Myron. B Pitts: Mother, son describe scenes from the Portland Black Lives Matter protests – The Fayetteville Observer


I figured out a long time ago we are all just one or two degrees’ separation from almost any major news event, nearly anywhere in the world.

Social media has made that even more true.

My wife showed me Facebook posts from one of her high school friends who lives in Portland, Oregon. This woman has been taking part in, and posting about, the massive Black Lives Matter protests there.

Portland is a situation I think nationally has been discussed more in terms of heat than light. So I wanted to get some details from the ground.

Blythe Gatewood, a web developer who moved there in the 1990s, said she went to her first protest after being inspired by her son, Jonas Brown, who is 18.

She said she had been closely following the protests over social media and has friends in the Wall of Moms, an organization formed during the protests that has faced off with federal agents. On a recent night, Gatewood was sitting down to dinner on the porch with her boyfriend. 

“Jonas comes out ready to go to protest with his friend,” she says.

She asked them if they had water bottles so they could wash out their eyes in case of tear gas. Jonas said he had a gas mask and showed her. They also had a leaf blower and umbrella to ward off tear gas. 

“I didn’t even know he had one,” Gatewood says with a laugh about the gas mask. “They walked off, and here we are sitting in our comfort with our sushi on the deck.

“We were feeling a little chastened … We decided to pack up and go down and take a look at things.” 

Her son, Jonas, graduated this past spring. Like high school students across the nation, his senior year was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. He calls it anticlimactic.

“Graduation and senior year and everything is so hyped up in pop culture, to end it with a letter in the mail instead of a whole party was really weird,” he said. “At the same time I never knew what it felt like so, I kind of got over it pretty easily.”

Protests ‘just felt like common sense’

Brown says becoming involved with the Black Lives Matter protests “just felt like common sense.”

“As more and more people started to join, it became more and more obvious, and I just started going to protests. I started donating and signing petitions.” 

Both mother and son challenge the narrative that Portland is out of control. Most of the protests play out near the Multnomah County Justice Center, over an area of around three blocks in a city of 653,000.

Brown says during the day, normal activity carries on in those few blocks. 

Gatewood says they live about two or three miles from the protest site: “Nobody around here would know that anything’s going on.” 

A ‘white’ city for Black justice

It has not escaped some peoples’ notice that Portland, a city where Black Lives Matter protests have swelled to thousands of people a night, is very white — with just 6% Black population. A Black protester told The New York Times he jokes with his friends, “There are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than Black people.”

Gatewood says she cannot fully explain why Black Lives Matter has struck such a chord in Portland. She says it’s a city with lots of progressive people, and the response could be residents recognizing and trying to overcome Oregon’s racist past. The state began as a whites-only enclave which leaders sought to keep white by passing exclusionary laws against Blacks.

“Oregonians nowadays really want that to be overturned, to really be part of the change in our state’s history,” she says.  

She adds that the speakers or other protest leaders are Black, with the majority-white crowd there to “lend their numbers.”

‘I feel proud of him’

News reports have focused on sometimes violent clashes between some protesters and heavily militarized federal agents dispatched by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. Many of the agents do not have any identifying name tags. Some protesters have been removed from the streets and hustled away in vans. 

“I was concerned that with the feds coming that it had changed the tone of the protests,” Gatewood says. “That’s what the whole thing had turned towards as far as what people were protesting.

“When I went down Saturday night I was really, really touched to see that the focus was completely on Black lives, systemic injustice — it was actually quite a sweet environment. And layered on top of that was ‘feds go home.’”

Brown describes a moment from a protest this past week he believes he will not forget. 

“It was in front of the Justice Center — it literally felt like a block party. There were people playing the drums. There was a trumpet, there was a guy with a boombox. There were people barbecuing. It was just people hanging out, having fun, chanting ‘Black Lives Matter’ and something along those lines ..

“Then, like immediately federal agents ran out of the building and started throwing tear gas while people were just hanging out and dancing and singing and stuff, and that really stuck out to me.”

I ask Gatewood if she worries about her son being involved in the protests. 

“I’ve seen the images of people who have gotten so-called non-lethal munitions hits,” she says, “in the head and in the chest. I’ve seen the injuries. I worry about that for Jonas.

“But as he points out, think of what Black mothers feel about their sons every time they go out. So, I try to keep some perspective on it, and I feel proud of him.” 

Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts can be reached at mpitts@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3559. 



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