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Where Portland, Oregon, Stands A Year After Being A Protest Hotspot

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the past year, Portland, Ore., has been making headlines like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tonight marks the hundredth straight day of street protests in Portland, Ore. There were multiple arrests...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: After nightfall, gunshots in the streets...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Starting tonight and all this week, we're taking an in-depth look at the issues plaguing our city. And we ask this question, is Portland over?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like in cities across the country, people took to the streets of Portland after the murder of George Floyd, calling for racial justice and police reform. But unlike in other cities, those protests stretched on for nearly 200 days, with some demonstrations resulting in violence and vandalism.

SUZANNE MCLAIN: Because of the civil unrest, a lot of individuals that would normally come down and eat and shop and enjoy our beautiful city are not coming down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Suzanne McLain is the owner of Pulse Salon and Day Spa in downtown Portland. She says her business has been strained by COVID restrictions, a rise in the number of unhoused people around her business and those protests, which have since died down.

MCLAIN: Although I can get behind people looking for change and equality, the problem was we saw 150 nights of it. Late at night, trying to live and work in an area with smoke, and yelling, and graffiti and fires was difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her salon has been broken into multiple times, most recently last month. And she wants help from a local government that she feels has dropped the ball.

MCLAIN: Do I want to stay? That's the question. And I think that's the question that all of my neighbors have had to make this year. Some of them have decided that they're sticking it out to see what happens. Others have gone. We are at a turning point, and our city leaders need to stand up and do what they need to do to fix this unrest and to bring order back to Portland.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To get more context, I'm joined now by reporter Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting. He's been covering the Portland protests from the start. Good morning.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We heard from a business owner there, and that's, of course, just one viewpoint. But can you give us a sense of what downtown feels like right now for you?

LEVINSON: You know, there are corners of downtown where there's still evidence of protests. A huge fence still wraps around the front of the federal courthouse, and the police headquarters across the street is still boarded up. But this isn't last June or July. It's not even last November. There are still small groups of 20 to 30 anarchists who go out infrequently and vandalize buildings or break windows. But even that seems to have tapered off significantly in the past month or so, especially since the state fully reopened at the end of June.

I think in many ways, Portland is probably like a lot of other cities right now. It's starting to open up again after a brutal year. The pandemic closed everything, and downtown emptied out, but it's changing. Businesses are opening up, the boards are coming off windows, and nightlife is returning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you're saying it's quieter in terms of the protests. Does that mean that the protesters themselves feel like they got what they wanted, that they succeeded?

LEVINSON: A lot of the organizers from last summer, they used that momentum and pushed lawmakers for tangible changes. And in a lot of ways, it paid off. The state legislature just ended their session and passed I think a dozen bills aimed at strengthening police oversight. In Portland, voters passed a new independent police oversight board that looks like it's going to have some real teeth. So there have been some successes, but I haven't spoken to anyone who feels like, OK, you know, mission accomplished.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, he won reelection in November, but he had two opponents running to his left. And together they had more support than he did. And now there's a recall effort underway. So a lot of the protest movement has moved out of the street and into the political arena, but it's still going strong.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there's been other fallout from those protests, right? Because the Portland Police Bureau documented more than 6,000 uses of force during those racial justice protests. And we saw a lot of videos of that force posted online. Have there been any investigations or discipline stemming from any of those incidents?

LEVINSON: The Multnomah County district attorney announced in June that one officer had been indicted for assaulting a protester. There are other cases still being reviewed for possible charges. Immediately following the indictment, the officers who volunteered for the team that did protest and crowd control, they all opted out, and they cited the injuries they've received, hundreds of hours of overtime and poor leadership from police and elected leaders. And there's this tension here that I think we're going to see more of in the coming months because a grand jury said there was enough evidence to charge the officer with assault, but the bureau's own investigation found the officer did not violate directives, and that potentially brings criminal law and police directives into conflict.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go back to the perspective that we heard at the beginning of this segment. You know, our business owner told us her store has been broken into three times in the last year. What are you hearing from other sort of residents and business owners downtown specifically?

LEVINSON: I really - I don't think you can discount the impact of the pandemic. A lot of the unhoused population consolidated downtown because services and resources that had been spread out across the city, they closed and consolidated downtown. And that shined a spotlight on what was already a large unhoused population in the city. OPB just did a series of stories on life downtown. A lot of business owners have said that as vaccination rates increase, customers are returning. Some business owners are frustrated, similar to the woman we just heard from. But many others take a lot of pride in downtown and talked about a commitment to stick around. And there are also a lot of people who live there, and they've kind of bristled at the way downtown Portland has been portrayed this past year. Kat Bernard moved downtown in May of last year right before protests kicked off.

KAT BERNARD: It's been nice for me to actually be able to see with my own eyes what's happening out there versus what I'm hearing from friends who are concerned about my safety. And what I see and what I'm hearing from other people are kind of two different things.

LEVINSON: She says she hasn't had any bad experiences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson. Thank you very much.

LEVINSON: You are very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.