Leaders in Portland's Black community gathered this afternoon to call for unity, justice, and true commitment to equity as Portland mourns and protests the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
"This is a moment, but what we need is a movement," said Tony Hopson Sr, founder and CEO of Self Enhancement Inc. (SEI), where the afternoon press event was held. Speakers addressed a socially-distant audience of about 75 other leaders in the local Black community—including state legislators, religious leaders, and activists—and the media.
"We can't legislate how people feel about us," Hopson said. "We can't legislate what people think about us. But we can legislate how we hold people accountable for what they do to us."
While the event was organized by Mayor Ted Wheeler, the gathering centered on calls for action from Black leaders to hold elected officers like Wheeler accountable for discriminatory policing, economic disparities, and even the inequitable distribution of health care and stimulus funding in the wake of COVID-19.
Several speakers condemned the criminal actions taken by protesters in Portland this weekend, and made a point to contextualize the response.
"Looting personifies how I feel inside," said Kali Ladd, director of education nonprofit KairosPDX. "As wrong as it may be, it is a symbol of our shattering, our devastation, our internal beating every time we see a life lost like George Floyd."
Rukaiyah Adams, chair of Albina Vision Trust, said that while broken windows and expressions of anger may be the most visible response to Floyd's death, it's not the "whole truth."
"We cry out because we have the courage to open our eyes and our hearts to listen to George Floyd's call to his mother as he was suffocated on a public street in broad daylight," said Adams. "His voice is the voice of any of us. It is the voice of all of us. So if they ask me what the hell is going on in the streets of Portland, I will not say a broken window... because that is merely a fact. It is not the truth. The truth is that George Floyd's murder and its response on a global scale is an expression of love, the likes of which we have never seen."
Adams also called on Wheeler and other local officials to stop simply talking about police accountability and reform and take action.
"We expect answers," she said.
Other speakers asked leaders to respond to the public health crisis of systemic racism with the same urgency as the regional response to COVID-19.
"Racism for us, that's the original pandemic in this country," said Ron Herndon, longtime community activist and director of Albina Head Start. "A mask can't prevent racism. Social distancing can't prevent racism. It cannot be escaped by Purell."
Herndon said the pandemic offers a strong example of how Black lives are ignored in local and state government.
"Everyone knew this virus was wreaking hell on Black folks, but to this very day [Oregon Health Authority] has no plan to address Black Oregonians," he said. "We had to approach the county and the city and say, 'Hey, we are vulnerable population, what are you doing to help?'"
According to Herndon, it took his and others' advocacy to get the state and county to agree to open up a free test site at SEI for Black residents to get tested for COVID-19. That program will start on June 6.
Wheeler acknowledged his own inadequacies and promised the group that he'll do everything in his power ("with my last breath if it's required") to improve as an anti-racist leader.
"As a white person, I understand that I have privileges that other people do not, and I know that I speak on behalf of a power structure that has worked against the interests of people of color for too long," Wheeler said. "I am committed to using my privilege to end the long history of injustices wrought against people of color in our community."
"What is abundantly clear to me right now at this point is that the terms of forgiveness cannot come from the entity that inflicted the wrongdoing in the first place," he continued.
Joe McFerrin II, CEO of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School, said it is on Portlanders to hold Wheeler accountable—whether that meant showing up to Portland City Council or a school board meeting to protest or to advocate.
"We don't show up often enough," said McFerrin. "If the mayor says he wants Black folks at the table, then we need to show up."
The event ended as the third night of protests in downtown Portland began. Follow the Mercury's coverage of those demonstrations here .