On the face of it, Petunia’s bakery in Portland epitomises everything progressive about the city. Its pies and pastries are wheat-free, look pretty on Instagram and, more importantly, taste delicious.
But take a moment to read the sign on the shop’s window as you enter, and it soon becomes clear that Petunia’s has been drawn into a far darker chapter of the Portland story; one that tells of a city in free fall due to an almost accidental anarchist takeover, where residents have as much to fear staying home as going out and even the most harmless of shops is liable to have its windows smashed in.
The sign is Petunia’s special take on a Portlandian phenomenon that my wife Heather has come to call a “don’t-hurt-me wall” — a now-widespread attempt by local business owners to make anarchists think twice before vandalising their shop or café.
“We are a small, women and locally owned business,” Petunia’s sign pleads. “We are struggling like so many of us in this hard time, and love our community. Please don’t cause us any damage.” Welcome to Portland; the progressive dream that has turned into a nightmare.
When Heather and I moved to the city three years ago, after being spectacularly driven from our jobs at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, there was little to suggest that municipal embrace of anarchy was on the horizon. We considered moving to more than a dozen cities across the US, Canada and Europe — but in the end Portland won. With the city’s proximity to nature and world-class food culture, it seemed to provide the perfect balance. And then suddenly last summer, with the confluence of the George Floyd protests and the Presidential election, Portland came unmoored.
For what it’s worth, Petunia’s “don’t-hurt-me wall” is more explicit than your average Portland business. It has, for example, resisted the urge to simply and loudly proclaim that BLACK LIVES MATTER, presumably because its owners know that Portland is entirely composed of people who already agree with this obvious decree — including the police.
But its attempt to reason with the anarchists — by highlighting how it is a struggling small business, locally owned and run entirely by women — speaks volumes about day-to-day life in my home city, where negotiating with vandals has become an essential skill. Indeed, Portland is full of signs in windows and on lawns pleading with anarchists to move on and hurt someone else. These residents know they cannot depend on the police to either prevent crimes or arrest those who commit them, and who can’t manage to come together and face down a small but violent mob of misanthropes.
The streets of downtown Portland, once a bustling home to independent boutiques, are now lined with boarded-over windows and closed businesses. No neighbourhood is secure from the current wave of terror; the breaking of shop fronts, arson and harassment of sleeping citizens in their homes are all commonplace.
Rioting has occurred like clockwork, and often anarchist “direct actions” are announced in advance, so the police are never taken by surprise. And yet the city’s officers, under the command of our cartoonishly liberal mayor (who is also our police-commissioner), have stood by and — night after night — allowed the city to descend into chaos. Last September, rioters even targeted the Mayor’s own apartment building, breaking in and setting a fire in the lobby. The Mayor’s response? To announce that he was moving out of the building to keep his neighbours safe, a move any competent parent would recognise invites more terror. The anarchists have gained a strange kind of control over the city in their fight against Nazis and white supremacists they appear to have conjured in a quest to give their anger meaning.
America may be being torn apart by the tension between Democrats and Republicans, but that is not what afflicts Portland. The problem in Portland, as in so many the cities along the West Coast, is that the progressives have fully defeated conservatives, and without any opposing political force, their liberalism has become unhinged.
Anarchism has deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, but until 2020 it largely persisted on the fringe — they would blockade the federal ICE facility, or take over an occasional intersection, harass drivers and direct traffic. This, of course, caused them to be regarded by most Portland citizens as an irritant.
But that all changed last summer when, during the Black Lives Matter protests, the city’s anarchists discovered that, so long as they shouted certain slogans, citizens who once grudgingly tolerated them would now cheer them on with gusto. Suddenly, the absurd claim that “All Cops Are Bastards” became a mainstream belief, and “Abolish the Police” went from being a threat to a policy proposal.
Of course, all reasonable people understand that black people have faced oppression in North America since their ancestors were brutally imported as slaves. Liberals can be justly proud of our role in fighting this evil, from abolition to the civil rights movement and beyond. But as the current situation in Portland demonstrates, “the right side of history” has now been ceded by voices of reason on the Left to extremists who deliberately conflate a demand for racial justice with a desire to burn civilisation to the ground.
And this has put those of us who consider ourselves “of the Left” in a dangerous predicament. I am not a gun enthusiast. I never wanted to own guns, but I do — for the same reason I would if I lived in a war zone. The civil authority has abandoned the law-abiding citizens of Portland, and in so doing it has created a new Wild West in which we are each responsible for protecting ourselves from bands of roving bandits.
Sometimes, their threat is purely symbolic, as when they topple public monuments. In these situations, the city responds by helpfully removing the offending statue. But in other cases, these habitual rioters attempt to exert power, both directly and indirectly, over their fellow citizens. Graffiti in downtown Portland calls for the killing of local journalist, Andy Ngo, who continues to report on Antifa violence regardless. Having failed to intimidate Ngo, the rioters succeeded in shutting down Powell’s Books for several days when Ngo’s book went on sale.
Knowing the store would not be protected by police, Powell’s had already decided the book would only be sold online. Yet the unsatisfied rioters forced Powell’s to suspend operation, and the city for its part offered no defence of free speech, or of a free press, or of Portland’s iconic bookstore or of Andy Ngo, a citizen of Portland being openly threatened with murder. The city has also allowed rioters to march freely through residential neighbourhoods, where they intimidate sleeping residents by chanting “wake up, motherfucker, wake up”, shine spotlights into people’s windows and harass anyone who comes out to face them.
So long as rioters claim to fight for the oppressed, they appear to have carte blanche. If they decide they don’t like this article, if they come to my house to menace my family as they have done to Andy Ngo, Mayor Wheeler and countless anonymous citizens of Portland, will the police intercede? I honestly don’t know.
The truth is, I rarely see any evidence of even basic law enforcement here in Portland. The police are extremely slow to respond to emergency calls. The citizens and businesses have, over the last year, been left to fend for themselves against criminals thinly cloaked in progressive slogans. And given the way the Mayor and City Council have undercut the police and allowed them to be demonised by the anarchists, it is easy to understand their reluctance — they are doing a difficult job, under a microscope, where only their mistakes count.
And this is the great tragedy of Portland. As people flee New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, Portland has everything it needs to pick up the slack and be the next booming metropolis — everything, that is, except the political will to resist following those once great cities into a self-inflicted, depressive spiral.
Instead of capitalising on those cities’s errors, Portland is making them too, and in even more spectacular form. The combination of runaway taxes and a municipal authority that sides with criminals, against working people, is sealing the city’s fate. And the needless, coming collapse will fall disproportionately on the most precariously positioned.
Portland, ultimately, is a great city headed in the wrong direction. As Heather and I watch it fall to pieces, we can’t help but feel we have seen this happen before. Portland’s meltdown is, after all, eerily similar to the collapse of Evergreen. A city’s hapless mayor hamstringing the police at the behest of a woke mob that claims to see racists around every corner; it’s uncannily similar to what we saw in 2017.
And the result will be the same, albeit at much greater scale, with much higher stakes. Once again we are left with the question: Can anything be done? And once again, I fear that the answer is no.