white person, McFadden does not have the option of disengaging from these protests and injustices when she goes home. 

However, that does not mean McFadden saw the situation as hopeless and tiring. Rather, it has led her to focus on creating and sustaining Black joy, a radical act in its own right. During the protests, McFadden and others in her affinity group collaborated with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) to create spaces in which Black Portlanders could rest, relax, and build community with one another. This led her to work towards trying to establish a community wellness center for Black Portlanders as a means of helping the community. While the community wellness center remains a dream for the future, McFadden still believes in the importance of radical care. 

“Taking that time to care and nurture for each other in a way that isn’t being on the streets… but just taking a moment to share a meal and relax and try to engage in some form of generating Black joy and happiness, I think can be extremely revolutionary and radical work,” she said.  

When asked how white Reedies can support BIPOC students, McFadden emphasized the importance of the “less sexy” work of anti-racist action, incorporating lessons learned during the protests into one’s own daily life. 

“I have had people who are very enthusiastic about being on the streets and like going to the protests and like, fighting for Black lives and in the same breath, like, say something extremely disparaging to me, to the point that it feels, not very genuine or self reflective,” McFadden said “I think that there have been instances in which people don’t really, truly, embody what it means to be doing this work when it comes to their personal lives, that they see the protests and the fight for Black lives as an event that happens outside of the walls over their home and outside of the walls of their regular life, and that they do not incorporate those same lessons that they should be learning like the, micro lessons, and the way that they treat and, and care for and interact with, the actual Black people in their lives.” If white Reedies truly want to support BIPOC students they cannot limit that work to action on the street, they must also consider what anti-racist action means in their day to day lives.

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