EDITOR’S NOTE: “I’m going into Portland, to the protests,” said the text from my cousin, Stevie Burden. Okay … I thought – are you crazy? Be safe. Maybe she’s just going to one of the rallies in other parts of the city. “No. I’m going to the Justice Center, downtown. I have to lend my voice, show my support for my family, my tribe.” So here’s Stevie’s firsthand account of what the protests are like in downtown Portland that have been going on nightly for over 60 days. She attended last Saturday July 25th, and is planning to go again.
By Stevie Stephens Burden
It is a difficult morning for me. I sit here in my privilege and watch as my world falls apart. My mind swirls with thoughts of my best friend who is no longer with us. He would love and hate what is going on today.
I met both of my best friends almost 40 years ago while I was working in a program at Oregon State Hospital. There are a lot of stories I could tell about my time working in the Cuckoo’s Nest but the most important of all of my experiences there was meeting the man who would go on to become my brother, my best friend, my family. Tim was 6’5 to my 5’2”, a black Air Force veteran from West Philly. I am a west coast white Catholic girl who has seen a harder side of life but somehow, we just fit and would until the day he died. In the beginning of our friendship, he introduced me to the man who had been his best friend for decades and the three of us became family. We raised our kids together and when I got married to a Jewish boy from Philly, we became four. They are my family, my clan, my heart and my soul.
Tim once told me while we were standing in the hallway at work after a particularly tough group, that my understanding and judgment in the case we were discussing was being clouded by my white privilege. I was shocked by his words. I knew myself. He knew me. I knew I wasn’t a racist. He knew I wasn’t a racist. But that day we had one of the most important conversations of my life.
He asked me,” How many times have you had to interview for a job when the employer was a different color than you? How many times has your employer not spoken your language? How many times have you been in a situation and looked around to see nothing but faces that were all a different color than yours? Or a whole crowd of people who were a different color than you? How many times were your parents and grandparents told they couldn’t come in the same door – eat at the same counter – drinking out of the same fountains? How many times have you had to ride at the back of the bus?”
As I stood and listened to his words that day, my world changed. That conversation opened doors for me that can never be closed again. I learned in that moment what I would spend years, decades to understand and correct. I have worked hard to understand my privilege as a (mostly) white woman in this country because I have it. I have sought to change myself, to be aware of it and not allow privilege to define me or my actions. I have fought for the equal rights of others. I fight now for my brothers and my friends who taught me how to be a better person, how to see the world through their eyes and to combat white privilege and racism when I see it.
When I was a child I watched as the men in our family did their duty and joined a branch of the military services. Generations of them stepped up. I grew up listening to the stories of my Dad, Uncle and brothers talk about their times of service and what it was like for them to serve their country against our enemies and in times of war. They all came back proud, having done their patriotic duty, and traumatized for the rest of their lives by what it did to them.
So even though I have an unapologetic hippie heart I have also always believed myself to be a patriot. Always. I believe in patriotism and that it is my duty as an American to stand up to an injustice when I see it.
To quote a sign I saw the other night, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The problem I see right now in our country is white privileged elitists trying to control the conversations. Turning the issues for their own purposes and trying minimize the divides.
“That doesn’t happen here.”
“All lives matter.”
“Well they shouldn’t be out there in the streets if they don’t want to get hurt!”
“It’s not my problem.”
“They’re being unpatriotic.”
I could go on but I won’t. Here is my reality, yes, it does happen here. Of course, all lives matter but it’s black people who are being discriminated against and getting hurt right now. Today.
As I watched the news and talked to my friends about what was going on, I knew I had to see it first hand and add my voice. So, I called my friend and made plans to join him downtown.
I left my car at the public transit station just outside of the city and started into Portland I was surprised by the quiet that I was met with. I could immediately see the impacts of Covid. Highway 26 is notorious in Oregon for being the worst for traffic jams but not that night. It was eerily quiet all the way into town. Contrary to what some big news organizations were showing there were few people around the downtown area, a mere three or four blocks from where the protests were, and those that were there were doing what Portlanders do, sitting on the stairs of Pioneer Square enjoying the sunshine and drinking coffee. There were no riots. No burning buildings. Nothing but the ever-present pigeons and coffee drinkers.
