The Celebration of Black Lives march, Juneteenth, 2020.
The Celebration of Black Lives march, Juneteenth, 2020. Suzette Smith

It was a beautiful day for a Juneteenth march. At North Portland’s Peninsula Park, crowds spilled through the public rose garden, past the gazebo, and onto the grassy lawn. Since it was 2:30 in the afternoon, on a day forecasted to reach 86 degrees, the shaded areas beneath the oak and Douglas fir trees filled up first.

Friends found one another in the crowd. No one had cell phone service. A drone flew over the crowd and a small child shrieked, “Don’t spy on me!” A small dog, with “Black Lives Matter” written in puffy paint on its thunder vest, rolled in the dirt.

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People waited without blankets or chairs, reasonably distanced and far enough apart that I could wind my bike through the crowd. They weren’t there to settle in. They were there to march.

Marching


Organized by The Big Yard Foundation—a nonprofit founded in 2018 by Brennan Scarlett, a Portland native and NFL linebacker for the Houston Texans—the Celebration of Black Lives planned a route from the Piedmont neighborhood’s Peninsula Park to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, off Alberta in the King neighborhood. A little over a mile, the march was kid friendly and intentionally placed in historic Albina district neighborhoods—where Black residents were the majority population before gentrification displaced many of them.

Through a bullhorn, Cameron Scarlett—Big Yard Foundation co-founder and Brennan Scarlett’s brother—thanked attendees, volunteers, and the other organizers.

“Today we will stand up and have our voices heard. We will peacefully march through the streets,” he said before giving simple directions for the route. After reminding marchers to stay distanced from each other, he directed protesters to stop by the gazebo if they needed any hand sanitizer, water, or masks.

Organizer Malik Montgomery would later say the Celebration of Black Lives march came together in two weeks. But the event had groups of organized volunteers meeting at different areas of the gazebo to assist with access, clean-up after crowds, and maintain safety. The last of those distinctions seems fairly self explanatory, but actually proved fairly ingenious. Much of the safety crew was there to cork the roads.

Corking


As the crowds exited the park, a group of volunteers with orange pylons waited to block N Rosa Parks Boulevard. Walking west, the crowd occupied the full road, bike lanes, and sidewalks on either side and stretched so far back that multiple chants of "Black Lives Matter” and “Say his name! George Floyd! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!” thrived without overlap. On N Williams, I waited and looked for the end of the crowd, but it stretched all the way back to the park. It was also here that I saw a non-Black father explaining to his young children that police in our country kill a disproportionate number of Black people and that the march was full of people pushing for change. Closer to NE Martin Luther King Jr. (NE MLK), an older Black woman stood on the deck of her home, filming the crowd, and chanting “Black Lives Matter!” Many neighbors lined the streets with signs, but that woman struck my heart because she was so overjoyed to see these people walking down her street.

As the protesters turned south on NE MLK, a pink and teal truck with a banner taped to its side that read “Defund the police!” pulled up and distributed bottled water to marchers. It was 84 degrees at this point and hot enough to warrant concerns of heat stress. Portland Fire Department officers walked at the edges of the crowd with first aid bags.

Jumping on my bike, I cut down a side street to catch up with the front of the march and I found two cheerful people in neon vests routing traffic one block in. “Are you here to cork with us?” they asked. “What’s corking?” I said.

“Corking” is a cute word for a practical idea: Cyclists and motorcycles ride ahead of crowds and block traffic at the first intersection away from the march. This is not only considerate to traffic—they can turn rather than getting stuck waiting for the march to pass—it also keeps cars far away from the marchers. Situations of road rage terrorism are on the rise, and the Celebration of Black Lives organizers adopted this method to keep protesters safe. It takes a lot of volunteers to do it right.

