Zahir Janmohamed: There is nothing surprising about encountering bigotry in Portland
Despite its liberal veneer, Portland is also home to individuals who repeatedly attack people of color, writes Janmohamed
Editor’s Note: Zahir Janmohamed is the Policy Director for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and the co-host of The Racist Sandwich, a podcast about food, race, gender and class. Follow him on Twitter @raceandfood. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
A few hours after news broke of the horrific attack on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon, that left two dead and one seriously wounded, I received a text message from a friend in North Carolina. It contained one word: “Portland?!”
He was, of course, referring to the incident that happened last Friday where two men were killed after they intervened when a man allegedly yelled at two women in language the Portland police Sgt. Pete Simpson described as “hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions.” It even prompted President Trump to condemn the stabbings as “unacceptable.” A 35-year-old white supremacist, Jeremy Joseph Christian, has been arrested in connection with the stabbing deaths.
I knew what my friend meant by his question: How could such a hateful incident happen in a city as open-minded and as solidly liberal as Portland?
I don’t blame him. I thought this myself until I moved to Portland two years ago.
For starters, the Portland you see on the TV show “Portlandia” does exist, at least to some extent. The city is delightfully quirky, so much so that I once had a mechanic, after refusing payment for fixing my car headlights, offer me artisanal bookmarks with slogans like “This Book is More Interesting Than You.” And yes, there really is a massive naked bike ride that I hear is a profound experience in tolerance and self-acceptance.
But as a person of color, and especially as a Muslim American, I have never felt so lonely, so unsure of my safety, so eager to flee, as I have in Portland.
I was born and raised in California, the son of Indian immigrants from Tanzania, and while I was called a “camel jockey” plenty of times during the 1990 Gulf War when I was a freshman in high school, I never really feared for my life. Oregon is a different story.
People have guns here, or at least, bumper stickers indicating that they love guns. I even had an Uber driver show off his gun holster to me. Another Uber driver told me he didn’t like immigrants. It’s seemingly cool for men to carry large pocket knives in Portland, something that I, as a brown man with a beard, would never do. And Oregon is so antiquated in its understanding of race that I once met an elected official here who proudly defended her use of the term “Oriental” to refer to Asian Americans.
This problem is not new. In 1993, Time magazine wrote, “In the eyes of a skinhead, Portland, Oregon, looks like the city of the future.” That may be a bit hyperbolic but then again, Portland is the whitest city in America above 500,000, a city that is rapidly losing its black residents due to gentrification. It doesn’t help that Oregon’s history is rooted in racial exclusion and was the only state west of the Mississippi River to ban blacks from owning land – a policy that lasted until 1926.
Things are certainly not getting better, either. In the past year alone, there have been a dizzying number of targeted attacks against people of color. Last year, I reported about the suspicious killing of a 68-year-old Afghan American named Abdul Jamil Kamawal, a leader of the Portland Muslim community, who was murdered in his own backyard, allegedly while Kamawal was performing his prayers. A 27-year-old white man, Michael Troxell, was arrested and booked into the Washington County Jail pending murder charges. He’s being held without the possibility of bail, though this incident is not being investigated as a hate crime.
This March, a white man ran into a Middle Eastern restaurant in the state’s capitol of Salem, threatening the staff, yelling, “Get out of America.” In the same month, an Iranian refugee in Troutdale, Oregon, returned home to find the words “terrorist” spray-painted on his wall. More recently, a group of about 100 white supremacists marched on the street outside my office in Portland – located in the most heavily populated Asian area in the entire state of Oregon – and chanted, “Go home!” to the onlookers, most of whom were Asian business and home owners. After clashes erupted with counter-protesters, the police sent in a riot squad, and three were arrested. It is still unclear which side those arrested were on.
President Trump’s win is not solely to blame. These incidents have been happening for decades. But it would be foolish not to see a correlation between his election and the rise of bigotry in Oregon. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oregon witnessed the highest number of harassment and intimidation incidents per capita in the 10 days immediately following the November elections. There were 33 incidents during that period, making Oregon 10th in the nation for these kind of incidents. However, all the states with more reported incidents have larger populations than Oregon’s 4 million people.
The challenging thing is that many Oregonians shut down when talking about race, and sometimes I do not know what is more mind-numbing: learning of these incidents or dealing with the state’s many white liberals who always shush me when I talk about race because they remind me that Oregon is not a “red state” or that “things are worse elsewhere in America.”
What does that even mean? And who even cares? I don’t live “elsewhere in America.”
I have, after all, lost count of how many Muslims, especially teenage black Muslim women, have confided in me that they have been threatened on public transportation, that they have had their head scarves pulled while walking home at night, that they have been called “ISIS lovers” while walking on their public high school campuses. What is worse, they tell me, is that their teachers often trivialize their concerns.
Of course, it is heartwarming to see the outpouring of support for the two men who were killed and for the one man who was injured, heroes who selflessly and courageously stood up to hate. Their loved ones deserve all the funds we can give, and I am grateful that Portland has come out so strongly to unite against this bigotry.
What I do not understand, though, is all the head-scratching, both within Oregon as well as across the United States, as to how such a bigoted attack could occur in Portland. From where I am standing, people of color have been attacked at such a frequent rate in Portland that I find myself just about ready to quit this city.