Portland Man Describes Tearing Down Thomas Jefferson Statue: “It’s Not Vandalism”

“There wasn’t rage. We were doing this thing that should’ve been done, that people in charge aren’t doing.”

Thomas Jefferson statue toppled. (Joy Bogdan)

This week, Portland entered a national debate over the removal of statues—by knocking down two of the country's founders.

Across the United States, amid a three-week uprising against racist policing, protesters have toppled two bronze statues valorizing Confederate generals. In the past week, some protesters have set their sights on statues that honor men who founded the nation but also kept Black people as slaves.

Portland was one of the first U.S. cities where protesters targeted statues of the founders. On June 14, a group of about 15 people used ropes and an ax to topple a statue of Thomas Jefferson that stood on the front steps of Jefferson High School in North Portland. Four nights later, several dozen people tore down a statue of George Washington along Northeast Sandy Boulevard. (Both statues have since been placed in storage.)

Those actions caught the attention of conservative media, then President Donald Trump.

"The left-wing anarchists tore down a statue of Thomas Jefferson," Trump said at a Saturday night rally in Tulsa, Okla. "Two days ago, leftist radicals in Portland, Oregon, ripped down a statue of George Washington and wrapped it in an American flag and set the American flag on fire. Democrat, all Democrat. Everything I tell you is Democrat."

One of the people who tore down the Thomas Jefferson statue was a 33-year-old white Portlander who happened upon the statue's removal by accident. He planned to attend a rally at Jefferson High, but ran an hour late. Most of the crowd had left.

But he noticed three people tying ropes around the Jefferson statue. He saw they were struggling, so instead of joining the march he stopped to help them out. About 15 people trickled in, tying ropes to a car to help pull the statue from its base. The job took roughly 20 minutes.

"There wasn't rage," he said. "We were doing this thing that should've been done, that people in charge aren't doing."

The man spoke to WW on condition of anonymity, because he wants to to avoid arrest. Lawyers familiar with the criminal statutes used to prosecute similar acts say he would typically face a charge of criminal mischief in the first degree, a class C felony. (Incoming Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has said he does not intend to seek indictments in many incidents related to recent protests.)

As protesters have torn down statues, many onlookers have expressed consternation and confusion. What do the people tearing down statues seek to achieve? Where do we draw the line between acknowledging the past and celebrating it? How many historic figures withstand the scrutiny of hindsight?

We agreed to grant this man anonymity so we could ask some of those questions.

WW: Why was this important enough to risk arrest?

Portland man: I felt like I knew I wouldn't be. Maybe because I'm white. It just felt it was the moment. Like, everyone was there together. It was a joyous moment. It didn't feel like full of hate or a desire to destroy. It felt like the community just spontaneously got together to do this thing that needed to be done in that moment.

How often have you been to the protests leading up to that night?

I have gone to many. That was probably the seventh day I had participated.

Did you keep in contact with anyone you met that night?

No. I didn't know anybody. I pretty sure most people were random people.

Do you support the toppling of the George Washington statue?

I feel like I understand when people are upset about it, because it's such an icon of America and we think of him as this hero. But it's also a good thing it's happening. We no longer want to let those things just exist out in the open.

When the thing with Jefferson happened, I felt conflicted afterwards. I was reading a lot of things of what people were saying about that particular incident and statue-toppling in general. A lot of people are comparing it to ISIS, like Black Lives Matter is the American ISIS, it's crazy. I understand their point of view. People have this idea about these evil vandals.

[But] I've been reading things about statue toppling and what that means. It's not vandalism, you're doing something by taking down this image. There wasn't rage. We were doing this thing that should've been done, that people in charge aren't doing. It's direct action. We need to not have this statue sitting here. It's not right. It's not the fact that it's Thomas Jefferson, it's that it was placed in front of a predominantly African American school.

Where do you draw the line? Should the city remove all historical markers about racist people? Should Mount Rushmore be scraped?

Mount Rushmore is another travesty itself. It doesn't matter they carved into those mountains, it's still a shitty thing they've done. They will forever be desecrated. I don't know. The good thing that's happening now is that people are being confronted with those things actually happening and not just an idea of it. Jefferson High School might have its name changed because of that. It's a hard thing, and I think it's OK for it to be an unknown.

What name would you choose for Jefferson High School?

I wouldn't want to make a recommendation. I don't think it should be a white man making a recommendation. It should be the community, especially POC in the community for them to decide. Or even the students to decide, rather than someone in the system deciding what it would be.

I've also been thinking about what statues are. Should we be making statues of people? Is anybody worth having their figure being a permanent presence somewhere? It's a powerful thing to think about. It's a bit magical to have a lifelike body of an individual being a permanent presence. That's a high school. It shouldn't exist there.

What were you thinking as you pulled down the statue?

At that moment, I wanted to help those people. I feel like that is this movement, as white people were realizing we can't just watch it happen. People have to step in and help. We can't just watch and let people call them vandals. That's not vandalism.

Did you use any tools besides the ropes?

No. I didn't want to take from a POC an opportunity to chop at it.

Would you do it again if the opportunity arises?

I would be watchful of who's recording. I feel very lucky the video had blurred faces. Especially in Portland, I feel like people wouldn't arrest [me]. I feel like there would be uproar against arrests. And maybe that's also my own trust because I'm white, I don't know.

Have you been going to protests since?

I've been living at the coast. I have been driving in, so haven't been able to be there as much as I want. I'm just raking in unemployment, so I might as well have the government pay me to dismantle themselves.

How has that night changed you and your overall views of the protest movement?

I think it solidified my belief in direct action being key. It's not about hoping that the School Board votes to do it. That's not going to happen. There's too much weight behind it. So many people don't want to give up that fantasy about these figures that we were trained to have so much respect and admiration for.

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