“Remember when Portland was a city that worked?”
— People for Portland billboard
This is the billboard I see every night on my way home from work, strategically placed above a night club just before the busiest evening commuter bridge which is nightly lined with tents and belongings of their occupants which, if you believe the New York Times, have magically appeared in the last 18 months. But I’m not here to bitch abut the NYT (or Powell’s), believe it or not.
When I started my job in higher-ed administration — a half-hour commute each way to the outer reaches of East Portland where we can afford two bedrooms, a yard — I had no idea how I’d be able to drive past such bald human suffering twice everyday, five days a week; as it turns out, it isn’t that complicated — you turn off a part of yourself, the part that sees a double-amputee in a wheelchair in America moving slowly down the sidewalk or the body, maybe asleep, maybe dead, beneath a dirty sleeping bag, the part that wants to help. You tell yourself there isn’t time, or you’ll do it later, or you carry a few dollars in your pocket to award to the few who work up the nerve to ask you, or you’ll sign up to volunteer somewhere even though you never do any of those things. Eventually you stop seeing.
It’s important I tell you all of this without caveats, without service to the ego by trying to make myself sound better than I am, for the next part.
People for Portland is a well-known neo-fascist group that would like to incarcerate the city’s homeless so they can have their clean sidewalks back, and so they don’t have to think about how much misery they’ve chosen to unsee over the years. This particular billboard is a not-so-subtle MAGA callback to a time when things were simpler, more peaceful and, therefore, more prosperous for some. Such dogwhistle slogans flourish in the gap between our hubris and our empathy. To those who wield them with a fiery patriotism, both Portland and America are no longer as great as they once were. But People for Portland knows its audience — upper middle-class white liberals — and so it must be subtler, must operate on what it knows about the unceasing complaining of rich white people about the dysfunction of their city and all the things that broken within it without actually lifting a finger themselves to help someone.
The main point PFP wants to drive home is that an overwhelming majority of Portlanders do not want to defund the police, but actually want to hire more cops — 300 more to be exact, a number they are quick to cite back to Mingus Mapps, who they note is a Black city councilman. Their 12-slide powerpoint presentation states this same point over and over again in a series of bar graphs with titles like:
“Portlanders Reject Idea That City Problems Are Media Exaggerated”
“Voters Know Portland’s Problems Are Real”
“And They Know More Police Are Needed”
Misleading wording and shoddy math aside, PFP’s title slide states in tiny print that this survey was distributed to some 600 voters, and at the end they give a demographic breakdown. To start, the respondent pool is 80% white, galling but not too surprising given the fact that in 2019 Portland was recorded as being 77% white in the census. More alarming is the fact that only 2% of respondents were Black, meaning 12 out of 600 participants, while Portland’s Black population is almost three times that at 5.8% in 2019. Similar disparities between percentages of Asian, Hispanic, and “other”, exist within PFP’s survey pool, sometimes by up to 6 or 7 percentage points.
Age is another giveaway. 23% of PFP respondents are 65 or older, when this age demographic only accounts for 12.8% of the city’s entire population. The slick little pie chart appears to be broken up into five equal segments, except 18-34 year-olds are all lumped together, while subsequent decades each get their own piece of the pie. No one under 18 was surveyed, presumably because PFP wants to place an emphasis on the opinions of voters — the only ones, in their minds, who count or should qualify for citizenship — even though fully one quarter of Portland’s population are minors without the right to vote. (Meanwhile, those mature and balanced citizens who can vote recently showed up in force at a rally that was meant to bring a politician back from the dead.)
We can become out of practice of at being hopeful. It is a muscle not the size of your fist, but more like one of those sneaky internal ones buried behind your organs that you forget about and don’t target in a workout, but which is responsible — crucial, really — for the functioning of your back. Or maybe hope is a tendon in your little toe — you don’t really need it, but it helps you keep your balance, and without it you’ll find yourself wanting 300 more cops.
Here’s the thing: every night thousands of crows fly to downtown from the city’s outer neighborhoods, swooping and somersaulting through the air like they’re late for a party. I pass them heading home, sometimes in one long unbroken cawing black river that stretches for miles. Meanwhile, the barista is bored in the cafe with the robot arm. Dogs are having bad days. I lose track of which ones are the good teeth. And I don’t know how to reconcile all of this with statistics. Why should I try to make sense in a world that makes none?
What I’m Reading
I spent a rainy weekend in Seattle recently, and much of Saturday was devoted to reading Huge Cloudy, a poetry collection by Bill Carty. I’ve recently been hungering for a collection that compelled me to sit down and finish it before I could do anything else — the last time I really felt that was Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. This book is completely different from that one, but it did it for me.
The Seventh Wave is accepting submissions for Issue 15: Root Systems. Each selected contributor will participate in a three-month, cohort-based digital residency that will guide them toward publication. Pays $100. Submit by December 31.
Taco Bell Quarterly is open for submissions for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art and other genres through December 31.
The Center for Book Arts in San Francisco is hiring a full-time Educational Programs Manager. 60k + benefits.
Tin House is open for applications for its Summer Residencies, designed to support eight writers working on a full-length manuscript. $1200 stipend. Closes November 21.
Bloof Books is open for poetry chapbook submissions until November 15.