I live 15 minutes outside of Portland. I consider Portland to be my home. I grew up in another suburb of this city. I am a citizen of Portland. Portland is my city.
And my city is under attack.
Portland is under attack by the sacrificial system. It rages against us. And Portland is raging back.
What Is the Sacrificial System?
René Girard spent much of his life exploring the sacrificial system. Girard claimed that sacrifice is the originator of all human cultures, indeed of humanity. Before cultures formed, hominids lived in groups that had a difficult time living together because of internal rivalries and conflicts that led to a war of all against all. The all-out war led to the destruction of most of the ancient pre-human groups.
But over many generations, a different system began to emerge. Instead of the group self-destructing in a war of all against all, the group formed a sense of cohesion by uniting against a scapegoat. The group began to accuse one member in its ranks for all the violence that threatened the community. After that one was accused of being the cause of all the chaos and violence, the group united against him in an act of violent sacrifice.
Only the group didn’t see their act of sacrificial violence as bad. It was something else altogether. It was an act of peace, an act of unity, an act of compassion. It was good violence.
But those of us on the outside of this scenario can clearly understand what’s going on. The scapegoat was no more and no less guilty than the other members of the group. That’s what made him a scapegoat. In fact, guilt and innocence didn’t matter. What mattered was that this individual became the outlet for all the anger, hatred, and violence within the group. Once the group channels their inner violence against their scapegoat by sacrificing him, the group receive a sense of solidarity and peace.
And any time conflicts reemerged to threat the group, it repeated the sacrifice that gave it peace. Thus, sacrificial rituals were born and there was enough cooperation for the first human civilization to form.
You may have noticed that the sacrificial system, along with the scapegoat mechanism, continues to be part of our human social DNA. In fact, the easiest way to find a sense of unity is to bond together against a common enemy. Or what Girard called, a scapegoat.
Portland’s history has reflected American history as black people have been the scapegoat.
Portland, Oregon – A Modern Day Sacrificial System
You may also have heard that Portland is weird.
As the show Portlandia claimed, the dream of the 90s is still alive in Portland. We have Voodoo Donuts. You can buy a donut in the shape of … let’s just say some pretty weird things. We have the most strip clubs per capita in the United States. Strip clubs is to Portland what high school football is to Texas. As a pastor in the Portland area, I assure you I do not know this from personal experience. And to our great shame, I’m pretty sure we have the most man buns per capita in the United States, too. I can also assure you that I have no personal experience with man buns.
We also have racism. Portland is the whitest of all the big cities. In fact, Oregon has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the Union whose original constitution made it illegal to be black or brown in the state. Oregon wanted to be an all-white state. If a black person were found in Oregon, they were either fined, whipped, or murdered. And today, Portland is the whitest city in the US. That is not a coincidence.
The skinheads and the KKK have a long history in Portland of killing black people. But Portland’s problems are not just skinheads and the KKK. During WWII, Portland invited black folks from the south to work in our shipyards. They came and brought their families to work at these desirable jobs. But soon the war ended and white soldiers came back home. They demanded their jobs back. And so black men who left their homes in the south for a better life in Portland were displaced and without jobs.
Later in Portland history, the city decided it wanted to build a sports stadium and a highway through the city. Where would the city build these things? You guessed it – right through a black neighborhood, displacing black families once again.
The impact of these events has affected generation after generation. Portland’s history has reflected American history as black people have been the scapegoat. They have been dehumanized and sacrificed through physical violence and through political violence.
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Portland – A Day of Reckoning
And now Portland is experiencing a day reckoning. Portland is rising up to declare Black Lives Matter because for too long in Portland’s history we have proclaimed that black lives do not matter.
One of our demands is for police reform, which includes defunding at least some of the police budget. Police are frequently called into situations that they are not trained to deal with, often leading to an escalation of violence targeted against minority groups. As the Portland news outlet Willamette Week recently wrote, “Over and over again, the PPA [Portland Police Association] has zealously protected the interest of its officer members. For middle-class residents of the whitest city in America, the fact that those interests sometimes trampled on the rights of people of color, the mentally ill and the homeless was mostly an afterthought.”
It is no longer an afterthought.
Portland protesters are rising up against a sacrificial system of violence. And here’s what I’ve always known intellectually, but I’ve never known through direct experience – No matter what we do, those who wield power from within the sacrificial system will always attempt to accuse protesters of being violent.
I want to be clear: the protests in Portland are contained within 3 city blocks of the city. I can take you to about 99% of Portland during the day or night and you would never know protests were happening. During the day, I could take you for a picnic in the park, we could walk along the Portland waterfront, we could see the statue of Abraham Lincoln, all while we go to any of the wonderful black owned restaurants in Portland.
And yet, if you listen to politicians who haven’t been to Portland to witness what’s happening, and who are so distant from our state that they don’t even know how to pronounce the word Oregon, you might think the city is in total chaos.
The sacrificial system claims that it uses “good violence.” It always claims that those who rise up against the system are the violent ones. President Trump recently threatened to send the National Guard and his justification was deeply rooted in the sacrificial system,
Right now these protesters, and many should be arrested, because these are professional agitators, these are professional anarchists, these are people that hate our country. We are telling them right now that we are coming in very soon, the national guard. A lot of people, a lot of very tough people. And these are not people who just have to guard the courthouse and save it. These are people who are allowed to go forward and do what they have to do … so they are working today and probably tomorrow to clean out this beehive of terrorists.
Protesters are not terrorists. I have been to the Portland protests multiple times. I’ve noticed a pattern. The protesters will chant “Black Lives Matter,” “Say his name,” “Say her name,” we will bat a beach ball up in the air to each other, some of us might bang on the fence surrounding the courthouse, and a few others might throw a few water bottles over the fence. Oh the terrorism!
I have documented footage of the protests. I have been tear gassed every night that I’ve been down there. At about 1 am last Wednesday I was standing with about 5 other people about half a block from the federal troops holding their guns. We were just standing there. After a few minutes, they threw a bottle of tear gas at us. We were just standing there. We posed no threat.
And yet Portland protesters are being labeled as the terrorists.
That’s how the sacrificial system works.
Closer to home, US Attorney Billy Williams was interviewed by Portland news stations outside of the courthouse. As he denounced the “violence” of the protesters, he pointed to the evidence: some graffiti on the outside of the Courthouse and some water bottles on the ground.
Even worse, Williams stated that after the murder of George Floyd that, “Everyone can agree that there is change needed, and this is one of those moments in history where that can occur, but it’s being held back by this.”
One of the most important men in charge of justice in Oregon said that the pursuit of justice for black people is being held back by the “violence” of some graffiti and water bottles.
That’s how the sacrificial system works. It doesn’t really care about justice. The people behind it will label nonviolent civil disobedience, such as graffiti and water bottles, as horrendous acts of violence committed by a beehive of terrorists who hate our country so that it doesn’t have to come to terms with its own violence and injustice.
Why Portland Protests
Portland is protesting because we are aware from our own history and from American history that racism runs through our city and our nation. Indeed, change is needed. Portland protesters are out to ensure that the change happens in our city.
Because black lives have rarely mattered in Portland. But now black, brown, and white Portlanders are rising up together to move beyond the sacrificial system as we proclaim that Black Lives Matter.