Black Portland reflects on role of white allies in movement

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Sam Thompson, founder of Black Men and Women United, speaks to members of the Black community during a weekly meeting as his 3-year-old son, Jet, plays behind him in Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Thompson founded the group amid the ongoing protests in Portland with the goal of bringing long-term resilience to the city's Black community, which has endured years of racism. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

PORTLAND, Ore. – More than two months of intense protests in Portland, Oregon — one of America's whitest major cities — have captured the world's attention and put a place that's less than 6% Black at the heart of the conversation about police brutality and systemic racism.

Since May, nightly demonstrations in Oregon’s largest city have featured overwhelmingly white crowds — from middle-aged mothers marching arm in arm to the mayor getting tear-gassed by federal agents to teenagers dressed in black smashing police precinct windows and tossing fireworks at authorities.

The weeks of often-chaotic protests have transformed Portland into a microcosm of the national debate on race and police brutality. It's also prompted introspection in the liberal city's small Black community about the role of white demonstrators in the Black Lives Matter movement and what it means to be a white ally in this transformational moment.

The violence and vandalism that have marked the protests, often done by white people, have divided the Black community, along with a debate over what's next. Some want to keep marching, while others want to use the momentum to work with elected officials on cementing long-term change.

“It’s a perfect storm with everything that’s been happening, and add to that the attention of the world being on Portland, Oregon, right now — we have a unique space," said Sam Thompson, who founded the group Black Men and Women United last month to push the movement toward long-term Black resilience.

“If those people weren’t there and they weren’t protesting to the level they are now, we wouldn’t be having this conversation 2 1/2 months later,” he said. As white people see the protests, "when the person that looks like you is breaking the windows and starting the fires, you deal with that a lot differently than when it's someone who doesn’t look like you.”

Portland's movement has carried a current of tension as the Black community and white protesters navigate a complex racial calculus: In such a white city, how can white residents support Black rights without making themselves the story?

That's a delicate question in a progressive city with a deeply racist past. Portland, a focal point of the Black Lives Matter movement in part because of its bastion of white supporters, is so lacking in diversity because of centuries of laws that excluded and marginalized Black people.