If you’ve been around Portland for a while, you are used to seeing demonstrations.

Whether the protest was over the war in Iraq, gun violence, controversial Supreme Court nominations or immigration policies, these events have a lot in common. You see some of the same signs, hear some of  the same slogans – you even see a lot of the same people. 

There’s a stalwart group that’s always ready to march.

The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland this week were not like that. The local response to the murder of George Floyd, an African-American man killed by white police officers in Minneapolis, and the racism that is built into most of our society’s institutions felt like something new.

I’ve seen bigger crowds – the 2017 Women’s March comes to mind – but not this kind of sustained activism that brought an estimated 1,000 people out on the streets in five out of six nights.

But it’s more than numbers. The protesters I saw taking a knee, holding a die-in, chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” were not the old familiar faces. They were young and racially mixed, something we don’t usually see in the oldest and whitest state in the union.

Some of that is a sign of times: Older activists, who are more likely to get seriously sick of they are infected by coronavirus, may have been staying home to protect their health.

But young activists have a special relationship with the issue of police violence.

These were people who weren’t born when Rodney King was savagely bludgeoned in Los Angeles by white police officers who were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1992. But they’ve seen the video.

A 20-year-old protesting last week was only 12 when Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager, was shot to death by a self-appointed vigilante, who was also found not guilty in court. That was the start of the Black Lives Matter movement

They would have been 14 when Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer, and 16 when Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, three black men, were shot by police in the course of just three days, leading to the last wave of mobilization.

The cause behind these marches has been a backdrop of their whole lives, and if they seem angry, impatient and distrustful of institutions (including the media), you can’t blame them. 

Protest marches and direct actions like sit-ins are usually considered a way to demonstrate the popular will to the power structure. The bigger the crowd, the more the people in power are supposed to listen.

But we don’t pay enough attention to the effect these actions have on the people who take part.

Collective action makes isolated people feel powerful. Bonds are created, leaders emerge, movements grow.

So, is that what we were seeing in Portland last week? It’s hard to say.

There were a lot of the elements of a mass movement on display, but as of this writing, Friday morning, some things were missing – like an agenda.

You could draw a straight line between the Women’s March in 2017 and the election of 2018, which elected a record number of women to office.

It wasn’t just the march that did it, it was the activism and organizing that came after that recruited candidates and supported them, putting people in office who are accountable to promises they made.

I don’t know if the people who were out on the street last week will show up at the polls in November, much less organize in support of candidates in 2022 and beyond.

But I didn’t see any voter registration drive, or hear any speakers talk about people making their voices heard at the ballot box. I might have missed it.

Maybe it’s inappropriate to talk politics at what was essentially a memorial service for people who have lost their lives. That said, electioneering isn’t the only way to affect public policy.

After a week of following the demonstrations, I’m still not sure what the group wanted. What were the demands? What’s next?

I hope that what happens next is the development of a clearly articulated strategy for advancing racial justice, and I invite the groups working on it to share their vision on this page. 

These protests have gotten our attention. The coalition of activists and allies is strong.  

I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

Editor’s note: This column was updated to make clear that it was written before the June 5 Black Lives Matter protest in Portland.

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