How my hometown is dealing with nazis that attacked people holding a rainbow flag in front of city hall
Banned Histories of Race in America
American history is segregated. We believe that the history of race in this country only pertains to itself and doesn’t really have much to do with the United States as a whole. But the truth is that the history of race in America is so fundamental to understanding the country itself, ignorance of it leaves us in a near constant state of recycled trauma. For example, last week I wrote about how the vast majority of gun laws in this country have been about legislating the behavior of Black people and not guns. Because we don’t understand this, we remain confused at our continuous cycle of tragedy, mourning, thoughts and prayers.
Once we separate race from an issue, we’re actually pretty good at remembering it. For instance, it is often pointed out that the same disgusting and bigoted language used in opposition to trans rights is the same disgusting and bigoted language used in opposition to gay marriage. We understand the enemies to be racially neutral homophobia and transphobia which allows the issues to be coded white, even though they absolutely aren’t.
Once we include the history of race in America, we see that the same disgusting and bigoted language used against trans rights and gay marriage is the same disgusting and bigoted language that was used against interracial marriage. Looking a little further you’ll see that that same language existed in anti-miscegenation laws on this land as far back as 1691. If we understood this, we’d start to see the institutional nature of hate in this country. Bad faith would become instantly recognizable. Benefit of the doubt would find truer aim. Intersectionality would become obvious. But because our history is segregated, the right wing in this country hasn’t had to come up with a new argument for 332 years and counting.
Our national issues all stem from local issues and our local history around race is segregated often to the point of invisibility.
One April 1, 2023, just twelve days ago 20-30 nazis marched through Portland, Maine. They started in front of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, stopped in front of the local movie theatre and made their way to city hall chanting threats, screaming slurs, sieg heil-ing and carrying a banner that read, “Defend White Communities”. Once in front of city hall, the nazis attacked four people holding rainbow flag. Members of the Portland Police Department had been following the nazis at a distance for a while and chose that moment to intervene. One officer drew his gun, ordering the nazis to the ground. Some of them knelt, some didn’t and they continued to display their banner. Regardless, the officer soon holstered his weapon and the nazis were allowed to go free. No arrests were made.
Videos of the attack quickly spread across social media, Portlanders were outraged but city leadership was silent. Nine days later a city council meeting was held. Public comment lasted around two hours and Portlanders had questions and demands. They wanted to know why the police hadn’t taken action earlier, because according to Maine law, they could’ve arrested the nazis at any time before the attack. They wanted to know why, at that very meeting the mayor allowed a locally known nazi a full three minutes of public comment over zoom even through threats like, “The first amendment is backed by the second amendment.” They wanted to know why nothing had been done since a similar council meeting in February which attempted to address nazi threats of sexual assault and murder aimed at City Councilor Victoria Pelletier, one of two Black women on the council.
The general response from leadership was little more than a very scattered “We’ll look into it.” The police chief, accompanied by eight other officers promised to explore “best practices”. The mayor thanked the chief for all his hard work. One councilor openly complained that he hadn’t been given enough credit for his work on police reform from years earlier. There was a general feeling that the nazis had strictly homophobic intentions, and their advertised purpose to “Defend White Communities” fell from focus.
The three Black councilors, however, had meaningful responses. Councilor Pelletier explained very thoroughly how meaningless the entire meeting was. Councilor Regina Phillips explained that change was going to require bold steps that a lot of people wouldn’t like. Councilor Pious Ali asked a city attorney if the nazis could’ve been arrested. Her response was evasive at best, stating, “Possibly,” but that it would, “depend on a lot of factors including whether the jail would take that arrest.”
So, why is Portland leadership seemingly so unable to defend its city from 20-30 nazis? Obvious police issues aside, the answer is in the city’s segregated history.
Listeners of the 99 Years Podcast know that in the first decade of the 20th century powerful southern white supremacists designed a type of city government with the purpose of subjugating Black people. It was called the “city manager form of government” and beginning in 1912, locally powerful white supremacists began installing the government design in their communities across the country. The design fulfilled its racist promise of subjugation and after a little more than a decade of time testing, 7,000 klansmen marched through Portland in support of installing the design in the city. With the help of the local paper of record and the chamber of commerce the KKK was able to install the city manager form of government in Portland where it has since destroyed Black communities, segregated the city and magnified Black poverty well beyond state and national averages.
Naturally, a white supremacist government installed by a hate group wouldn’t have the necessary mechanisms to defend against a white supremacist hate group, but it’s a little more than that. As the Black communities of Portland were destroyed and as Black Portlanders were segregated and as Black poverty magnified, others in the city flourished. That flourishing became Portland’s identity and so the defense of that identity is a defense of the white supremacy that holds it all in place.
During the protests of 2020, Portland Black activists demanded the resignation of then-city manager Jon Jennings, citing his support of racist policies. Within a matter of hours the mayor and city council were standing in literal formation on the steps of city hall holding a press conference in support of Jennings.
Last November Portlanders voted on a referendum that would’ve replaced the city manager form of government with a mayoral form. But after out of state property developers and multinational corporations poured millions of dollars into a deceptive campaign of racism and fear supported by several local politicians including the mayor, the referendum was defeated.
Consider what the defense of Jennings against Black activists must’ve looked like to the nazis that marched through Portland less than two weeks ago. Consider what the enormous support of the city’s white supremacist form of government must’ve looked like to them. Consider what those nazis learned when the city failed to do anything to support Councilor Pelletier after they threatened her with sexual assault and murder. Imagine what they understood when the police let them go after committing a hate crime in front of city hall. And even now, when most city leaders fail to do anything but continuously encourage them it should be clear to all how condemned we are to repeat histories of which we are ignorant.
Valuable insights, thank you. I am now a subscriber and I linked to this post in my blog post today about the April 10 council meeting, hope that's ok.
Thank you for your clarity.