IT'S A SCARY TIME to be an immigrant or refugee in this country, with President Donald Trump’s rise to power leaving already-vulnerable populations feeling even more exposed.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric has given way to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, with the new president’s Muslim-targeted travel ban currently caught up in the court system. His aggressive deportation policies for undocumented immigrants—coupled with a proposed wall along the Mexico border—are taking shape.
Here in Portland, the writing’s literally on the wall. It didn’t take long after Trump’s victory for what the city labels “hate” graffiti to start popping up around town.
“Trump Baby! Deport the shitskins,” read one of a number of swastika-adorned tags in the Reed College library in mid-November. “Fuck all you liberal niggers die,” read another.
In all, the city documented 23 separate instances of hateful graffiti—mostly swastikas, with a handful of “fuck feminism” tags—and 60 instances of political graffiti between November 8 and February 2, according to the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI). That’s compared to just one “hate” tag and zero political tags during the same timeframe a year prior. ONI Graffiti Abatement Officer Juliette Muracchioli says the uptick in both is tied to the election.
And the trend isn’t limited to spray paint. City officials and pro-immigrant advocates say there’s an increase of Portlanders harassing immigrants and people of color. Of all states, Oregon has seen the ninth-most “hate instances” since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in December.
“The threat and challenges our community is facing is beyond everything that we have before,” says Unite Oregon Executive Director Kayse Jama, who came to the US from Somalia, one of seven largely Muslim countries targeted in Trump’s executive order curtailing travel and barring refugees. Jama says Unite Oregon’s offices in Medford and Portland have been “targeted by vigilantes,” adding, “we need all the protection we can get right now.”
Unite Oregon and others want to fight back. So ONI’s requested nearly a half-million dollars in its next budget for a pilot program called “Portland United Against Hate.” The initiative hopes to bring the city together with eight community-specific nonprofits and groups that would work as “rapid response hubs” to better document and deal with acts of intimidation, hate speech, and hate crimes in Portland.
“We are seeing escalation of these kinds of things,” ONI Director Amalia Alarcón de Morris tells the Mercury, saying her bureau wants to use hotlines to focus on “quick responses” to hateful incidents.
“People are more willing to report these kinds of things to those they trust.”—Amalia Alarcón de Morris, ONI Director
“It’s building a network of resources and then having volunteers to actually be able to hand-hold somebody who’s feeling traumatized,” Alarcón de Morris says. “We find people are more willing to report these kinds of activities to those they trust rather than, say, an institution like the city or the police.”
The theory is that hate incidents in Portland are underreported. Having culture-specific organizations as the intake center for reports might offer a clearer picture.
If there’s an encounter or incident “where a person is feeling vulnerable or if they’re attacked and a crime actually happens, they’d call this number,” Alarcón de Morris explains. If a Latino person was harassed, for example, they could speak in Spanish with the Latino Network, one of the groups included in the program. The Latino Network would “triage” the incident to find out exactly what happened, potentially sending a volunteer to be with the victim and coordinate the filing of a police report. A city employee would work with the groups to maintain records of the incidents.
“The idea is to have a centralized database,” Alarcón de Morris says. “Police will record things rising to the level of a crime or suspected crime, but a lot of times things happen that aren’t necessarily criminal but leave someone feeling assaulted in a different way. We want to document all of it to take the temperature of the environment.”
The $465,000 ONI is requesting to initiate the program this year would fund a city staffer to coordinate with the groups, the groups’ participation, and the recruitment and training of volunteers “in areas such as knowing your rights, interruption of acts of intimidation, and other targeting behaviors,” according to a project proposal in ONI’s requested budget.
Alarcón de Morris cites a group of antagonistic “Bible Believers”—street preachers who picketed and harassed Spanish-speaking churchgoers on January 29—as an example of an incident that would be documented. Hundreds of people gathered at the church the next Sunday to “shield” churchgoers from the preachers (who didn’t show up again). Alarcón de Morris says that might be one way volunteer allies would be trained to respond.
Groups included in the “Portland United Against Hate” proposal are Verde NW, Causa Oregon, Latino Network, the Native American Youth and Family Center, Portland Two-Spirit Society (an LGBTQ Native American social group), Resolutions NW, Q Center, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization/Asian Family Center/Africa House, and the Coalition of Communities of Color.
The groups are also seeking private funding to potentially continue the program past an initial public outlay, Alarcón de Morris said: “The idea is that at least while this kind of rhetoric is being seen in this environment, this program would remain in place.”
David Austin, deputy chief of staff for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees ONI, says his office is eager to push the program, given recent incidents.
“That should be cause for alarm for everybody,” Austin says. “Leaders from this group are clear that intolerance needs to be erased.”