With 10 days to go before the general election, a coalition of Portland activists had a plan: On a sunny Sunday afternoon, they’d walk through one of the city’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods with a simple message: Black lives matter.
On October 25, about a hundred people, summoned by the group Moms United for Black Lives, gathered before noon at Rossman Park in Lake Oswego, a section of the embattled city that is 86 percent white and boasts a median income of $100,000. The march, billed as an effort to “make White racist people uncomfortable,” was scheduled to kick off at noon. When the group made its way out of the park, snaking its way through downtown Lake Oswego and its residential sections, the procession was led by drummers. People chanted “Black is beautiful!” and “Black lives matter” to the beat that filled the streets.
“President Trump has got to go” pic.twitter.com/8u8DIKDEcq— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) October 25, 2020
But the threat of conflict loomed. News of the scheduled march traveled through the neighborhood. Lake Oswego police in riot gear stood by as the group marched past. A few members of the white nationalist group the Proud Boys assembled to watch, with one man holding up a middle finger and saying “fuck you” to the passing crowd. QAnon supporters also looked on, and along a commercial strip the marchers encountered Trump supporters waving MAGA and “God, Guns & Trump” flags.
This scene might be read as tension heating up between “both sides” days before the election. But for Demetria Hester, a Black mom and grandma who has been a leading organizer in Portland, that is not the case. No one in her group is holding a Biden-Harris sign. This isn’t a march to the polls. This is about what it has always been about: calling attention to the plight of Black Americans in the places that need to hear about it most.
Specifically, on this day, the 150th day of nonstop protests in Portland, it was about bringing demonstrations to a neighborhood historically known as “Lake No Negro,” where residents likely haven’t reckoned with their complicity.
“They think about property more than they think about Black Lives Matter,” Hester told Vox, adding that police from various towns rode in on motorbikes because they were concerned that the group was going to riot and burn things down.
Hester’s energy is mirrored by Black Lives Matter activists across the country whose plans to demand change will not be swayed by a country otherwise focused on the election or its results. For activists in cities like Louisville, where the Breonna Taylor case has left an indelible mark, and Philadelphia, where the recent police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. has reinvigorated protests in the city, their plans to organize just before, during, and well after Election Day carry the same demands as they did on day one of the protests that swept the nation in late May.
“Regardless of who is in the White House in January, Black folks are going to be louder than we’ve ever been; Black folks are going to run for office in numbers that are larger than we have ever done before; Black people are going to be working on advocacy and public policy way more than we’ve ever done before,” Kentucky state Rep. Attica Scott told me. “And we’re turning all of these systems and structures on their head. We’re very clear about structural racism and the fact that we are not going to keep living with the foot of injustice on our necks.”
No matter who’s president, the demands will mostly stay the same as protest calls grow stronger
To be clear, getting people out to vote has been a priority for many organizers like Hester, who voted early and encouraged others to do so. On November 1, Rev. Gregory Drumwright organized a march to the polls in Graham, North Carolina, that ended when police pepper-sprayed organizers.
But the call to vote — and especially the call to vote Trump out — has always been accompanied by a louder call to keep protesting in order to change public opinion for the long term.
Activists say their demands will not change in the wake of the election and that the calls for them will only get louder. For Hester, whoever wins will show people “the real way America works.” If Trump loses, Hester said, we’ll see how America handles him should he not concede and try to remain in the White House. If Biden makes his way in, protests must still continue to “tear it down and make it so that everybody is equal,” Hester said.
For a Biden-Harris administration, Hester’s demand would be that it first immediately accept accountability for the harm they’ve already caused the Black community through Biden’s legendary crime bill, a 1994 law that critics say largely contributed to the mass incarceration of Black and brown people. “Let those brothers and sisters out. Period. Help them get on their feet and heal from what they’ve been put through. Give them a fresh start and benefits. Pay for their food,” Hester said.
Hester, like many Black Lives Matter organizers around the country, also emphasized that defunding the police remains core to her mission. “They’re only terrorizing our neighborhoods and we’ve found other ways to help our community heal from this travesty,” she said.
In Louisville, where activists have called for a series of changes following the police killing of 26-year-old Taylor in her own home — from the resignation of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to the arrest of the police officers who shot Taylor — defunding is also a key demand.
The Louisville Urban League has created a plan titled “A Path Forward for Louisville,’’ which details the steps they believe the mayor and the Louisville Metro Council must take to bolster equity in the city. The plan includes direct steps for divesting from the Louisville Police Department and sending resources to first responders who would be better equipped to answer mental health crisis calls. The plan also calls for the creation of a $50 million Black community fund to address systemic racism.
Sadiqa Reynolds, president of Louisville’s Urban League, said the protests that kicked off in Taylor’s name in June were significant for raising awareness, forcing people to pay attention and creating a level of disruption. The next level of disruption in Louisville will be about getting electing officials to make decisions that are in line with activist’s demands when it comes to affordable housing, homelessness, the achievement gap, job training, and more.
“This movement is certainly about police brutality, but it’s also about the fact that we have some protesters who can easily sleep outside because that’s where they’d be sleeping no matter what, for instance,” Reynolds told me, referring to how those still out protesting are often the most marginalized, including the poor and homeless.