The Party


Rejoining the crowd at NE MLK and Alberta, the crowd turned east, marching towards NE 7th and King Elementary. As they arrived, there were frozen ice carts like Hana’s Snowballs ready to go, a sound stage for speakers, and a small market of Black-owned business vendors like JL’s Good Eats Catering, Optic Clothing, Produce Portland, Black Mannequin Clothing, and paintings by artist Emma Berger.

It was peak heat at the end of the march and protesters clustered in the shade. But as the afternoon cooled and the sun hid its fury behind clouds, many of the extremely fashionable youths began dancing in the parking circle to jams like Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” and Kendrick Lamar's “Alright.”

Between the dancing, community leaders took to the stage to speak about the experience of being a Black person in Portland. Retired Portland police officer Vince Elmore spoke of his work on the board of Word is Bond, an organization whose mission is to build positive relationships between Black men and law enforcement. “Young men, if you’ve had a problem with police, come to Word Is Bond. Learn your rights,” he said.

John Ashford, a court counselor for Multnomah County, stepped up and looked across the crowd. “You are what I’ve been dreaming of. You are the power,” he said. “But until you have representation that looks like this crowd, you can’t change things,” he continued. He encouraged the young people, especially Black women, to consider politics and justice careers. “There’s a new DA coming in. You need to be in the DA’s office to put pressure on him.”

As Ashford spoke, a Portland Fire Department officer walked through the crowd, offering bottles of water to those standing on the hot pavement. Before handing the bottles over, he carefully sanitized each one.

The Speech


After more dancing and more speakers, Brennan Scarlett closed the speech portion of the event, assuring people that they could keep dancing afterward. Here’s a portion of his speech:

We gather here to celebrate the men and women that fought their whole lives for the freedom and togetherness that we see today. As we march on Rosa Parks Blvd and Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, we honor them on the names of our streets and we celebrate them today. We celebrate all those named on our street signs and the ones that aren’t. Because it’s been a fight, a steady fight from 155 years ago to today. And so we celebrate and march to see just how far we’ve come.

The past couple months we’ve been exposed to the brutal mistreatment, harmings, killings of Black people. George Floyd was brutally murdered in the streets. Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her sleep. Ahmaund Arbery was shot down and killed while jogging in his neighborhood. So we realize we have so much further to go.

I mean, we’re enlightened. We’re in Portland, Oregon. We know this is going on. The mistreatment, harming, and killing of Black people has been going on for 400-plus years. We know that. But there’s another group out there. Y’know, they heard, but they weren't listening. But now that same group is listening. And many of them are beginning to try to understand. Not just understand that police brutality disproportionately impacts people with darker skin tones. Not just understand that our Black communities are locked up disproportionately due to broken and immoral criminal justice systems. We’re going deeper than that. People are starting to listen to stories, our stories, as we tell them. We are starting to listen to each other’s stories and experiences, as we’ve experienced.

We’re listening when a man like my father tells a story about buying his first house. Written on the deed, in clear sight, is that a Black man or an Asian man can’t buy that house because of the color of their skin. As he signs his purchase on his first house he realizes that if it were a few years back he wouldn’t be getting that house.

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We’re listening when a Northeast Portland native who grew up off MLK tells stories about the community she grew up in, that supported her and empowered her. When she looked around she saw people that looked like her, people with the same experiences as her. Now she walks down MLK and she takes a left on Killingsworth and she’s glanced at and stared at by white folks who maybe just moved in. It’s a look of bewilderment and confusion as in "why are you here?" Because not many of us are here anymore.

Scarlett called for a number of changes: growing the culture, educating children (earlier The Big Yard Foundation pledged to provide 500 books to the students of King Elementary), and speaking honestly about the brutal history Black people have endured. He called for people of voting age to demand that those they’re electing share their vision.

“We’re here because of the individuals who fought and devoted their lives to their community so we can gather here today and be here together now," Scarlett said. "We’re here because, in 2020, we know the job’s not done. We ask ourselves the question: 'If this system doesn't change, if we don’t fix this system, then who will?'”