'They Want To See Change' — How The Black Lives Matter Portland Agenda Is Evolving

Sep 24, 2020

Following the announcement that no police officers would be charged in the killing of Breonna Taylor, protesters in Portland took to the streets Wednesday night.

The police killings of Taylor, George Floyd and other Black people spurred thousands to protest against racial injustice and police brutality this summer in Portland. The frequency of protests has dwindled, but organizers are pushing their agenda in other ways.

Protesters chanted outside the Portland Police department headquarters Wednesday night in a scene that's been repeated many times over the summer: “SAY HER NAME/ BREONNA TAYLOR, SAY HER NAME/ BREONNA TAYLOR.”

Protesters chanted outside the Portland Police department headquarters Wednesday night.
Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public

A number of groups have organized to further the Black Lives Matter (BLM) cause. Activist Christiana Marvray says protests are intended to keep attention on racial inequality and injustice.

“People are seeing the ways that people are disenfranchised in this city, and they want to see change” Marvray says.

Black Lives Matter Portland was not directly involved in Wednesday’s protest, but is one group that helped plan events this summer. The group is now working on other ways to address systemic racism- like pressuring the city council directly to reduce its budget for policing and to invest more in health and human services.

They also pushed the city to ban facial recognition software, which has been shown to disproportionately affect women of color. Although BLM Portland members say the council could have taken a stronger stance, the city adopted a modified ban.

“Just having facial recognition software removed from the equation whenever people are trying to exercise their rights as American citizens, as Americans, it’s a big deal.”

The group also launched efforts to address disparities in access to educational tools and school supplies, which disproportionately affect children of color.

The police killings of Taylor, Floyd and other Black people spurred thousands to protest against racial injustice and police brutality this summer in Portland.
Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public

“The children who are going to have to go back to school are the ones whose parents aren’t going to be able to work from home,” says Marvray. “They’re the ones that are not able to take the time to make sure they have a computer, wifi, things like that.”

BLM Portland also advocated for a commission to re-evaluate the city charter in order to eventually eliminate the City Manager position. A ballot question on the issue is now moving forward.

But the group continues to push the city for greater reforms – like examining housing support and city planning. A protester earlier in the year spoke on the matter of redlining, a form of lending discrimination that can prevent communities from growth.

“That redlining stuff, that’s real. The highways that divide the rich areas and the poor areas,” said the protester. “Look at Kennedy Park. There’s a highway, and then there’s North Deering.”

In response, Portland councilors passed a resolution this summer to establish a Racial Equity Commission to evaluate and make recommendations about how the city can better address issues of systemic racism.

Mayor Kate Snyder says it’s a starting point.

Efforts to reduce the city's police budget have had limited results.
Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public

“We’ve intentionally expanded the kind of universe of people who are gonna end up feeling responsible for what we do next,” Snyder says.

Efforts to reduce the city’s police budget have had limited results. This week the council approved a decrease of approximately 3% from last year – part of which came from activist pressure to eliminate some School Resource Officers.

Snyder says she doesn’t believe an immediate and drastic shift of funding from police to other social services is the answer. She says social service makes up a large part of the city's budget, which has to be looked at globally.

“That’s the way to do the work, in my opinion,” she says. “Is to say, look we have this ongoing conversation, which is super important, our budget is our prevailing document for the city of Portland, how are we managing that?”

Despite some of the city’s tepid responses to their priorities, BLM organizers are undeterred. They say they’re approaching racial equity strategically – applying pressure where needed and organizing around the upcoming November election. Marvray says the fight for a more inclusive society will be a better one for all.

“If we are including Black trans women who are disabled and low-income, a white person who owns a business up Downeast, they’re already going to benefit from those things,” says Marvray. “When we’re including everybody, everybody benefits.”

As BLM Portland continues applying political pressure, other demonstrations and marches are likely in the future. Another group has organized a protest scheduled for Saturday outside Portland City Hall.