PORTLAND — In 2016, the comedian and social commentator W. Kamau Bell filmed an episode of his CNN series, “United Shades of America,” in Portland. Back then, the question was, had Black Portlanders been forced to move away from their historic Portland neighborhoods after they were gentrified by supposedly “hip” and “cool” whites?
Bell came back to Portland in 2020, for another episode of his show, which will air Sunday, May 16. The episode’s title, “Power of Protest,” indicates that Bell turned his gaze to protests that rocked the Rose City, especially in the summer of 2020, when then-President Donald Trump sent federal officers to downtown Portland, on the pretext of protecting federal property.
The clashes between protesters, and federal agents armed with tear gas and crowd-control munitions, escalated into a pitched political battle. Trump condemned Portland, and Oregon politicians called for the federal agents’ removal, comparing them to an “occupying army.”
As Bell says in his voiceover early in “Power of Protest,” “We’ve been here before,” referring to Portland. Back then, though, it was to talk about gentrification, and make jokes about hipsters. “Simpler times,” Bell says.
Though Bell first became known for his stand-up comedy, he has long been outspoken about social issues. In “United Shades of America,” now in its sixth season, Bell travels around the country to talk with locals, experts and activists to dig into potentially volatile topics. The first two episodes of Season 6, for example, took Bell to the Bay Area for an installment titled “Policing the Police,” and to Atlanta for “Black to the Future,” to explore efforts to increase inclusivity among workers in the science and technology fields.
The protests in Portland that persisted for much of 2020 were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25, 2020, after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. In April, Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder.
After Floyd’s death, a massive protest movement against police brutality and anti-Black racism swept the country. Portland’s protests became national news, as they continued even after demonstrations in other cities waned. Right-wing media played up the confrontations between Portland protesters and police as an example of a city governed by Democratic elected officials falling into chaos. The police came under harsh criticism for their tactics in dealing with protesters.
In “Power of Protest,” Bell focuses on the clash between protesters and the forces called in by Trump. In characteristic style, Bell doesn’t pretend to be an objective observer. He refers to the agents sent by Trump as “militarized federal nincompoops.”
The question, Bell poses is, “How did a city that’s 70 percent white become the epicenter of 2020′s Black Lives Matter activism?”
Answering his own question, Bell says, “Honestly, where else but Portland?” The city is a “bright blue dot” that’s surrounded by the rest of Oregon, he says, which tends to be more red-state than blue-state.
Add to that, Bell says, that in Portland, “antifa, anarchists and activists” have been fighting white nationalists for years. With this background, Floyd’s death, and Trump striving to make Portland a national example of lawlessness, Bell says it’s no surprise that Portland became a hotbed of Black Lives Matter activism.
During the “Power of Protest” episode, Bell interviews Portland activists who want police defunded, wealth redistributed, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency abolished. Protesters recall being gassed, and suffering “brutal” treatment at the hands of federal agents, in particular.
Among the people interviewed are Christopher David, the Navy veteran who went downtown to, as he said, ask federal officers why they were violating their oath to the Constitution. A video of David being beaten with a baton and pepper-sprayed by federal officers made news all over the country.
Bell talks about the history of protest movements in the U.S., and how they have led to change, including women fighting for the right to vote, and the civil rights movement advocating for racial equality. Too often, Bell says, in such movements, Black women do “a lot of the heavy lifting,” while others get the credit. The Black Lives Matter movement was, he says, founded by three Black women, but Black men and white women are often the ones who get media attention.
In Portland, Bell speaks with Shirley Jackson, a sociology professor at Portland State University. “It’s wonderful to have white allies,” Jackson tells Bell, as they sit outdoors on the PSU campus. “But if those white allies are speaking for Black people who have not asked them to do so, then that’s problematic.”
“One of the problems that we see sometimes in the way that people are looking at protests in Portland,” Jackson goes on to say, is that “it’s as though you are showing your Blackness if you are out there, supporting Black Lives Matter. But that’s not the only way to show your support.”
