When White People Say They Have My Back, What Does That Actually Mean?
It was in a place of mourning that we Portlanders learned an all-star line-up of the worst White America has to offer would soon decamp in our mild-mannered city. The new knowledge promised to transform the pain into something more useful. But what? All anyone knew is that the need for remedy was strong.
Roughly 1,000 of us, more brown and foreign-born than normal for this town, were expressing our collective sorrow, candles in our hands and hurt in our eyes, on the green, grand yard outside Hollywood Station on Saturday, May 27. We mostly stood a strong stone’s throw from where a worst-case scenario white male, Jeremy Joseph Christian, had stabbed three differently iconic American white males the day before. Christian killed a 53-year-old veteran, Ricky Best, and a crunchy Ashland scholar, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23; he also severely wounded 21-year-old Micah David-Cole Fletcher. All of this for the crime of defending two young, nonwhite women—including one who wore a hijab—from Christian’s torrent of hate. They defended their fellow Oregonians on the car of a Tri-Met light rail train.
Portland is arguably the most transit-friendly town in the West, and the Tri-Met attracts all manner of resident, car culture be damned. The low-wage workers who serve up the city for Portland’s demographic desirables share space on the same train with early adopters, and we all commiserate in huddling from the rain. On the Tri-Met’s rails, the whitest big city in the United States is briefly peppered a darker shade of pale.
This freely mingled ridership distilled a profound cross section into the vigil: the bantam-like black basketball coach in a backpack, the horrified white grandma from Beaverton. Sitting in the center, amid a tableau of tears and flowers, were Fletcher’s mother and a couple of brown women wearing hijabs. White Oregonians all about them were finally grasping the problem—a knot that could not be undone by the “Black Lives Matter” signs looking out from neighborhood windows and lawns. They were owning their reality, and to watch the ownership play out on this lawn provided a vaguely pornographic pain.
The mourning swelled, and just when it felt the wave would peak, we learned they were coming.
A blond member of Namkai-Meche’s family had been weeping to the very edge of complete breakdown when another vigil attendee announced on a microphone the forthcoming racist infusion: “A Patriot Prayer Portland Trump Rally,” she read from her phone. Much like a recent alt-right getdown in enlightened Berkeley, the event scheduled for the next Sunday, June 4, was billed as a celebration of “free speech.” The line-up promised appearances by the Northwest’s biggest names in white supremacy. “Thor Odinson,” the so-called mystical racist, and “Based Stickman,” a heavy on the Berkeley protest battle scene, were both expected. Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, a libertarian-turned-far-right troll and Milo Yiannopoulos sidekick, was set to speak.
In the pre-dusk silence, a collective stiffening coursed through the vigil. Though progressive transplants from California and the East have cemented Portland’s liberal identity, Oregonians walk among us whose parents were Ku Klux Klan members. Speaker upon speaker addressed the need to address the meaning of our state’s uniquely racist past in their lives. As they spoke, the mother of Namkai-Meche held out a photo of her bearded, glee-filled son. A murmur circulated around the crowd of Namkai-Meche’s reported last words: Tell everyone on the train I love them.
It was at this moment that the mourners, this newly reconstituted “we,” suddenly browned to its soul, went full-and-final solidarity.
“People of color?” the white folks said again and again, “We have your back!”
This made a lot of white people applaud. Nodding and the whole nine. A significant number of PoC’s put their hands together, too.
But every time one of these Portland people said they had my back I thought, Really? What does that look like?
People don’t talk enough about the Northwest Imperative. Decades before Portlandia popularized the image of a progressive white utopia, white-nationalist groups set their sights on the region. In the 1980s, racists were encouraged to move to a five-state region in the upper left-hand corner of America, for the purpose of forming an Aryan Homeland. With its long history of black-exclusion laws, de facto slavery, and freely cavorting Klansman, Oregon has long been viewed as a white-power vector.
Lately, that past has been leaking back into the present. There’s been a groundswell of race warring in the Northwest neck of the woods, blowing rangily from the long, hot squall of last year’s election. There was a racially motivated stabbing in Olympia, Washington, last August and, a month later, a murder in Portland’s poor neighbor, Gresham; there, a white couple mowed down a black teenager outside a 7-Eleven because of his skin color. Swastikas and Nazi stickers began popping up on walls. And though we didn’t know it at the time, another enraged white man would in the days after the vigil pummel a TriMet driver, screaming for his free-speech rights.
It felt like winter was coming, in June.
As I gamed the risks associated with the influx, I figured public transit wouldn’t be my problem. Nobody tries me on the train. Although 51, I am a 200-pound black guy with dreadlocks who’s in halfway decent shape. It’s hard to imagine that the average Portland racist would want a problem with someone like me in a confined space, not when there are so many elderly, infirm, and developing women to target.
On the open street, though? The ones I walk all of the time? In the weeks and months after Hillary Clinton conceded, white men repeatedly got in my face. And in some of my friends’ faces. What’s more, in rural Oregon, a super-specific anti-black—or is it pro-white?—aggression has been real enough to register as heat on my face: The big guy in Bend who looked at me with a ferocity unlike anything I’ve previously seen or felt, the coastal-town government official who shot something similar my way—less murderous, differently disconcerting—and then went on to ratfuck my reporting.