I rode the last few blocks to my stop not knowing what to expect. As I walked up the street toward where the protest was, it was like any other sunny summer day but quieter. I met up with my best friend and we started toward the Justice Center where the center of the demonstration was, talking about exit strategies and what if’s. We came up the block and found ourselves passing by the veterans’ group who were preparing to march. I was so moved as I listened as the leader read out their mission. It, simply put, was to place themselves in front of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, insuring them the right to demonstrate in peace and to protect them with their bodies. I was impressed by how they conducted themselves and honored the military organizations they represented and the quiet determination to protect the constitution and the people who were fighting for their rights. Their only mission was to protect the people who were assembling in good faith to exercise their guaranteed rights. And those vets were quite literally willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the Constitution and their country, again. But this time it was at home against an administration looking for a quick fix and distraction from a raging epidemic and flagging campaign.
As we moved up the street and met up with other BLM protesters as they formed a loose parade and began to walk toward the front of the federal building. In true Portland style it was friendly and pretty subdued. No screaming and yelling, just the quiet resolve of knowing what needed to be done, and doing it.
When we arrived at the Justice Center there was a modest crowd of BLM people standing at the front gates of the fence that has been erected around building. It was a friendly and peaceful crowd. As we stood in quiet solidarity the doctors and nurses’ march came to join the ranks. Then a Union group came to add their support. There were people working the crowd handing out water, helmets, and masks to the protesters. There were lawyers giving out their cards and promising their representation if anything went bad. There was a sense of resolve and comradery, and dare I say hope and love, everywhere.
Then we started to hear cries of “step aside” and “make way” rolling through the crowd towards us and the people parted to make way for the “Wall of Vets”. They came, 50 or 60 strong, two abreast and in locked step just as they had been trained to do, and we cheered them on. They walked to the front of the crowd and turned to put themselves in on the front lines to protect our right to protest. They faced the fence and stood at parade rest for what seemed like forever, never wavering.
Next, in one of the most humbling moments of my life, the “Wall of Moms” came. All of these women who looked so tiny as they walked single file between the building and the veterans and linked their arms. These women of all ages and colors, standing between danger and the rest of us, including the veterans. It brought me to tears. I have never been so proud to be a Mom. I wanted to go and join them but held my position because I had promised my husband and son that I would stay back. I wish I had gotten a good picture of them but I was just too caught up in the moment. I understand now that they are crumbling under internal conflicts. It is so sad because I believe in what they were trying to do. But like all new groups they will have to resolve their conflicts if they are to move ahead as a continued voice in this struggle.
As I looked around the crowd, I was struck with how many white people were in the group of protesters. I have heard some disparaging the fact that many of the demonstrators were white. I find that such an odd and perplexing attitude. They should be white. Black folks already know what the problems are and they have been telling us over and over for centuries. But the reality is that until white people begin to really join the conversation there is little hope for change. It is us white folk that carry the power in this country whether explicitly or implicitly and the nexus for change will, in the end, come from white people who are willing to give up their power to solve the problem in earnest.
There we stood, quietly, respectfully, legally. We didn’t react to the tension. We didn’t take the bait when the angry young black woman came by with a megaphone yelling out her pain and frustration that we weren’t being more aggressive. We didn’t react except to let out a collective groan when a group of newly arrived agitators began to lob fireworks over the fence way down the block from us who were standing at the front gates. I heard that they tried to get through the fence. I don’t know. They weren’t near enough for us to see them. What I do know to be true is that it was not the people who we had now stood with for hours that got aggressive. The BLM protesters maintained a 5 or 6 foot path way between the fence and where we all stood all night. The only people that got closer to the fence were passersby and the press. At no time did any of us who were part of the BLM protest and standing around the front gate, rush that fence. The only place that happened was at the far end of the block. And oddly, it happened in the exact same place at least two nights in a row. I am left with the feeling that it was staged. It was like those fireworks were a signal for the unidentifiable camo-wearing troops to start lobbing tear gas. Interestingly however, while they had access to the entire block in which to aim their shot, they didn’t aim the tear gas at the agitators who had the fireworks and were creating trouble. They aimed it at us, who were up the block and had not moved any closer to the fence in the three hours that I stood there. I have heard lots of reports from friends who were there about attacks on the protesters by the unidentifiable paramilitary but I didn’t see what happened to them because when the tear gas hit me, my world turned upside down.
