Over the last five days in Portland, an easy narrative has emerged about the protests against police violence and racism that have followed the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
That narrative says that there is a large majority of peaceful protestors in this city who simply want to exercise their First Amendment rights, and whose work is being undermined by a small minority of ill-intentioned agitators who just want to watch the world burn. Those agitators require police use-of-force to dispel, and gosh, it’s a shame they have to ruin things for everyone.
You can see this narrative forming in the words of the mayor and some City Council members; in the statements and tweets from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB); and in the stories the media writes about the protests—including, probably, in some of the Mercury’s own reporting.
But last night, we saw the limits of this comfortable narrative of a peaceful protest. PPB fired off rounds of tear gas indiscriminately at large groups of protestors, only a handful of whom (if any) allegedly provoked the response. They fired from behind as people were running away. They roughed up a local journalist. They sped a vehicle through downtown streets so fast that they almost ran people over. To further exhaust an already tired metaphor, police officers made downtown Portland feel like a war zone—which is, incidentally, the opposite of peaceful.
I’d always assumed that the English word “peace” comes from the Latin word pax. But my friend Wikipedia tells me that we English speakers actually started using the word “peace” in the 1300s as a translation from the Hebrew word “Shalom.” “Shalom” is most commonly known as a greeting that can mean both “hello” and “goodbye”—but it has a deeper meaning for people of faith. At its heart, “Shalom” means whole, complete, and of healthy body and mind.
If we take “peaceful,” then, to not simply mean “without physical violence,” but also “whole and complete,” then we never had a chance at a peaceful protest. Because America—including and perhaps even especially Portland—is not whole or complete or healthy for Black people and other people of color.
You can see the evidence of that all around us—it’s in the literal air we breathe, as racially diverse neighborhoods tend to be more impacted by pollution and climate change in Portland. A disproportionate number of Black people are held without bail in Multnomah County jails. A freeway that disjointed a Black neighborhood in the 1960s is now being expanded. COVID-19 has an outsized impact on people of color in Multnomah County. And while Mayor Ted Wheeler has been vocal about his grief over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis, he’s been less forthcoming in expressing regret about the Black lives lost because of the police force he oversees.
Given these dynamics, peace is currently intangible. The soup we are all swimming in is antithetical to a peaceful anything, least of all a peaceful protest.
There’s a quote most Catholics are familiar with, uttered by Pope Paul VI in 1972: “If you want peace, work for justice.” What it means, I think, is that if your end goal is peacefulness for its own sake, then you will never attain it; rather, the most you can hope for is a facsimile of peace, an evening when white people can feel good because they showed up to Pioneer Courthouse Square and danced to “Happy” by Pharrell, and then very little changes beyond perhaps a bit of watered-down reform legislation. But if you keep not peace but justice as your guiding principle, then peace—real peace, completeness—will follow, because justice is what can make us all whole.
Does that mean I want people being violent with the police? No. I maintain a hope, however naïve it might be, that justice can be achieved without violence. But when we stigmatize the desperate actions of people who have never known peace a single day in their lives, we only set the cause for justice back further.
When police respond to a few alleged provocations with blanket military force, as they did in the streets of Portland last night, we see who poses the real threat to peace and justice. It isn’t the protestors.