During that vigil, it felt inappropriate to ask. But eight days later
, I walked downtown to see whether these Trump chauvinists were capable of pulling a downtown crowd in broad daylight. Nagging me along the way remained the question, What would Portland having my back look like?
ecause staying prepped-to-fight drunk racists in the street is now part of my life-job description, the pre-rally plan on June 4 had been to hit the gym, one block away from the site of the 2 pm protest. But a sign taped to its door on that Sunday morning alerted customers that my 24-7 fitness joint was being closed “for safety reasons.” Looking away, I got that: A few red “Make America Great Again” caps bobbed into view.
Few shops were open and I had time to kill, so I made my way to a certainty: McDonald’s.
I approached, walking with my hands on my hips, frustrated from workout denial. A white guy in whitewashed Washington Redskins gear at the Mickey D’s doorway made eye contact. His outfit struck me as a white-genocide dog whistle, à la 88, the secret skinhead code for “Heil Hitler” (the first letter in both words, “H,” being the eighth letter of the alphabet). The skin sorta wiggled, perhaps surprised to see someone like me out in chilly racial weather like this.
A young black cat lined up for bad food found my eyes the moment I passed through the doors of McDonald’s. Dude’s eyes widened with alertness, which turned to panic. What is he doing here? And his panic brought out the panic in me. What is he doing here? Suddenly, the man gave up his place in line and rushed out past me. It’s fully possible that he forgot to bring his wallet, or felt that a critical mass for Negritude in this Portland spot on this Portland day might have been exceeded with my arrival. My gut, though, said he was out there comparing notes with the ’skins fan, and might get me.
Chewing on fries in the corner, I pondered how weirdly off white the alt-right sampling in Oregon has been. Joey Gibson, the pro-Trump rally organizer, is nobody’s idea of a WASP. Hillsboro’s Raul Gonzalez wears SS bars on a flight jacket. The aforementioned “Baked Alaska” was, for what it’s worth, once a rapper.
Halfway through my 2-for-1 special, an antifa friend texted that he’d just been harassed by one of America’s Next Top Racists, one of the big names in Northwest white supremacy, and requested my backing. I tossed the dregs and left the restaurant. My mantra involved preparing as though getting called a nigger might not be the most negative thing that might happen this afternoon.
Even before the scheduled 2 pm start of the pro-Trump rally, crowds had flooded three parks. Profanities, antagonizing signs, and decibels flew in all directions. Local legend of white supremacy “Thor Odinson” loudly blasted his motorcycle around Chapman Square, doing his best MAGA threat display for the antifascists gathering nearby. The alt-right and Portland antifa had a hangover beef from a recent brawl, instigated by “out-of-town elements,” according to a spokesman for Portland’s mayor. The increasingly active “antifa” movement has a long tradition of confronting thuggery—or, as a New York antifa group described it, of “revulsion at racists, sexists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes, with the international anti-fascist culture of taking the streets and physically confronting the brownshirts of white supremacy, whoever they may be.”
Weaving between the two parks and City Hall, I saw that the counter-protesters numbered in the thousands. Two hundred people ended up rallying for Trump—flying the Confederate flag, calling Black Lives Matter racist—in the park to the southeast of City Hall. Portland’s mayor had unsuccessfully tried to halt it. Instead, Portland officials hosted a huge, sanctioned event that spilled out into the street and was gently ringed by cops. That protest had musicians and speakers and a healing energy.
A cluster of the pro-humanity protesters adjacent to City Hall took notice of a bony older white woman, perhaps 70. She wept with such intensity that a young woman felt she had to intervene. When the stranger asked if the older woman needed help, she shook her head, stopped her tears and wailed, “It’s just that I can’t believe we’ve finally woken up!”
To the northeast of the far right were the antifascists, and they were rowdy as fuck. Far more anarchic—and Caucasian—than the City Hall set, antifa leaders pushed the cops, verbally and physically. I ended up spending most of the dust-up with them, but moved about enough to see that Homeland Security and ICE officers were ringing the Trump crowd, among a range of cartoonishly militarized local law enforcement. An uneasy peace was kept, but I moved away from the fray at the first flash-bang explosion and cannot provide concrete reportage.
How strange to have flurries of open racists falling upon your town. How thrilling to see action, not signs. Perhaps every community should weather such a storm, to bring forth truth.
Before I left the City Hall rally opposition line I’d run into Malcolm, a colleague and friend and one of a very small number of black males on hand who could fail the “Brown Paper Bag Test” (a distinctly American complexion-based valuation). Malcolm said something that brought me back to white people watching out for me, and I thought about the brave martyrs from Hollywood Station.
“I support these white people in their struggle,” he told me. “It’s not my cousins out there doing this stuff. I support their efforts to talk to their cousins.”
A white dude in front of us—50-something, bearded—heard what Malcolm said and jerked around. He put out his hand for a high five and said, “That’s why I’m here!”
He was getting fortified for the fight. And maybe that’s as effective as this “having my back” deal is going to get. White Oregon—and, by extension, America—can’t practically prevent me from getting snatched when I’m out alone in the wild, say tubing down the Clackamas River. But they’ll work to wean their aunties off Fox News. And maybe help me hold off one more month from buying a gun.
Donnell Alexander contributes to KCRW and Rolling Stone, among other media outlets. He is the author of Ghetto Celebrity: Searching for My Father in Me.