The remains of Alletta Brenners Black Lives Matter sign after being used to ignite a fire outside her home.
The remains of Alletta Brenner's "Black Lives Matter" sign after being used to ignite a fire outside her home. Alletta Brenner

Alletta Brenner didn't know her home had been set on fire in the early morning hours of Friday, April 30, until she heard firefighters putting out the flames outside her bedroom window.

"I was absolutely confused by what was happening," said Brenner, who lives in Northeast Portland's Piedmont neighborhood with her partner and young children, in an interview with the Mercury. "And then I was stunned."

She learned what had occurred quickly: According to the firefighters, it appeared that someone had pulled her "Black Lives Matter" yard sign out of her lawn, leaned it up against a wooden gate connected to her home, and set it on fire. It just so happened that a fire truck was responding to another call in the neighborhood around that time, and when its driver saw her gate burning, they pulled over to extinguish the flame.

Later that morning, Brenner discovered she wasn't the only one on her block who'd been targeted. At least two of her neighbors shared on the app Nextdoor that they'd also had fires set on their property before sunrise. She saw clear similarities between the incidents. One of her neighbors' fires was lit by using another yard sign reading "We believe" followed by a list of several statements, including "Black Lives Matter." That fire was set right next to another yard sign reading "Black Lives Matter." The other house, which saw its garbage can set ablaze using aerosol cans, had a "PDX Love Over Hate" sign in its yard, although it wasn't used in the fire. At least one of the neighbors who experienced arson was Black. (They declined to speak with the Mercury for this story.) All fires were extinguished before seriously damaging any property.

To Brenner and her other neighbors, this seemed like a targeted attack on homes with progressive political and anti-racist signs.

So she was concerned to get an email from Portland Fire and Rescue investigator Lt. Craig Gault dismissing the connection. In a response to Brenner's inquiry about the arsons being politically influenced, Gault wrote there was "no indication" that the actions were related to politics, and that he believed it to be "the normal houseless drug effected / mental health fire setting issue."

Brenner lives near several homeless encampments, and says that while the neighborhood has seen some small fires caused by cooking stoves, she hasn't ever heard of her houseless neighbors engaging in arson.

"That struck me as offensive," Brenner said.

Rich Chatman, a spokesperson for Portland Fire and Rescue, told the Mercury that it was the fire investigators' impressions that the person who set the fires was simply looking for items that could easily be set on fire, like the yard signs.

"Evidence in the case does not point to a bias crime, but our investigators will be continuing to look for further evidence if it was, because we understand the gravity of the situation," said Chatman, who noted that many houses on Brenner's block appear to have progressive yard signs.

Chatman said all three cases are being investigated as arson. Several neighbors caught footage of a potential perpetrator on their home security cameras, which have been shared with the fire bureau. No suspect has been identified.

The arsons, occurring in the midst of an unusually dry, fire-prone spring, have set the neighborhood on edge. Several Piedmont neighbors spoke about the incident with the Mercury anonymously, fearing for their safety.

"This is one of the worst things that has ever happened in our neighborhood," said Victor Vencill, who's lived across the street from Brenner's home for 30 years. Vencill said he's become used to vehicle break-ins in the neighborhood in recent years, but hearing about this "calculated" crime taking place on his block came as a shock.

"It's absolutely infuriating that someone would intentionally put my neighbors' lives in danger," said Vencill. "I'm relieved nobody got hurt. If so, we would be having a totally different conversation."

The city's current political tensions have also increased neighbors' anxieties. Last summer, Piedmont residents became accustomed to racial justice protests in their neighborhood, as their homes sit near Peninsula Park, a regular meeting spot for demonstrations, and the N Lombard headquarters of the Portland Police Association (PPA), the police union representing Portland's rank-and-file cops, which has become a frequent destination for marches. The neighborhood overlaps with Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood, and is home to many Black residents. Many neighbors used yard signs to signal their support of the protests.

Now, with city leaders regularly condemning protest activity for its participants' inclination toward property damage, Brenner worries her neighbors' support of the Black Lives Matter movement makes them a target for those critical of the continued activism.

"I've never felt unsafe having those political views in this neighborhood," said Brenner. "But I feel like there's a tenor of right-wing extremism and vigilantism in this city right now, and I don't feel like it's being taken seriously."