PORTLAND — At least 20 community activists and independent journalists associated with Portland protests for racial justice were targeted this week by a “kill list,” anonymous letters that contained their names and a racist screed.
The note, scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper, listed several activists and journalists who have been prominent figures at protests the last several months, as well as active in local politics. Most of those listed are people of color, including many Black Portlanders.
The note warned people not to organize any more protests in Vancouver, the site of recent demonstrations over the shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr., a 21-year-old Black man killed by Clark County sheriff’s deputies in late October.
Candace Avalos, an activist and former candidate for Portland city council, posted the note on Twitter on Wednesday. It was the second racist note she had received in a week. The two notes appeared to be sent by the same person, as the second one referred to comments made by local activist and independent journalist Mac Smiff regarding the writer of the first letter.
The note went on to make several direct threats against Smiff, who did not respond to request for comment.
KOIN-TV news anchor Ken Boddie also received a racist note earlier this week, which he addressed directly in a message to the public. It’s not clear whether the note to Boddie, who is Black, was sent by the same person.
Avalos said in a phone call with The Oregonian/OregonLive that her first reaction was fear, then anger.
“I do not deserve this. People do not deserve this,” she said. “I know that what I’m trying to do is create a community that is safe and progressive for all. To be targeted in this way for doing this work is infuriating.”
Avalos, who is Black and Latina, said she has always been aware that being a public figure, especially a woman of color, she may be subjected to such attacks — but it’s jarring when it really happens.
She reported the messages to the police, as well as the Department of Justice bias crimes reporting process, Portland United Against Hate, and the U.S. Postal Service’s inspection service.
Gregory McKelvey, a Portland activist who managed the campaign of mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, was among the people named in the note. He said it’s one of many threats he’s received over the past few years. He echoed Avalos’ concerns that the work of community activists is difficult and risky — especially for people who are Black, brown or queer.
He blamed incendiary rhetoric from national and local leaders for creating an environment where racist attacks flourish.
Olivia Katbi Smith, the co-chair of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America, was also identified on the list.
“These escalating threats of violence from the far right are unfortunately exactly what we expected as a result of the election, and this is exactly why the work doesn’t start or end at the ballot box,” she said. “Their threats will not deter us from working towards a better world, but instead only serve to strengthen our sense of resolve and community.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said Thursday that the Portland Police Bureau was working with the FBI to investigate the threat.
Robert King, the police liaison for the mayor’s office, said they were investigating two letters. Police are trying to contact all those listed to alert them.
“We want to make sure the community knows it’s being taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly,” he said.
But for some of the people who received the threat, the involvement of the police is cause for more alarm.
“I obviously understand there’s mistrust,” Avalos said. “I reached out to as many people as I could, and wanted to make sure they knew. I said, I reported it, if you want me to, or if you want a connection, I’m happy to offer that.”
Avalos is the chair of the Citizen Review Committee, a group that advises the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) on cases of reported misconduct and other police matters. She said members of IPR reached out to her after she received the threats to offer her their support.
But she said she realizes not everyone who was targeted is comfortable with police involvement.
Not everyone got the note mailed directly to them. Demetria Hester, who leads the group Moms United for Black Lives, only found out about it after Avalos contacted them to let her know she was identified on the list.
Hester said she has already been taking several precautions for her own safety, and said the involvement of police is even more unsettling to her, given their history with protesters.
“It would be different if they did what they’re supposed to — protect and serve,” she said. “They’re not going to protect us — we’re going to protect ourselves.”
McKelvey said he would feel just as unsafe seeing the person who wrote the letter at his door as he would seeing an armed police officer.
He also placed partial responsibility on the mayor and police.
“The mayor has demonized protesters both in his capacity as mayor and in his campaign,” he said. “Portland police have beaten these very same people. Many of these people are in lawsuits against the police bureau or the city of Portland.”
In a written note to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Wheeler said he had been consistent in his condemnation of all kinds of violence, and that he had assigned a staff member to look into the “outrageous and disturbing threats.”
“I understand that many people do not feel safe working with law enforcement,” he said. “That’s why I co-championed the recently-passed police accountability measure, banned the use of tear gas for crowd control demanded recorded consent for searches and why I continue to work hard on additional reforms. I have reached out and my team has reached out. I respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest and to decide for themselves whether or not to report threats.”
Wheeler announced the tear gas ban after more than 100 days of protests, in which police repeatedly deployed CS gas on crowds of demonstrators.
Avalos said the desire and right to be protected has nothing to do with a person’s views on policing — protesters, including many targeted in the note, have called for defunding or drastic reform to the Portland Police Bureau.
“People who are trolling, saying ‘oh, now you want to call the police,’ I want people to understand,” Avalos said. “We’re not saying that when we need help, we don’t want someone on the other end of the phone. We deserve that when we call the police, they don’t escalate the situation and we end up dead.”
“We are over-policed and under-protected as a community,” she said. “That’s what hurts.”
Avalos said the impact of the letter is still sinking in for her.
“I’m still processing what this means for my future,” she said. “I want to be safe. Everyone wants to be safe. But it’s so upsetting that we continue to experience such hatred and threats to our lives for wanting our lives to matter. That is not an unreasonable request.”