On Tuesday evening, the city will dole out its annual "Spirit of Portland" awards to a select group of individuals and organizations that city commissioners believe embody the city's values. One of those recipients is Bobbin Singh, founder and director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a civil rights advocacy group based in Portland. But Singh won't be in attendance tomorrow night.
"While I was incredibly honored to be chosen for this award, it doesn't feel appropriate to accept when the city lacks a true commitment to civil rights," said Singh.
Singh declined the award Thursday evening, just hours after the Portland City Council wrapped up a 3-hour-long public hearing on Mayor Ted Wheeler's new proposal to restrict protests that take place in Portland. Wheeler's proposed ordinance would limit the movement, size, and duration of protests organized by groups who have a proven history of violence. The council is slated to vote on the ordinance this Wednesday.
Like other civil rights organizations and constitutional lawyers in Portland, Singh believes Wheeler's proposed ordinance restricts Portlanders' ability to exercise free speech—while ignoring the rise of right-wing extremist groups, like Vancouver's Patriot Prayer, who bring violence and hate to the streets of Portland.
"If we're serious about combating hate in this community, we need to be talking in a more complex and nuanced way about the value system the city's supporting by allowing groups like Patriot Prayer into our city," Singh said.
He likened Wheeler's decision to mislead the public about these protests to how the federal government has downplayed the threat of white supremacy in the US.
"We're starting to mimic national solutions at the local level," Singh said, noting the city's way of equating Patriot Prayer's actions to those of local counter-protesters. "At this time in history, you have to stand up for something or you have to get out of the way."
The ACLU of Oregon and the Portland chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild have both spoken out in opposition to this restrictive ordinance, and have promised to sue if it's approved by city council this week. Singh said he's "befuddled" by the city's decision to ignore the the warnings of these two organizations.
"There's very few times that these civil rights groups come out on the wrong side of history," Singh notes. "It doesn't feel like the city is taking them seriously."
In an interview with the Mercury last week, Wheeler said the ACLU was "chomping at the bit" to sue the city over this ordinance.
Yet, in her Thursday testimony before council, ACLU of Oregon legislative director Kimberly McCullough said she'd prefer the city and ACLU work together to create a more robust (and constitutional) policy—instead of having to battle it out in court.
Singh was nominated to receive the Spirt of Portland award by Commissioner Nick Fish, the one member of city council who hasn't made his stance on Wheeler's proposal clear. He's expected to be the swing vote at the Wednesday meeting. Singh hopes his message encourages Fish to truly consider the gravity of this decision.
"If the city wants to give out awards that represent the ideals of the city, the city needs to commit to those ideals they say they embrace," Singh said.