Gregory McKelvey doesn't really expect Portland Mayor Charlie Hales to quit before his term ends in January. But McKelvey isn't going anywhere, either.
The 23-year-old spokesman for the black activist group Don't Shoot Portland has galvanized protesters in the wake of the City Council approving a controversial new contract with the police union.
On Oct. 12, McKelvey organized a protest at City Hall that turned into a melee, with police deploying pepper spray on protesters. The next night, McKelvey went to Facebook and published an open letter to Hales, demanding the mayor's resignation. He led an Oct. 14 march to Hales' house, blocking rush-hour traffic on Oregon Route 99E and camping overnight in the driving rain outside the mayor's house.
Don't Shoot Portland's activism during the past week is in some ways typical Little Beirut street theater. But it's also been unusually focused and sophisticated—directing national attention to Portland's policing, and publicly shaming Hales as Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler prepares to assume office.
That discipline is partly due to McKelvey, a political-science graduate of Oregon State University and student at Lewis & Clark Law School, recruited into street activism by Don't Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford in 2014. He's run campaigns in Corvallis and Portland, and also works with Portland Tenants United. He surfaced publicly in Portland this summer as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Next week, McKelvey will speak alongside Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein at a Portland rally. First, he stopped by WW to talk about why he's fed up with Hales, how Portland's civil rights activism is changing, and what he hopes to accomplish.
WW: What's it like to be pepper-sprayed?
Gregory McKelvey: It's horrible. It hurts so bad you don't know what's going on. You start to panic, and so people are having panic attacks. If it gets in your ears or your nose, it'll mess up your whole day.
The images of people being pepper-sprayed by Portland police have gone viral. Will that change how people see Portland?
I hope so. I think that because the rest of the country views Portland as a progressive city, we have a unique ability to be a model for what a progressive city could be. When people see these types of things, they realize we're not. It gives us the ability to possibly change so that we can be that model. We're one of the most popular cities in the country right now, and we have the unique ability to show what real progress could be, by not having politicians direct their forces to beat people out of City Hall.
Have you heard from the mayor?
I keep asking people, 'Do you think he saw my letter?' I'm curious if he even read it. I doubt he's going to resign. But Ted Wheeler's going to know that if you do things like Hales did, that people will call on you to resign. We do have a lot of eyes on this right now in the city.
If you could change one thing in the police contract, what would it be?
Increase citizen review—that actually matters. Being able to terminate officers, in a way that's less bureaucratic and involving the people, and that's not just for crimes but also character issues. My No. 1 issue was the process, but I would love to see more accountability. And also the idea that it's because of a shortage in officers is ridiculous. The number they throw out of officers that we should have is completely arbitrary, and crime is down. If you can send officers to beat people out of City Hall, what kind of staffing crisis do we have?
Did your experience as a Bernie Sanders delegate at the DNC change your view of politics?
Oh yeah. I've always been focused on Republicans—like, "Republicans are so bad"—but then I began dealing with the Democrats here, and how our state party tried to silence us. I think that there's hope and it can be transformed from the inside. But that takes pressure from the inside and outside. I'm going to remain a Democrat, and after this election, I'll try and become a precinct committeeperson.
You're very vocal on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. Do you worry about getting out over your skis with what you say online?
This is just who I am. It's not like I'm going to get caught in a hot mic moment when "this is locker-room talk," because my locker-room talk is about social justice issues all the time.
Have you spent any time with older members of the black community, like the Albina Ministerial Alliance?
So I grew up [in Portland] going to black churches, and I know a lot of elders from that, and I have worked with a lot of the older activists. I keep saying black people are so much bigger than black churches. Our older generation seems to try and run everything through the black church. Hundreds of people in our movement are led by trans people, by atheists, by Muslims, and by people that don't feel comfortable going to a church for tons of different reasons. We've been singing "We Shall Overcome" for 50 years. I'm so sick of singing songs. I don't even know the words to that song, and I'm not going to join you in singing "We Shall Overcome." If you start singing that, I'm going to start marching away from you, and I'm taking my people with me.
There are black churches for a reason. But our movement [includes] white people and young people, and it just looks more welcoming. That might have to do with religion in general.
How do you feel about protesters who show up to provoke the police?
If I saw that happening, I would try and calm that down. At the same time, I'm not there to censor anyone else's activism. I just wish the media would report it better: When one person throws a bottle of water [at police], it doesn't mean we went out and organized to throw water. There's a big difference between people willing to cross the line and get arrested or throw a water bottle versus state-sanctioned abuse of power and assault on citizens.
Is part of your job at protests helping people to stay calm?
A lot of times we have some people that it's their first protest, especially now when it's one of the biggest stories in the city on every outlet. They come with a lot of anger that's justified. When somebody comes up and starts yelling at them telling them that "Trump is the best" or "All lives matter," they get upset. I view my role as like a choir director. If you're a choir director, church is going to happen every Sunday no matter what, and the best way to recruit people to join your choir isn't to go out into the streets and hand out fliers but to sing super-well every single Sunday. And that's how I see my role in activism: I'm trying to teach this choir to sing, and I think the rest of the city is liking our song right now.
What do you say to the white liberal who is sympathetic to your aim but who wonders about stopping traffic or sleeping at the mayor's house?
I deal with them every single day. Get to know us, talk to us. Anybody that's ever come and talked with us or myself is like, "Wow, these guys are nice. This movement is about love, they don't hate people, they are willing to listen and admit when they make mistakes. They just care about this, and they're willing to fight for it." If someone's willing to stand in one of the worst storms we've had in a long time, you have to know that they care a lot about it. I understand that being stuck in traffic sometimes is inconvenient. But what else is inconvenient? Being black in Portland or being homeless in Portland. So let's make that not inconvenient, and then maybe we can get the traffic flowing.