[In an effort to reflect on a very tumultuous year, the Mercury asked several Portlanders to look back on their 2020 and share how their lives have changed and what they've taken away from their experiences. Mac Smiff is a political activist, and the editor of We Out Here Magazine. Here is his 2020 story.—eds]
To be fair, I don’t usually put much thought into rolling from one year to the next. A few standard resolutions and some celebratory inebriation is about all of the attention I care to give to the unavoidable annual reset of the Gregorian calendar. 2019 was a particularly precarious year though, complete with clear indications of societal decline. For once, against my better judgment, I stepped into 2020 thinking, “Things can’t get much worse!”
Now I’ve eaten some crow in my day; but this, comrades, was a murder.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve achieved most of my goals... but maybe not in the ways I’d hoped. Work from home this year? Check. Work on my garden? For sure. Spend more time with the baby? Naturally. Stop spending so much money on clothes I don’t need? No problem.
By mid-March COVID had gone from internet debate to deadly reality, and by April the world I knew was melting away. Amidst the donning of creative face coverings and the unpopular closing of bars, barber shops, and gyms, thousands of Americans were dying per day and the economy predictably collapsed as the idiot serving his fourth painful year as POTUS publicly struggled to grasp, let alone react to, the situation. The NBA even cut their season short as both fear and the disease spread like wildfire. An All-Star’s mother later died after contracting the disease.
Personally, when nightlife evaporated and took a chunk of my income with it, I was left with far more time than usual. I planted potatoes, built a shitty greenhouse, and dug a new garden (along with a compost pit, to my neighbor’s dismay). I did some interior painting, maintained the deck, started jogging, and took up silly internet challenges. I was reading more, catching up on cinema, and making regular phone calls to friends and family; talking on the phone is something I had typically avoided after having spent a decade in a call center, but social distancing hit different.
My oldest’s high school graduation ceremony got changed to a drive-through and he finished his schooling at home with his siblings, none of whom learned anything in school during the final quarter. The DMV failed to renew tags or test for new licenses, and police stopped pulling people over for just about anything. The curve started to flatten. Those bartenders and barbers and bodybuilders started to get back to their routines.
And then it started: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. To be honest, it was Derrick Sanderlin for me. I had protested so many times. I had been to City Hall on so many occasions. I had voted and voted and voted. So in the first week of June, when I realized these protests weren’t going to stop, I decided that having an opinion wasn’t enough. I needed to go out there and see who was ready to do something about it. Who wanted to defund the police?
That weekend I got arrested with some strangers and a spray bottle full of milk (for treating victims of tear gas), and since then my life has been a blur. In a normal year, I could probably write an entire article about getting tear gassed and what that’s like. In 2020, it doesn’t even get a paragraph; I’ve been gassed more times than I can count. I’ve been flashbanged. I’ve been pepper and paint balled. I’ve seen unbelievable violence, a dead body, and explosives. I’ve been tackled by police, shot with munitions by feds and chased by state troopers. I’ve heard shootings, I’ve held hot bullet shells and exploded IEDs. I’ve been surveilled and doxxed, and my mail stopped coming for the entire month of July. I’ve been arrested in two states, I helped convince the mayor to move, put pressure on the city to re-think their contract with the PPA, and worked to negotiate the return of a family to its historic North Portland home. I’ve argued with Ted Wheeler in public and met with some of the most powerful people in the state government in private.
As 2021 and the threat of some 45,000 evictions loom, the mutual aid structures built and hardened through months of protest will continue to serve our exploding houseless community. From massage therapists to mental health services to mechanics who perform at-cost car repairs, people with lost or declining hope in the existing safety programs are building new systems from scratch; systems that serve people instead of exploiting them.
As the year wraps up, and a new year is but upon us, I’ll refrain from making any predictions. But I do take solace in knowing that the changing of the year is just a formality, and that the path we’re on does not change with it.