September 3, 2020
Dear friends and neighbors,
This weekend’s shooting was tragic. I feel sorrow for the victim’s family and friends, and concern about the safety of people out on the streets.
One doesn’t get into politics without a sense of optimism that we can change things for the better, and I absolutely believe that to be true. I also recognize that it took centuries for us to arrive at this moment in time -- centuries of pain and oppression -- and so we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while to move forward, and that movement forward is, also, painful.
I’ll have more to say about this later, but I’ll begin with a COVID update.
Some recent developments on housing protections: this week, the Governor extended the state-wide foreclosure moratorium for business and individual property owners till December 31st. This is good news; but it does not protect the far larger group of renters at risk of eviction when the eviction moratorium ends on September 30. I understand that the state continues to work on this. The CDC has also just this week issued an eviction ban through December 31st. The CDC ban has more hurdles for renters to jump through than does the state ban, so it does not obviate the need for state action. And, of course, none of these moratoria deal with the profound problem that once they end, people will have to pay accrued rent -- and won't have the means to do so. Congressional action on rent relief is urgently needed.
At the county level, some good news: the Governor took Multnomah County off the watchlist last week. This means that we are no longer in imminent danger of sliding back to “baseline” -- i.e. closing back up. As the chart below shows, case counts and positivity rates have declined since a peak during the week of July 12, and they have more or less plateaued at that lower rate in August.
Labor Day is approaching, however. We saw significant spikes after Memorial Day and Independence Day, with evidence that these spikes arose from large family and friend gatherings. Please bear this in mind as you plan your Labor Day weekend. Our Public Health department urges that you commit to one or two of these safety measures:
- A virtual gathering
- An entirely outside gathering - still 6 foot distancing
- Add a fan outdoors
- Mask when you go inside anywhere, even just to use a bathroom
- Plan ahead about how you’re going to talk to your friends about putting on a mask
And with the approach of Labor Day, many of you have started your virtual school year. I know it's challenging, but hope your kiddos got off to a relatively smooth start. The state criteria for reopening schools for in-person learning are (1) a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent in the last 7 days, for three consecutive weeks; and (2) fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 in the last 7 days, for the same period (the standard for K-3 reopening is 30 cases per 100,000). We are meeting the positivity rate criteria, with an average of 3.0 per week; but our case rate, hovering between 30 and 40 per 100,000, means we have some distance to go. In the meantime, the County has developed this resource page for families with school aged children.
Black Lives Matter Protests, and Right-Wing Response
We have now seen right-wing supporters entering our city for two weekends in a row. They have openly carried and brandished guns, bats, and metal rods, and have used mace and shot paintballs at people. Like the president they serve, they have clearly been intent on provoking a response. Conflict was predictable. We need a much clearer explanation of police planning and preparation for these events. The disparity between police response during these events and during nightly protests is stark, and must be addressed. And, given the likelihood that these agitators will return, we need a plan for when they do.
Violence is unacceptable no matter who commits it -- right-wing protesters, people on the streets during our nightly BLM protests, or the police. All should be held accountable.
I don’t minimize dangerous behavior by protesters or people on the streets during protests, and I support our new District Attorney, Mike Schmidt, in his statement that he will prosecute crimes of personal violence or serious property damage, such as arson. But addressing police violence is even more important. Police violence is government-sponsored, and government misuse of force is the most dangerous to our community and our democracy. And it simply doesn't work: as the past months of protest have shown, we will not tear gas, pepper spray, or baton our way forward. (See this article for some interesting observations on protest management by Mike German, a former FBI agent and current fellow at the Brennan Center.)
Until we show that we are taking police accountability seriously, one of the reasons for the protests continues. (Those reasons are much broader, and the protests have broader aims -- substantive reallocation of resources from enforcement and punishment to preventive social services, for example -- but police accountability sparked the protests and continues to be a central demand.) They may peter out over time as people get exhausted, or because the current volatility will scare folks into staying home, but that will be a tenuous peace.
I have told both Mayor Wheeler and Chief Lovell that I believe a clear acknowledgment of police accountability is a necessary predicate for a path forward. This includes acknowledgment of systemic racism in policing, historic and current; acknowledgment that for too long, the police have blocked reform; and acknowledgment that the response to the current protests has been disproportionate and violent. It’s not enough to acknowledge that there have been “some” instances of disproportionate response which will be dealt with in due course through regular channels. This isn’t about individual behavior, it’s about systemic behavior; and those regular channels have never before provided accountability. Such acknowledgment is far from all that's required, but it is necessary.
I’m proud of the way Portlanders have rallied behind Black lives and racial justice. These are our values. To the protesters out there peacefully fighting for these values -- thank you. Keep focused, be strategic, and stay safe. If these white supremacists return, don’t give them the oxygen they seek. Support Black lives by volunteering for or donating to a Black-led organization, or building community in your neighborhood. Bullies thrive on attention. Let’s not give it to them.
Reimagining Public Safety
Meanwhile, the County continues its own work on reimagining our public safety system. I’ll provide a more comprehensive look at this work in a later newsletter. For today, I’ll focus on the Reimagine Oregon Project -- an ambitious agenda for change being led by Black community members, in collaboration with elected leaders from all parts of government. You can see the complete agenda on the project’s website. The County has committed to several initiatives, one of which, the Oregon CARES Fund for Black Relief and Resiliency, was passed by the Emergency Board of the legislature in July, and just opened for applications last week. This is an important and exciting initiative, and I’m thrilled to see it come to fruition.
My personal commitments as part of the Reimagine Oregon Project include working to embed restorative justice practices in our schools, as a way to prevent disproportionate discipline of Black and brown children; and supporting a Black-led effort to develop community alternatives for public safety.
The Reimagine Oregon Project is actively looking for community feedback on agenda priorities, particularly from Black Oregonians: you can take their survey here.
Layoffs are always difficult, and they are particularly difficult in this COVID-impacted economic environment. I appreciate all the public comments I’ve received on the library layoffs announced earlier this summer.
The library has been affected by COVID just as have other agencies and organizations. In particular, physical distancing requirements have affected the kinds of services the library can deliver, and how they are delivered. The pandemic has also created a need for services the library did not previously provide, such as workforce development, help with applying for benefits, and support for home-based learning for kids. For the duration of the pandemic, which is no longer a short-term phenomenon, the library is going to have to substantially change what we do and how we do it.
This means that jobs will have to shift as well. When the layoffs were announced, 122 positions were slated to be cut. The good news is that as of yesterday, all but 26 have either been placed in new or different positions within the library system, or have accepted voluntary retirement or layoff; and the remaining 26 will be placed in positions elsewhere in the County.
I know this has been very difficult for all library staff, and for patrons who have grown close to the staff at their neighborhood branch and don’t want to see them moved elsewhere. I appreciate all the ideas that staff have provided, and appreciate AFSCME Local 88 and library leadership working together to do everything possible to minimize the impact of these changes.
Multnomah County is seeking feedback on Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project; you can participate here to learn more about the project and share your thoughts.
Wishing you a safe, healthy, and peaceful Labor Day weekend.