PORTLAND, OR — Mayor Ted Wheeler is over the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between the East Coast of the United States and Great Britain. He’s with a bunch of staff and business leaders heading across the ocean on the inaugural Delta flight from Portland to London.
The plan is to get there, have a series of meetings with business and political leaders, and then return to Portland.
He is sound asleep.
Maurice Henderson, his chief of staff, wakes him up.
There’s been an attack back in Portland.
Details are a little sketchy — everything they are getting is from news reports on the plane — but a man had been yelling racial epithets at two teens when three men intervened.
Two were dead. The third in critical condition.
“My initial reaction was shock,” Wheeler tells Patch. “That something so horrific would happen in Portland, the horrendous nature of it — I thought about what these young women had gone through.
“With the benefit of a few minutes my focus shifted to the heroic nature of what these three guys had done.”
Wheeler says the plane’s captain radioed ahead and made arrangements to get him on the first flight back to Portland.
“I knew I had to get back as quickly as possible,” he says. “They made it happen. I got to London, they walked me through security and customs and got me on the next plane.”
By the time Wheeler returned to Portland around 2 p.m. Saturday, much more was known. The man under arrest was Jeremy Christian, who had filled his Facebook page with hatred, who had been spotted at a rally in April shouting epithets and giving the Nazi salute.
“I was told about the heroes, who they were, and what they had done,” Wheeler says. “And from the airport I was rushed to a meeting with law enforcement officials, with community leaders, with my fellow political leaders. The governor was there.”
Wheeler says the main concern was to reassure the community, let people know how seriously the issue was being taken.
“People were in shock,” he says. “We were — are still — a city in mourning. One of the messages that we wanted to get out was that as horrific as it was, there was something very important about the fact there were people who were willing to stand up against hate and bigotry.
“This was the worst and best of Portland juxtaposed.”
Wheeler, a 54-year-old sixth-generation Oregonian, has a strong sense of Oregon history — of the best and worst it has to offer. His family arrived here via the Oregon Trail in 1852.
“We can’t escape our history,” he says. “We need to own it, speak truth about our racist past. The legacy of our past bleeds over to the present not only in terms of criminal justice and education but employment, opportunity, wealth generation, and health outcomes.”
Wheeler speaks passionately about that legacy — about Oregon’s founding as a state where black people, by law, were not allowed to live, and how in the 1920s there were 20,000 Klansmen.
“What was true in Oregon was certainly true in Portland as well,” he says.
He speaks of Vanport, the city that sprung up between Vancouver and Portland to house the black people that white Portlanders wanted as workers but not as neighbors.
He talks of Albina, the once-predominantly black neighborhood that was changed by gentrification that “drove mostly black people from their homes to make room for freeways, stadiums, and hospitals.”
It is a history that Wheeler firmly believes informs the city that Portland is today; so much so that when the city recently posted a job listing for a police chief, Wheeler made sure the following was part of it:
The State of Oregon and its largest city, Portland, share a history of legally sanctioned systemic racism with legally enforced exclusionary practices.Given this history, the successful candidate must demonstrate the capacity and commitment to expand on existing strategies to improve relationships with and service provision to Portland’s communities of color, ensuring that equity is a bedrock of policing in Portland.
Wheeler says he was surprised at how upset some people were by the wording but believes that “while we have made great progress, it is important that anyone who wants to come to Portland needs to appreciate our past.
“I’m bullish on Portland,” he says. “I know that we can move forward as a city and deal with these issues. But we have a lot of work to do.”
Wheeler points to the aftermath of the murders on the train when two incidents demonstrated the best and worst in action.
First there was the vigil for those who had been attacked. Much of it was focused on the victims but, after a while, it turned into a political rally with boos and curses raining down on Wheeler.
“I was disappointed, but I wasn’t entirely surprised,” he says. “There is a group of people who will always respond like this, who will be adversarial regardless of the setting.
“I quickly decided that it wasn’t appropriate and moved to take myself out of the equation.”
While some reported that Wheeler had left the vigil, he says he just moved to the back.
“I told the families that I didn’t want this to be about me,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a distraction from the event.”
Then there was the lead-up to a series of rallies held the week after the murders. One, by a right-wing free speech group, inspired a series of counter-protests.
Wheeler made headlines by not only asking the group to cancel its plans but by asking the federal government to rescind the group’s permit.
In hindsight, Wheeler says he could have handled things differently.
“I do make mistakes,” he says. “The way I handled it was probably a miscalculation, but I stand by the sentiment that I was trying to convey.
“I wanted them to recognize what was happening in the city, work with them to reschedule, see how we can advance the conversation. I could have conveyed that better.”
Wheeler says that, at the end of the day, his concern was public safety.
“I am a firm supporter of the First Amendment,” he says in response to criticism that he was trying to censor beliefs by calling for the march to be canceled for the day. “I also recognize that public safety has to be taken into consideration.
“In the end, it was a successful day in that everyone went home safely.”
Wheeler believes that as the city moves forward from the events of Memorial Day weekend, which he believes is possible, it is important for the city to try and focus on the good that was evident, the heroics of the three men who stood up for two young women they had never met.
It is also important, he says, for people to keep those two women in their minds, to remember the hatred that led to them being targets still exists and that the city needs to work together to overcome it.
“I’ve spoken with both of the women,” he says of Destinee Magnum and her 17-year-old friend who was wearing a hijab and does not want to be identified.
He spoke with the friend on the phone and met Destinee and her family at the memorial for Rick Best, the city worker who stood up for her and paid with his life.
“I let them both know that while they have their families and their friends, they also have the city behind them,” he says. “Portland and I will be there for them day and night.
“It’s what we have to do.”
Photo by Colin Miner