Images of “Naked Athena,” as the protester has been labeled, have gone viral, her unclothed confrontation with police earning her accolades as a brave ally of the cause. But I see something else: a beneficiary of white privilege dancing vainly on a stage that was originally created to raise up the voices of my oppressed brothers and sisters. In this, she is not alone. As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting, and distracting attention from, what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement.
The protests that have gone on for weeks in Portland and around the country had a very specific origin. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted a nationwide reckoning with the original and savage crime of slavery our country committed against African Americans. This crime has been reverberating through every generation in this country, black and white, for 401 years. That monstrous crime has finally caught up with us as a nation. I do not believe it is a time for spectacle.
Unfortunately, “spectacle” is now the best way to describe Portland’s protests. Vandalizing government buildings and hurling projectiles at law enforcement draw attention — but how do these actions stop police from killing black people? What are antifa and other leftist agitators achieving for the cause of black equality? The “Wall of Moms,” while perhaps well-intentioned, ends up redirecting attention away from the urgent issue of murdered black bodies. This might ease the consciences of white, affluent women who have previously been silent in the face of black oppression, but it’s fair to ask: Are they really furthering the cause of justice, or is this another example of white co-optation?
There is more at stake here than who appears most often on nightly TV broadcasts. Everyone seeking to advance justice in Portland faces great danger. Right now, there are unmarked, unnamed federal forces kidnapping our citizens off the streets without justification or authority. The mayor of Portland and governor of Oregon have asked them to leave, to no avail. We know this is a violation of our Constitution, but with President Trump promising only more occupations in more cities, we ignore this risk at our peril.
At their core, the Trump administration’s actions in Portland are a deception. The federal government’s response is no display of strength — rather, it is a deliberate cover for Trump’s weakness. The president and his allies want spectacle, be it a naked yogi or the next shocking display of force. They need to distract the country by engaging our movement in empty battles where they have the advantage.
If we engage them now, we do so on their terms, where they have created the conditions for a war without rules, without accountability and without the protection of our Constitution. This makes me fearful for the safety of everyone demonstrating in Portland. That’s why we need to remember: What is happening in Portland is the fuse of a great, racist backlash that the Trump administration is baiting us to light.
We cannot fall for their deception. We cannot settle for spectacles that endanger us all. This is a moment for serious action — to once again take up the mantle of the civil rights era by summoning the same conviction and determination our forebears did. We welcome our white brothers and sisters in this struggle. In fact, we need them. But I must ask them to remain humbly attuned to the opportunity of this moment — and to reflect on whether any actions they take will truly help establish justice, or whether they are simply for show.
Thursday night, I will lead a rally in downtown Portland to refocus public attention where it belongs: on redeeming a guilty nation. But recent events might be a sign that our work in the streets should be coming to an end.
I am not suggesting retreat. Instead, I am proposing that we take the cause of Black Lives Matter into those places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us, and where there is less risk of spectacle distracting from our true aims. In boardrooms, in schools, in city councils, in the halls of justice, in the smoky backrooms of a duplicitous government — that is where we will finally dismantle the gears of the brutal, racist machine that has been terrorizing black Americans and hollowing out the moral character of this nation since its inception.