Scott, the state’s only Black female legislator, is also a longtime activist and has been vital in trying to see these demands through. Louisville police arrested her in September during the protests that erupted after Attorney General Cameron announced that no officers would be directly charged in the death of Taylor. Scott led the state’s movement to ban no-knock warrants following Taylor’s death and feels even more empowered to challenge the police department and the overall system that allowed Taylor to be shot in her own home. The election won’t exactly sway her direction on change.
In the Taylor case, Scott says there are steps that activists are still calling for immediately — from appointing a new special prosecutor since the FBI is still leading an investigation, to getting Breonna’s Law, the ordinance that banned no-knock warrants in Louisville, passed at the state level, to having Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fire the other two officers who shot into Taylor’s apartment and killed her. Scott says her team is already looking ahead to 2022 when they’re going to have “a lot of electoral work to do” since some judicial seats will be up for election, including that of Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Mary Shaw, who signed off on the “death warrants” that killed Taylor.
“No matter what, people are going to continue to show up for racial justice. People are going to continue to speak out for justice for Taylor, her family, and her community,” Scott told Vox. “We know that protest and policy go hand in hand, so we have to make sure that we’re doing the work.”
Scott recounted the first night she took to the streets, on May 29, and how it embodied the reason activists will continue to do so. “The protests were beautiful,” Scott told me, with protesters marching around the police department, leading chants, lying on the ground, and putting their hands up in solidarity. But things quickly changed when the sun went down and police showed up in riot gear and tear-gassed the crowd. “I literally had to take my face mask off of my nose and mouth and put it over my eyes since they were burning,” Scott said. She brought her teenage daughter to that first march and was separated from her for about eight minutes as people frantically ran around blindly and the police attacked them. And yet, “We’ve been out since then,” Scott said, “and we can’t slow down now.”
Reynolds agrees. “We have to continue to raise our voices to get the change that we need in this country. We can’t say that everything is fine just because the leader of one office changes, just like we can’t pretend that everything was perfect when Obama was president. It wasn’t,” Reynolds said. “We haven’t had a perfect union in the United States of America. We’ve now just been awakened in ways that we haven’t been in a long time.”
The movement has already fostered a new level of community and mobilization that will continue to grow after Election Day
This year, more people than at any other time in the nation’s history said they believed that racism and police brutality are problems that America needs to tackle. Other polls revealed that there was support for moving resources away from police to other community services, like education and health care. Though a recent Pew report found that support for Black Lives Matter has slipped from where it was in June, the report also found that support for the movement remains strong among Black people.
This drive within the Black community to dismantle harmful systems may bring more Democratic support to the polls on Election Day. But the goal is to keep people activated around the movement, even if Biden is in office.
In Philadelphia, protests broke out last week after Walter Wallace Jr. was gunned down by police while experiencing a mental break. After several evenings of unrest, the Wallace family decided on Friday with the city to not release body camera footage of the killing until the day after the general election. “Philadelphians are experiencing an immense amount of pain, and significant unrest persists throughout the entire city,” they said in a statement. “The collective hope of our local government and the Wallace family is that releasing the recordings on November 4 will provide enough time to calm tensions and for the recordings to be released in the most constructive manner possible.”
But Philadelphia activists say the tension will remain, particularly after the election, since Black residents will continue to be targeted by police and other racist institutions.
“BIPOC folx have made it clear that this election’s presidential candidates are not ideal choices,” a spokesperson for the Black and Brown Coalition of PHL told Vox. “Voting for a new president also doesn’t disrupt manifestations of white supremacy such as police violence. It doesn’t stop people from being racist, and it doesn’t completely ensure that there will be policy protections for Black Indigenous QTPOC.”
Activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a co-founder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative in Philadelphia, says the movement this year has so far created a collective demand that has helped people see “we don’t need the cops.” “Many of us now understand that there can be a future where we don’t keep investing in the same structures. People are considering a world that police aren’t in,” Muhammad told me.
For Hester, this future is already happening. The continued protests and growth of the movement has allowed the team to build a strong mutual aid network to support some of Portland’s most vulnerable. Moms United for Black Lives has split members up into committees based on what they’re able to contribute. The community group organizes baskets and care packages with food for locals in need, while the reparations team connects Black community members with people who can offer property to rent, help them buy homes, and help them improve their credit scores. Other committees include the kid’s team — moms organizing to educate children and build community connections in the younger generation — and the protest and evacuation teams, the people willing to go out every night for protests or provide supplies and a place to sleep for those in emergency situations.
“Our community remains traumatized by the events that took place this summer and by what’s been going on for generations,” Hester says, referring to protesters who were arrested, detained, and brutalized by federal agents in Portland. “We are going to need a lot of healing, community, security, and unity.”
While the presidential election matters — Hester voted early in Portland and is joining up with East Coast Moms United chapters for rallies on Election Day in DC — she says local elections now matter even more. One immediate relief the group is pushing for is for the election of longtime Portland activist and founder of the nonprofit Don’t Shoot PDX Teressa Raiford as mayor, whom the moms have been writing in on the ballot. “She is the change,” Hester said.