Experts: How Portland became a focus at presidential debate


Consecutive protests, federal intervention played a role in national spotlight

FILE – In this July 24, 2020, file photo federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter demonstrators during a protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. Beyond the debate over the federal response to protests in Portland, there is the question of whether the Department of Homeland Security, with its specialized national security focus, is the right agency for a job that is traditionally the responsibility local police. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Within the chaos of Tuesday’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic contender Joe Biden, Portland was mentioned several times, mostly referring to recent protests. But just how did the Rose City of all topics get entangled into a main focal point of a national discussion?

KOIN 6 News reached out to experts in political science and social movements from Portland State University to get their perspectives on the debate, which was marred with frequent interruptions from the president and exchanges of name-calling in what was a contentious and messy affair.

President Donald Trump answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

Chris Shortell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at PSU. He told KOIN 6 News the attention Portland is getting may be a “kind of quirk of luck, or bad luck, depending on how you want to characterize that.”

Part of the reason for the spotlight on Portland may be because of the protests which spanned over 100 days consecutively this past summer, he said. Though Black Lives Matter protests have also swept other areas of the country, others cities may not have been as consistently frequent.

However it’s the happenstance of where many of the protests were held that may be the real culprit: the location of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse downtown.

“That might sound like an odd reason, but because the federal courthouse is right next door to the Justice Center in downtown Portland, it meant that while protests were happening and were primarily targeting the Justice Center, the U.S. Marshal’s Service and other federal law enforcement tasked with protecting the federal courthouse got involved in how to deal with and address those protests,” Shortell explained.

There was an opportunity in that scenario for federal law enforcement to increase their role and increase their visibility, he said.

FILE – In this July 30, 2020, file photo, a demonstrator is pepper sprayed shortly before being arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

“Once that happened, it really increased the visibility of Portland on the national stage because we became the sort of test for how federal law enforcement might happen with regard to the protests,” Shortell said.

The mention of Portland in the national debate did not come as a surprise to Shirley A. Jackon, a sociologist and Black Studies Professor at PSU.

“As somebody who studies social movements, this was so obviously going to be on the agenda,” she said.

Jackson said the use of Portland as a talking point was brought up by Trump to put a wedge between protesters and the authorities.

“That wedge that was driven…was also in large part aided by the introduction of federal authorities into Portland to quell the uprising that was happening this past summer,” she said.

Jackson said cities like Portland should be concerned about the intense level of federal intervention they may face with Trump in the White House.

“There are certain cities that have a target on their backs,” she said.

Jackson lamented the direction of the protests sidelining the Black Lives Matter movement and legitimate calls for justice, which should still remain center stage.

A man, member of the Proud Boys and other similar groups, gestures the OK sign that is now seen as a symbol of white supremacy, as hundreds gathered to rally for several hours at Delta Park in Portland, Oregon on September 26, 2020. – Far-right group “Proud Boys” members gather in Portland to show support to US president Donald Trump and to condemn violence that have been occurring for more than three months during “Black Lives Matter” and “Antifa” protests. (Photo by Maranie R. STAAB / AFP) (Photo by MARANIE R. STAAB/AFP via Getty Images)

“What was unfortunate was that Black Lives Matter protests, in Portland in particular, started to become equated with antifa,” she said. “[Trump] would like to label antifa as a terrorist group. Once you make that link between antifa and Black Lives Matter, it becomes really hard to separate those two in some people’s minds.”

During the debate, President Trump danced around a question from moderator Chris Wallace about whether he was willing to condemn white supremacists and military groups. Instead Trump said of the far-right group Proud Boys, which is considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, to “stand back and stand by,” adding “somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem….. This is a left wing problem.”

That message was even adopted by some members of Proud Boys as a slogan, though Amazon has since announced it would be removing t-shirts with the words “stand back, stand by” sold on its site. Additionally, Proud Boy’s president, Enrique Tarrio, said he did not interpret the president’s words as an endorsement of the group.

Shortell and Jackson said they found Trump’s remark, and lack of condemning white supremacy violence, to be deeply troubling and problematic, respectively.

“To see these sorts of comments come out of the mouth of Trump, really deeply divisive, it clearly shows the agenda that this particular person has,” Jackson said. “And it has further divided a country that really needs to be in a state of healing after everything we’ve gone through this past year.”

President Donald Trump claimed during the first presidential debate the “Portland sheriff” supports him, Sept. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky/KOIN)

“That kind of rhetoric is something that can lead to greater violence,” Shortell added.

The day after the debate, Trump tried to walk back his refusal to outright condemn violence of white supremacist groups. He said he didn’t know who the Proud Boys are and that “whoever they are they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work.”

During the debate, President Trump also said he received the endorsement of the “Portland Sheriff.” Though Portland does not have a sheriff, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese tweeted the night of the debate that he does not and “will never support him.”

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