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Reflections on Portland

by Commissioner Sharon Meieran
August 10, 2020

This interview with The Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran was conducted and condensed by franknews.

frank | As an emergency room doctor, community health advocate, and a Counry Commissioner, I am curious how you see your roles intersect at this moment? 

Sharon Meieran | That is a particularly complex starting point. To be honest, I've been really trying to sort out that trifecta. It has been extremely difficult as a human to process the confluence of these crises, the different roles that I play, and the identities that I have.

I do really see this moment as the confluence of two separate pandemics. The first obviously being the global pandemic of the Coronavirus. The second is the pandemic, rather the public health crisis, of racism. Those two have come together in shocking ways, and it needs to be addressed in a much more complicated way.

How does it feel to be in Portland right now? 

Portland has a long and proud history of peaceful protest and community engagement. This has been a historic moment of self-examination around racial justice across the country and the world. And in Portland, we have been having the necessary conversations on a community engagement level, on a local political level, and on a person to person level. Thousands of people were having these important conversations, by and large peacefully - we were an epicenter of a kind of community engagement and peaceful protest. I believe the Trump administration wanted to quash that, at least that is what it feels like on the ground. 

He came in with federal agents, maybe hoping Americans would look the other way after the horrific response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that is not what happened.

The presence of federal agents on the streets of Portland at our federal courthouse reinvigorated our natural inclination to protest, to assemble, and to exercise our first amendment rights.

Why Portland? Do you know why it started there? 

Well, that's the question everyone has been asking themselves. I don't know the answer, but it feels very political.

Oregon is not a state, to be honest, that matters to the federal administration. It is not going to play a pivotal role in any presidential election.

It is a place for them to make a stand in some ways. 

And as somebody who's elected on a local level, what are you trying to do? What can you do?

It was hard as an elected official to get any information initially about who the federal troops were that were coming in and what the real purpose was. All we can do is try to respond and support our residents and fight back in the ways available to us. For example, our attorney general has filed suit. At a local level, Multnomah County has thought about banning the use of tear gas as the local public health authority. It's still not clear if we can do this, but we're looking at the local ways that we can fight back against the federal government. To be honest, those are limited.

You were personally teargassed recently, right? What was that experience like?

Extremely painful and really unpleasant. It was traumatic. It was scary. There was chaos. I was with a group of women just standing in front of the federal building, and sort of milling about around the area. There was literally nothing happening at the time. Then, a group of what we later learned to be federal troops came out and threw down canisters of tear gas. Initially, I was not affected, I ran down the street, but I came back to see what was happening, and see if I could potentially help in some ways as an ER doctor. I thought that I was at the periphery of the tear gas, but I wasn't. I first started feeling irritation in the eyes and then really in a split second, just searing, severe pain in my eyes, mouth, throat, and face. It was difficult to swallow and it was scary to take a breath.

It seems particularly cruel to use a gas-based weapon in the middle of a respiratory pandemic. 

You're exactly right. I could not have said that better.

It is particularly frightening that they are using this gas that affects the respiratory system in the face of this respiratory pandemic.

The indiscriminate use against hundreds, if not thousands of people, many of whom are elderly and who have underlying respiratory conditions, is unconscionable.

As a doctor, how are you understanding the confluence of these two crises and the contradictory prescription for each of them? 

It's really challenging. You don't have to be a healthcare provider to know that mass gatherings are places where there can be increased transmission of the Coronavirus. We do things to mitigate the transmission such as masking, and trying to keep physical distance, which is impossible in the kind of protest situation that we're seeing. Being outdoors does help some. I've been to a number of the protests now, and by and large, virtually everyone is wearing a mask and is highly aware and doing their best to distance themselves. It is hard to determine if there has been any additional uptake in transmission from the protests. 

But the problem is that, again, it is a confluence really of the two pandemics. We know that the response to COVID should be to mitigate risk. And similarly, when George Floyd was murdered, the appropriate response was outrage and protest. That's an appropriate response to a different public health pandemic, one of structural racism, but we need to respond to both crises at the same time. We need to do whatever we can to mitigate the impact of a protest being a mass gathering.

Do you feel like there is anything missing in the coverage of Portland you're seeing nationally? Is it an accurate assessment of the city right now?

I think that what is being portrayed is very small, maybe a two square block area of downtown Portland, between the hours of 10:00 PM and 3:00 AM.

The city itself right now is safe. The portrayal that I've seen on the media and by the Trump administration is entirely inaccurate.

I think that is lost in the conversation.

Where does Portland go from here? 

I honestly don't know. One thing I appreciate has been the effort to bring back the focus to what prompted the protests in the first place. This is now, I think, the 60th day of protest. This is about racial injustice, the violence perpetrated by police against people of color, particularly Black men. This is what we have been protesting for, and that focus I feel was lost somewhat, with the seeming occupation of these federal troops. I believe, led by the Black Lives Matter movement and other Black leaders in the community, that we can bring back the focus to the issues that originally sparked the peaceful protest.

Is there any sign of the federal occupation leaving? 

I have not seen any indication of that, which also is very scary. I think that that's part of that challenge of sorting through the confluence of so many elements. For example, if the endpoint for one aspect of protest is federal agents disarming and leaving the city, I don't see that happening any time soon, because I don't think that they feel any incentive to leave. There are so many different goals and purposes mixed in protest right now that we can't rely on any one thing happening to diffuse the larger picture of protest. What we need to do, I believe, is highlight the change that we want to see in the Black Lives Matter movement, and separate that out. Highlight a peaceful way of protesting against the federal occupation in Portland, and separate that and address that. If these issues are dealt with separately, they wouldn't be all conflated into this one giant protest, which I think only serves to divide.

[Shortly after this interview, there was an announcement, without any warning and without engagement of local government, that Governor Brown and the Trump administration had reached an agreement about federal troops leaving. I was as surprised as anyone, and am hopeful this will result in the de-escalation of the violence incited by the presence of the federal officers. I also hope this failure and escalation of violence will prevent the Trump administration from deploying federal agents to other communities. However, I understand federal officers are still present in Portland, and it is difficult to get any specific information on this.]

It certainly ends up distracting from the initial asks. I think part of it is that it is just shocking to see federal troops firing weapons at its own citizens. 

It is shocking to be really upfront in that and watch fireworks being thrown at the federal building, hear the fence being torn down, and the plumes of tear gas overtaking all of that – it is all really shocking.

Probably not something you expected to see this year.

There are so many things this year that I just didn't expect to see.

To hear friends of mine say, "Yeah, I don't think I'm going to be staying for the tear gas tonight." Who'd have thought that phrase would be uttered?

It is crazy. It makes me wonder where the bottom is in all of the chaos. And whether that chaos is intentional from the top-down.

It's extremely stressful. Even if on a day to day basis, the vast majority of Portland is very peaceful, and we're not actually living in a war or riot zone, those questions and that stress is pervasive.

Has this stretched your imagination of what's possible on a civic level? 

I think one of the benefits of this happening in Portland is the degree of engagement and pushback against the federal government being here. I'm not sure there is a limit to that pushback in this particular region.

I feel like Portland's response can serve as a model for other cities to fight back and to protest if this continues.

Hopefully, there will be a similar level of pushback if this spreads to other cities. Hopefully, the federal occupying force coming in won't be perceived as normal, and instead, people stand up and exercise their voices to say no, not here.