Rewriting Portland’s Violence Narrative

By Randy Blazak, Tom Hastings and Saskia Hostetler Lippy

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Portland residents hold the key to changing the narrative of violence that has characterized our city, the authors write. Nonviolent civil disobedience, such as peaceful protesting by those in this June 1 demonstration for Black lives, can help lessen polarization and build broad support for change.

The national narrative about Portland for many months has been that ours is a city on fire. While it is true we are in the midst of a historic escalation in violence over the past year, it is also true that we have been through clashes before and worked together to bring down the temperature. Violence is a contagion, a pandemic of its own. What is equally true is that it can be interrupted. As citizens we all hold the key to this.

Amid political polarization, the citizens of Portland can work together toward holding the middle, creating a space where hate does not drive us to the extremes. It is not possible to overcome hate with more hate. This is not to disrespect extremism—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote from a Birmingham jail that he was “an extremist for love.”

Dr. King, Dolores Huerta, Serb youth, Anishinaabe treaty rights front-liners, and many more have been extremists for love, for freedom and for justice. But they all did so in a manner that gained support from regular folks because, even though they were assertive, they remained nonviolent and not destructive. We believe Portland is just that sort of city with just that sort of a long and illustrious history of a peace, justice and sustainability culture.

Together we represent three very different disciplines working to do just that. Between sociology, conflict transformation and mental health, we are confident that Portland can overcome this moment of in-fighting and show the nation what the city is really about.

While “if it bleeds, it leads,” is an understandable journalistic norm, we hope we can also point to a citywide culture that is not represented by a small crowd who seem to be spoiling for violence and destruction. What’s more — that narrative actually provides the fuel for more radicalization on both sides of domestic destructive extremism. The public can do its part by going on with their lives and not feeding this narrative further.

One fact that readers may not know. Portland is the birthplace of an unarmed de-escalation method called CLARA (Calm, Listen, Affirm, Respond, Add). Developed by Portland’s own Rev. Cecil Prescod of the Ainsworth United Church of Christ, for use on the streets with neo-Nazi skinheads and to calm conversations around issues such as gay marriage, it is now used all over the world by unarmed civilian protection organizations such as the Nonviolent PeaceForce. Our own Portland Peace Team is planning online trainings in this and complementary skills starting this summer.

This polarization that has divided our country has an exit ramp and that is the history of nonviolent civil disobedience. We saw that last summer as thousands of people came to the streets of Portland to demonstrate for Black lives and police reform.

A recent study from Northwestern University found that cities that had sustained Black Lives Matter protests helped to decrease killings by police by as much as 20 percent. The danger we face is that the violent protests drive those effective nonviolent protesters from the movement and serve to increase the threat to Black and brown bodies by police.

This is the moment where we need to bring more people into a sustained call for police reform and deepen the mainstream calls to address institutional racism, not push those voices away.

We have a problem with systemic racism. It is our dream that Portland activists will unite around the principles of nonviolence and let it be known through our actions and our voices that we reject the violence of left, right and police. This is how we stop the spread of hate, by joining together.

There are amazing things happening in the Rose City. Social justice start-ups are exploding, we are thinking of new ways to do business, our urban forest is unparalleled and we look out to majestic snowy mountains in several directions. We are a city of dreamers, of big hearts and a shared love of human and natural rights.

Let’s reform our police departments, our hospitals, our public health infrastructure, our culture. This is how we stop the spread of hate, by joining together in community.

Join us, with the same intensity with which others hate. Don’t give in to hopelessness. There’s just too much work to be done. Find a hurting neighbor, or a new community organization and let’s all pitch in to keep Portland a safe, diverse and thriving city.

Randy Blazak, Ph.D. in sociology, is a sociologist researching violent extremism. Tom Hastings, Ed.D., coordinates the undergraduate Conflict Resolution degree programs at Portland State University and co-leads the Portland Peace Team. Saskia Hostetler Lippy, M.D., is a psychiatrist. All three live in Portland.

This opinion piece was published on March 21 at OregonLive.

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