I started to cough and my eyes teared and ran and burned. But as we had talked about, I grabbed my friend’s pack and his friend grabbed my arm and we started to move out of the area. We had agreed not to run so we moved as fast as we could at a walk. It took a couple of minutes to get across the rough terrain but as we stepped out onto the sidewalk I was gasping and coughing and my eyes were on fire, my two escorts virtually holding me up by my elbows. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. Then out of the crowd stepped this petite woman dressed in black and carrying a large bag.
She grabbed me by the arms and said, “I am here to help you but I have to get you to a safe place first so I’m going to move you across the street. Is that ok?”
Speech was beyond me but I nodded my head in agreement. She took my arm while my friend took my other one and we went darting across the street. I stumbled and lurched but my escorts kept me on my feet until I was leaning against a building on the far side of the street.
Somebody took my glasses off as she reached into her bag, all the while reassuring me that she was going to help me.
“Put your head back and start blinking,” she said.
The first couple of times I could barely move my eyelids but then out of the blur of pain I heard her voice again directing me to, “blink Blink BLINK”, as she poured cooling salvation into my burning eyes. That first wave of gas that hit me took my breath away. Having my eyes flushed out and regaining my ability to see was no less breathtaking.
I stood there while the world came back into focus. I felt her squeeze my arm asking if I was okay. I vaguely remember shaking my head yes and she was gone back into the crowd with her bag of miracles. But her actions were for me what epitomized the whole night. Focused. Gentle. Helping. Purposeful. With out malice. And yes, loving. That was my greatest take away from those moments, and that night. It was all for the love of others.
It took me a moment to get my bearings, and that piece of time was and are still blurry. But what I do remember is my dear friend getting me out of harm’s way and never losing his hold on me. I’ve never felt closer to him. I remember the competence and confidence that my savior showed as she provided me with treatment. I remember being amazed that it was quiet again and still sunny, as if nothing had just happened. I don’t remember much about the walk back to my transit stop with my friends except that it was like any other evening in Portland, apart from those of us fleeing the attack. The sun was still out. The streets were still empty and there were still people drinking coffee in Pioneer Square.
It was such a shock that the world was so normal. So unchanged. So quiet. But it was. It has been. It is. I was there. The City of Portland is not in flames, as a matter of fact I did not see one fire, perhaps they came after the tear gas. I saw no destruction of property outside the core block. The skewed reports from the government are attempts to justify their actions. As a matter of fact, in her own unique and quirky way Portland’s empty streets had been made beautiful by those still trying to voice their pain in ways that added to the back drop and emphasized their message. Black Lives Matter. The people who have died matter. Their pain matters. Remembering their names matters. Not repeating the same injustices matters. Showing up matters. They Matter.
So, as I look at this last picture, with my swollen eyes, and my amazing best friend turned body guard, I am acutely aware that I am the lucky one in this tale. I got to walk up the street and get back on the train. I got to be whisked away out of the city and the chaos and the pain. I get to go back to the tranquil life I live at the beach.
Back to my “real” world. Back to my privilege. My only regret as I rode out of town that night was that I didn’t get to look back. I don’t know what happened to those vets and Moms. I don’t know what befell them. I regret not the going but leaving. I am saddened that I have the choice while so many of them must go back to a life filled with the same prejudice that they have always known and I can never fathom.