PORTLAND, ORE.—Looking down at the city block that has been turned into Portland’s public “living room” from his daily perch on its amphitheatrical steps, it’s impossible for 19 year-old Ahmed Shanab to imagine any outcome of the 2020 election that does not trigger violence in this very spot.
On an unseasonably sunny Sunday, Pioneer Courthouse Square exudes something of Portland’s whimsical reputation, with its polka-dot art display and artsy types meeting there for coffee. But to anyone watching closely, as Shanab does, it’s filled with more solemn reminders.
Months of protests against racial injustice, many emanating from the square, have facilitated a sorting of Portlanders into such strongly opposed groups of “us” and “them” that the disagreements between the left and the right regularly rise to the level of mutual fear and antagonism. The planning of right-wing demonstrations in the city prompts left-wing protests of even greater proportions. In the conservative suburbs, residents fearing left-wing radicals sleep with guns under their pillows.
It’s a fissure no one politician can hope to bridge, at least not on election night. And perhaps no other American city puts the Herculean task of reuniting the United States on display better than Portland does at this moment.
“The way I see it, nobody in Portland will be happy, no matter what the outcome is,” said Shanab, who has participated in Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests and identifies with the left wing.
“People aren’t even focused on Trump anymore. They’re just angry.”
Limiting his social interactions because of the coronavirus pandemic and dealing with a constant sense of being overwhelmed by the news, Shanab has found himself drawn to the square, where he sits, sometimes for hours at a time. This year’s presidential election will be the first he’s voted in, and he watches others interact, including the people just walking by to drop off their ballots in one of the state’s official collection boxes.
Before the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests began, the square was already a civic action hub. It was the launching point for riots in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump, when 113 protesters were arrested, and looting and property damage occurred.
Now the courthouse, shops and office buildings surrounding the square have been boarded up at street level, in anticipation that Portland will become the scene of further protests on election night.
Mayor Ted Wheeler promised to release a policing plan specifically geared toward what could happen on election night, for which protests are already being planned.
But the fact that it was Trump’s election that prompted the riots in 2016 does not assuage Shanab’s fears that violence will occur on election night in the event of a win for Democrat Joe Biden.
“When you see actual people going on the street, they’re not just angry at politicians,” he said. “They’re just angry about their relations with other groups.”
The anger runs two ways. Conservatives in Oregon, though outnumbered by Portland’s massive liberal majority, are a well-established bunch who have seldom had any hope of seeing their state support the presidential candidates they choose. An electoral map of Oregon in 2016 illustrates the divide, with only the county of Portland, some suburbs, and a handful of coastal counties voting Democratic blue. The rest of the state was a sea of Republican red.
For Caleb Ryan Knight, a 25-year-old Trump supporter from Columbia county who now lives just across the border in Washington state, a conservative outlook feels like the status quo. Columbia county is only about half an hour outside of Portland, but in some ways it looks like a different world. Instead of bustling shops and city squares, ballot drop boxes are positioned outside aging city halls and civic libraries. Subdivisions gradually blend into cattle fields in the county’s outer reaches.
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Typically supporting Democratic candidates for president by narrow margins, Columbia County voted in favour of Trump by a slim majority in 2016.
When Knight does come across left-wing people there, and near his Washington home, he says he has sometimes felt targeted.
On Sunday, after holding a Trump flag-waving event on a bridge in his home county, Knight said he found a large spitball smashed into his car, which had Trump stickers on it. It was more of a nuisance than a threat, but Knight said he’s armed himself in case he finds himself faced with more aggression.
“I don’t necessarily spend every day living in fear but it definitely is in my mind,” he said of perceived threats from the left. “I am less scared of that type of thing in recent years because I did purchase a firearm here a few years ago. So there’s a level of security there wherever I go.”
Oregon’s divisions show how tensions can escalate even when there is only the appearance of a threat of politically motivated violence.
Last month, when fires raged across the state, communities in the rural parts of the state most deeply affected came to believe widespread but discredited rumours that the fires were started by far-left groups wanting to attack them.
To many townspeople in rural Oregon, it didn’t matter when local police and the FBI said the rumours were unfounded, or when podcaster Joe Rogan apologized for amplifying the baseless theory.
To them, it all felt real. And they were genuinely afraid for their properties and their lives, staying up all night, in some cases, to guard their homes.
In the city of Portland, the looming threat is that far-right militia groups and white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys will come downtown and confront them.
When Trump named Portland in the first presidential debate, and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Portland protesters doubled down.
“Everyone was talking about it the next day,” Shanab said. “It was almost like Trump was convincing them that the Proud Boys are this really big threat. And everyone now recognizes that they are.”
On election day, Shanab says he will be scared, but he’ll still bike into the city from his college campus to see what’s going on.
“What a way to top off this year: One of the worst years ever for my generation,” he said. “It’s just depressing.”
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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