By David Rovics
David Rovics Blog
December 10th, 2020
Portland, Oregon has been in the headlines
again over the last few days, and this trend will continue. The reasons
for the headlines will vary depending on who you ask. If you ask the
far right they will say something about Antifa terrorists having violent
confrontations with the police because they hate law and order. The
mainstream media’s headlines will also tend to lead with the so-called
violent clashes, but then they may inform us that the reasons for the
confrontation have to do with folks trying to prevent the eviction of a
Black and indigenous family that has lived in the Red House at 4406
North Mississippi for multiple generations.Either way, the
stories you’ll hear will focus on violence. If you look into it a
little, you’ll realize that what the stories are really focusing on are
destruction of property — particularly the windows of police cars
smashed by well-aimed rocks — and the number of times over the past few
months of the eviction defense encampment on the front yard of the Red
House that the police have been called because of “disturbances.” 81
times, according to police records, the police emphasize in the report
they issued after they entered the house and arrested occupants in a
pre-dawn raid on December 8th.
I can only imagine what some of those disturbances might have been caused by. The house is just at the end of the commercial section of Mississippi Avenue, where what remains of one of Portland’s two historically Black neighborhoods stands, with its uncomfortable mix of wine-sipping gentrifiers living alongside a perennially struggling and shrinking Black working class, along with increasing numbers of people living in tents that line the highway which cuts through the neighborhood — the highway that was originally routed through that neighborhood in order to destroy it, as was done to so many other Black neighborhoods across the US when the highways were being built.
Last time I visited the Red House a few weeks ago, I was only hanging around for a matter of minutes before a man I recognized as a fascist drove slowly past, staring at us from behind his bushy beard, a bizarre new fashion among the fash here in the northwest lately, and in other parts of the world as well. Indeed, if you follow people on Twitter who are involved with the struggle at the Red House, you will see frequent mentionings of the latest spotting of a known fascist, whether Proud Boy or Patriot Prayer, along with the latest prediction of when the riot cops will next come to create chaos.
While the broken squad car windows, the conflicted neighborhood, the poverty, the homelessness, and the frequently-visiting fascist trolls are all very real, there is so much more going on at the Red House at this moment than these alarming reports would seem to imply. Primarily, what’s going on there is pure beauty, in the form of the most profound expression of human solidarity you’re likely to see anywhere.
Reading the descriptions from the police and in certain corners of the media, one would expect an unwelcome reception, if you were to visit the neighborhood they’re describing. In fact, as of last night, the police were officially warning people to avoid the neighborhood altogether, implying that it was, in fact, an anarchist jurisdiction, and therefore a terrifying thing. Mayor-select Tear Gas Ted Wheeler says Portland shall not have an “autonomous zone” like Seattle did for a while.
Mayor Ted really can’t stand it when the rightwingers in Washington, DC and the corporate landlords who own downtown call him a wimp for not cracking enough heads, even though his cops have been cracking more heads over the past few months than possibly any other police force in the United States. So his instinct, naturally, is to crack some more heads, in the service of his friends, the corporate overlords, the business lobby, the Owners of the City. (The real “stakeholders,” as the governor likes to call them — not the ones who hold the stakes that they drive into the ground to keep their tents from blowing away.)
I’m reminded, as I hear of these official pronouncements and fear-mongering, of my visit to the biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus, years ago. An Israeli soldier took me aside, separating me from my Palestinian friends, to privately make sure I was traveling of my own free will, and had not been kidnapped. Once determining that I was not a captive, the soldier’s next tack was to try to reason with me. There are very dangerous people in there, he informed me. They have bombs, he said. I politely thanked him for the information, not wanting to create problems for anyone, in our collective efforts to cross this checkpoint. But I wanted to ask him if he had ever tried leaving the machine gun at home and traveling in civilian clothes. His reception in Palestinian towns would be very different.
As I entered what has arguably now become a sort of gated community in reverse, I was welcomed everywhere I went, whether with words of greeting or just the sorts of eye contact that says more than enough. Not to extend the previous analogy with Palestine too much here, but the feeling is a bit similar, in the sense that when you’re an American in Nablus, people there tend to assume you probably are the kind of American who does not support Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Going anywhere near the Red House as of yesterday, you are suddenly transformed from a “visitor” to a “participant” as soon as you pass through the makeshift gates, into the liberated space that is now the neighborhood surrounding 4406 North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Because you know once you pass these checkpoints and enter the anarchist jurisdiction, you are now as much of a potential target for a police attack as anyone else who is willfully disregarding orders to avoid the neighborhood.
