This article is part of the Mercury's 2020 all-digital Queer Week coverage.
When queer Black Portlander Cameron Whitten first saw that the police killing of George Floyd was making national front-page news in late May and early June, he didn’t expect meaningful, lasting change to come from it.
“We have seen these things happen, and all we get is the same hashtags, the same hearts, the same thoughts and prayers,” Whitten recently told the Mercury. “I fully expected the same thing to happen again.”
It took him a few days, Whitten said, to realize that “this time has been different.” In those early days of the protests against police brutality, Whitten said he received a deluge of check-in calls and texts from friends—many of them white—asking how he was doing. It was clear people were looking for a way they could help, and that gave Whitten an idea.
“I knew that because of my platform, that I was fine, I was being taken care of,” said Whitten, who recently ran for a Metro Council seat and narrowly missed making the cut for the runoff election. “I wasn’t feeling that ambitious… I wanted to get a warm meal to some of my friends, and I wanted to get their bills paid.”
So Whitten began accepting donations through his personal Venmo and Cashapp accounts, telling friends and acquaintances that he’d pass the money along to other Black people he knew who could use the help. He raised $11,000 in the first day.
Three weeks later, what started as an informal exchange has grown into the Black Resilience Fund, which as of Thursday afternoon had raised $575,000 on GoFundMe. Whitten said the fund will soon be formalized and sponsored by local nonprofit Brown Hope, so people will be able to make tax-deductible donations. All donations go directly to fund recipients, rather than toward overhead costs or salaries.
Along the way, Whitten connected with Salome Chimuku, a fellow queer Black Portlander who has a background working for local nonprofits and at the Oregon Legislature, where she worked on hate crime legislation. The two now co-run the fund.
The Black Resilience Fund gives up to $500 to Black Portlanders in need. Chimuku said many of the recipients are people who recently lost some or all of their income due to COVID-19. Funds have been used to pay for rent and utilities, for cell phone plans that allow people to apply for jobs, and for necessary prescription medications like insulin. Chimuku noted that Black people and Black-owned businesses have been left behind by coronavirus relief funds, and Oregon’s unemployment system has been disastrously slow in processing new claims.
“[Our recipients] have been waiting six-plus weeks for unemployment from the state, but were getting immediate relief from us,” she said. “For so many folks, it was something that could make or break their situation.”
Salome and Chimuku are both in their twenties, and say they appreciate the quick results that come from using social media and GoFundMe to fundraise.
“My background is mostly in policy, and policy is mostly slow-moving work,” Chimuku said. “We’re able to get things moving quicker.”
Another strength of the Black Resilience Fund, Chimuku said, is that she and Cameron can relate to a wide range of Black Portlanders.
“We are able to have some of these intake interviews with Black folks in different languages, recognizing that immigration intersects with Blackness,” said Chimuku, who is a first-generation immigrant from Angola. “We’re able to give funds to trans Black people who need it for medication, for rent. We’re able to reach out to Black queer folks who may have been employed as drag queens or in queer-owned bars and restaurants, who saw their income drop to zero. We’re getting them the assistance that they need in a place that is inclusive to them.”
The last few weeks have brought about changes to policing in Portland that activists had been working on for years—though those activists agree it’s only a starting point. For Whitten, it’s fitting that these historic changes are happening during Pride month.
“What this particular Pride month means to me is what Pride meant in the first place,” he said. “We are fighting for our lives.”