Such actions, Jackson says, may be “what some whites think that Blacks should be doing, but that’s just part of the problem. Blacks should be determining what they want to do, and how their activism should look. It should not be dictated by people who have a stereotype of Black people, or a stereotype of Black activism.”
The matter of white activists drawing attention away from the cause of Black Lives Matter also comes up in a conversation Bell has with activist Demetria Hester. A regular presence at Portland Black Lives Matter protests, Hester also testified in the sentencing hearing for Jeremy Christian, who assaulted Hester in 2017, one day before he went on to murder two men and seriously injure a third on a MAX train.
With Hester, Bell discusses the national media attention directed at the so-called “Wall of Moms,” a group of women who participated in protests downtown during the time federal agents were in Portland.
“America loved the wall of mostly white moms,” Bell says. “They were seen as protectors of democracy, and became instant media darlings.” However, he goes on, behind the scenes questions were being asked. “Where were all the Black moms in the wall?” Bell says. “Because, let’s be real. Black moms deal with injustice at the hands of law enforcement way more often than white moms do.”
The Wall of Moms fell apart, and Hester formed a new group, Moms United for Black Lives.
Referring to the national image of Portland that emerged in the summer of 2020, Bell says, if he were to believe the right-wingers, the QAnon-ers, and the GOP-ers, and some in the media, “visiting Portland in the Fall of 2020 is a terrible idea.” The episode cuts to clips of Trump, Fox News and ABC decrying Portland as a city in turmoil, then we cut back to Bell, as he sits calmly at an outdoor café table, sipping a glass of red wine.
“There’s this perception that Portland is sort of burning because it’s not upholding American values,” says Randy Blazak, whom Bell interviews. Blazak, a sociologist and chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, says, “My father was convinced that antifa is burning down the city.” His mother, Blazak says, called to ask if “protesters were trying to burn down my house.”
Citing the “dangerous consequences” of extremist views infiltrating conservative media, Bell points to the Jan. 6 insurrection, when Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol. Some of Trump’s political allies, Bell says, tried to argue that the attackers were actually members of antifa, masquerading as Trump supporters. Authorities have not found evidence that members of antifa groups infiltrated the ranks of Trump supporters on Jan. 6.
That leads to a sequence where Bell meets with two masked people who say they are members of Rose City Antifa. In a darkened room, two people who conceal their identities beneath dark glasses and masks, talk about “defending our community” from right-wing extremists, such as the Proud Boys.
“The vast majority of the work that we do is spent doing research and trying to identify people on the Internet, saying violent, racist, disgusting things that they feel empowered to say, because they’re anonymous and on the Internet,” says one antifa member, who is also anonymous, cloaked in head-covering gear that disguises their identity.
Though “United Shades of America” addresses timely issues, the “Power of Protest” episode, seen now, feels more like a time capsule than a reflection of how the conversation in Portland is evolving.
The national narrative from Fox News, for example, may still paint the city as a burning apocalypse. Local developments, however, speak to a more complicated situation, in which many Portlanders — even if they support the Black Lives Matter movement — are fed up with groups that engage in so-called “direct actions,” that end with setting fires, breaking windows and vandalizing property.
Even ABC News, mentioned in “Power of Protest” for characterizing Portland as a city in turmoil, recently aired a “Nightline” segment about how Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other locals are expressing frustration with the actions of a small group of demonstrators.
Bell doesn’t interview Wheeler, other Portland elected officials or members of law enforcement in “Power of Protest.” Instead, he ends the episode by saying that protesting is how Americans who believe in “justice and joy” will get those in power to make changes. “We could avoid all of this,” Bell says, “if we just lived up to our ideals. Until then, I’ll see you on those streets.”
The “United Shades of America” episode, “Power of Protest,” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday, May 16, on CNN.