the time people began to maintain a constant presence in front of the
house as part of an effort to prevent the forced eviction of the Kinney
family within it, until a few days ago, it was the house and its yard
that was being protected. Then, at 5 am on December 8th — the favorite
time of day for these sorts of police attacks — the riot cops moved
in, arresting a number of people, including a member of the Kinney
family. Much was made in the police report about multiple firearms
being seized in the course of these arrests, of course with no context
provided — that armed fascists are regularly coming by to threaten
people, and that the police make sure never to be present when that
happens. For example. Or that the ownership of firearms is very
commonplace in this country, especially lately, across the political
spectrum, and is about as surprising as finding a baseball bat or a
The raid on the Red House on the morning of December 8th will, I believe, go down as an historic miscalculation on the part of Ted Wheeler’s corporate-friendly Democratic Party administration — with its recently-approved, massive police budget — that runs this city in the service of the landlord-stakeholders. What they have done with this raid is they have massively escalated the conflict, and I sincerely hope, and suspect, that they will soon regret this move. What they have done now, I believe, is they have taken two movements that were already intimately related, and fused them. If it was not already completely obvious, now it’s impossible not to see it, the police have made sure of this — if you are in favor of Black lives, you are also against evicting families onto the streets. And the converse is true as well.
Since the police raid, what was limited to one house is now a neighborhood-wide conflict. The neighborhood is already very gentrified, and the displeasure among some of the yuppies around Mississippi Avenue that black-clad youth had set up checkpoints on multiple intersections was occasionally being made clear, but only through the aggressive use of car horns, never by people actually getting out of their cars to engage with anyone on a human level, whether out of fear or embarrassment on the part of the horn-happy wine bar set.
After the raid, the police employed a fencing company to erect a tall fence to surround the Red House with. They apparently were operating under the premise that a tall fence would take care of the problem. In actuality, the fence they erected turned out to be very useful, but not for the reasons the authorities apparently believed it would be. What transpired in the hours after they erected the fence, as is easy to observe directly, is the fence was dismantled and reengaged, deployed as part of some suddenly very solid barricade constructions at every intersection surrounding the Red House. The barricades were set up in such a way that people who lived in other houses in the neighborhood could still access their houses, and mostly also their parking spaces, but they now had to take a much more circuitous route to get onto a main road. Each barricade has a little entryway that a human — but not a vehicle — can pass through, once the nice, thoroughly masked young person in black who greets you ascertains that you’re probably not a cop or a fascist.
During my time hanging around the neighborhood there last night, many people were engaged in many forms of industrious activity. If you haven’t spent much time among autonomously-organized youth — whether current youth or the same crowd that existed when I was young, in the 1980’s in New York City — you might not realize that when you enter such patches of liberated territory, whether it’s a mostly outdoor phenomenon like this, or a building takeover, you are entering a hive of activity, reminiscent of a beehive, with everyone engaged in doing their thing, whether they are responsible for cooking, collecting trash, building barricades, constructing tire spikes, collecting wood for the campfires, collecting rocks, or whatever other useful endeavors. Last night was full of that beehive vibe, with most people fulfilling one role or another, whether self-appointed, or appointed through an affinity group or larger network involved with specific aspects of organizing the things that need to happen when large numbers of people are being somewhere for a while. Folks need to eat, sleep, and shit, while also seeking to defend the Red House.
While many people were engaged in meetings or carrying out various tasks, the scouts looking for the next inevitable visit from the riot cops, and others involved with guarding the perimeter always have time to talk. Now, nothing that I’m about to say should come as a surprise to anyone who has spent much time on the ground at protests in Portland over the past eight months or so, but the crowd last night consisted of a very interracial, multigendered and otherwise very intersectional group of mostly young people. Mostly wearing black — which, incidentally, is not just a political statement, if it even is one, but is a matter of practicality for a variety of reasons.
Are there, as I’m sure some readers will be quick to point out, armed sentries? Yes, there are armed sentries. Very nice, armed sentries. The kind we need more of, unfortunately.
And what are people talking about in there among the campfires? I pass by one meeting, noting that most of the participants are people of color. I recognize the man who is speaking to the group of a dozen or so people. He spoke at the last rally I sang at, in fact. As I walk past the discussion, he’s talking about how to be inclusive of people who want to be involved, while still finding effective ways to exclude truly disruptive elements. I then came upon another couple of folks, who greeted me for the sole reason that I had stopped walking momentarily while in their general area, and we then spontaneously began having a conversation about the history of eviction defense actions across the US in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression.
Back in the 1930’s, all of us radical history buffs hanging around the Red House collectively noted, when the cops came to evict people, they often succeeded, but only temporarily. After evicting a household, the people would gather together — often in their thousands — to move the family back in, and un-evict them. That, we all noted, was exactly what was going on at 4406 North Mississippi Avenue.
I believe this struggle, around this particular house, will be won. I believe it will also set the stage for the much broader struggle to come, in the months after Oregon’s eviction moratorium expires. But the future is very much unwritten, and there are many more players involved with this deadly game, aside from the barricade-building youth, unfortunately.
So don’t just scroll on to the next article. Put your phone down, and come meet me at the Red House.
David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs