We Shall Overcome: A message from leaders of Portland Jobs With Justice

By Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod and Will Layng
(This article was originally published on 7/28/20 on the national JwJ website)

Every day and night over the last two months, Portland, Oregon– our city and home–has seen mass protests against police brutality in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The protests involve Portlanders from all over the city, taking place at schools, courthouses, parks, and in the streets. It’s an uprising that threatens to sweep out the racist policing that has brutalized our community for decades.

The eyes of the nation and the world turned to our city and the uprising on July 16 when video emerged of camouflaged U.S. Marshals, attached to the Department of Homeland Security, abducting protesters and attacking demonstrators outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.

On Monday, July 20, thousands of demonstrators gathered downtown to protest federal and local police attacks on non-violent protesters, including blocs of moms and dads who joined the uprising to support Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland Jobs With Justice- allied civil rights group who has helped lead the uprising in the streets. Thousands lifted flashlights into the air and sang the historic movement song “We Shall Overcome” in an uplifting moment of solidarity.  Soon after they were tear gassed by a mix of federal and local police. Undeterred, they returned the next night and each night since.

Deep In My Heart

Oregon became a state in 1859 and joined the Civil War on behalf of the Union. Yet its founding had less to do with ending slavery and freedom for Black people, and more to do with white people desiring a homeland separate from Black people. While moving quickly to decimate and relocate indigenous tribes, the state’s original constitution also explicitly banned Black people from residing in Oregon.

The generations of police violence against Black people in our community are part of our inheritance from Oregon’s racist origins. Over the last two decades, we have seen a growing movement to organize against and challenge racist police violence and the killing of Black community members such as Kendra James, James Jahar Perez, Keaton Otis, and Aaron Campbell. The nationwide attention on police brutality has empowered local organizing efforts.

We’ll Walk Hand In Hand

Over the years, Portland JWJ has worked to bring a workers’ right perspective to police oversight and accountability efforts in our community. The Portland Police Association, the “union” for police officers, has long been an advocate for violent police tactics and a defender of racist police. We’ve seen our local labor movement take real steps to be part of efforts at reforming our criminal justice system, including efforts to limit the power of police associations.

For us, as we work to raise awareness about union contract campaigns and organizing campaigns, the same communities we mobilize will say things like “why should we support that union when the police union attacks us and no one from labor says anything?”  For us to build true solidarity, we know that we have to be willing to challenge injustice at all the intersections where it emerges to have a stronger workers’ rights movement.

We Are Not Afraid

As the federal menace in Oregon became more visible, many speculated that it was primarily a political stunt by President Trump to try and show “law and order” cred in the face of lagging poll numbers. Other reporting shows that the President wants to build a federal police force with the ability to carry out unchecked and uninvited domestic extrajudicial activities.

IMG_5847Our experience in Portland shows that we in the labor movement cannot and will not allow that to happen. Imagine if the next time we are striking and picketing an employer for a fair contract, and Homeland Security arrives to whisk away our leaders? The rise of fascism in the United States must remind us that democracy, whether in the workplace or our politics, is a threat to fascist regimes, and regimes will use forces as we see in Portland today to smash our democracies.

That’s why we are so proud of our community for showing up night after night. We’re bringing our leafblowers, we’re bringing helmets and umbrellas and food. We’re feeding each other, we’re gathering in blocs by trades, our faith communities are showing up, we’re wearing masks, and keeping each other safe. The police forces are armed with military weaponry and apparently feel bound by no laws. We are a city of #EverydayAntifascists; we affirm the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” and the existential reality that #BlackLivesMatter.

Ways you can take action:

Rev. Cecil Charles Prescod is the chair of the Faith Labor Committee of Portland Jobs With Justice

Will Layng is the Executive Director of Portland Jobs With Justice

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