The upheavals of this year also represented an opportunity. People who had rarely wielded significant power in Portland discovered longtime leaders and institutions had lost public trust. Never before was this city as open to new voices and direction as when the old systems had so publicly failed. In particular, the demand for Black leadership was rarely more acute, as a predominantly white city grappled with its racist past (and present). This quartet rose to the occasion.
Mac Smiff watched a livestream last week of Proud Boys outside the Capitol in Salem telling cops to quit their jobs—a strange twist to cap a strange year.
Smiff, however, was more amused than surprised.
"It was on my bingo card," Smiff says. "I thought maybe this is the year that conservatives realize they shouldn't be propping up the police. All of a sudden, they're starting to catch on to that."
Yet 2020 has already been a surprising year for Smiff in particular. Amid a protest movement that saw leaders rise and fall in the span of a week, Smiff has been a constant presence: berating the cops to quit, rallying demonstrators, then appraising the results in The New Yorker.
In late July, Smiff—a 39-year-old journalist, activist and longtime fixture of the Portland hip-hop scene—was filmed grilling Mayor Ted Wheeler about defunding the police, right in the middle of the protests. A few days later, a clip of an MSNBC interview with Smiff went viral. Suddenly, his inbox was overwhelmed with interview requests from national media outlets.
Smiff says the deluge of inquiries has been a mix of rewarding and overwhelming. It's been especially difficult to discuss the nuances of police abolition—a movement that's been around for decades but has just entered the mainstream—with a publication that's only going to use a quote or two.
"The whole of July, I was talking about defunding and what that means, what that looks like, what it means for community safety, how the investments can look, who we can invest in, where the people are," he says. "People didn't post any of that. They just wanted to post action quotes or things that sounded cool or Tupac-y or something."
Still, Smiff says it's a victory in itself that defunding law enforcement has entered mainstream conversation. And after lending his voice to other journalists' articles all year, he no longer needs others' platforms: He already guest-edited an issue of Portland music magazine Vortex published earlier this month.
"I spent all year essentially giving away press, mostly to white people who just took that and got paid," he says. "Now, it's like I paid my dues in a different way. Now, I'll see about using this as our own way to do more Black press." SHANNON GORMLEY.
Dacia Grayber spent 180 hours of 2020 in a hazmat suit. "My worldview at work is literally through a respirator," she says.
Grayber, 45, is a firefighter and paramedic with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. When the COVID-19 pandemic descended in March, nearly every medical call she responded to was presumptively treated as a COVID case.
Yet many of the people she aided, in the Southwest Hills ringing Portland, refused to believe they had the virus. Grayber remembers one acutely: The woman couldn't stand from her chair. "I definitely don't have COVID," she insisted. "The only people I'm seeing are my family and grandkids."
Grayber will soon confront COVID denial on a statewide scale. In November, she was elected to the Oregon Legislature to represent the House District 35, serving Tigard and Southwest Portland. "There's been lots of jokes at work," she says. "'You're running out of one burning building and into another.'"
She was among a trend: a wave of frontline medical workers voted into office in 2020. But amid the doctors and nurses joining the Legislature, Grayber will be the only rookie lawmaker who also fought Oregon's wildfires. In September, she worked a fire line along Chehalem Mountain. So did her husband, Matt Laas, who has the same job; their four teenage kids waited at home for the order to evacuate.
"I worked a couple of 72-hour shifts," she recalls. "It was chaotic for everyone at that time." But what she mostly remembers from those delirious shifts is a man driving a pickup truck, wearing a MAGA hat, handing out food and water. "I want to believe that's still there," Grayber says. "It shouldn't take a natural disaster to bring that out in people.
Grayber will be sworn into office Jan. 11. She knows what to expect.
"I saw that this morning: people storming the Capitol building because they're told they have to wear a mask," she said Dec. 21. "To me, it's one of the great tragedies of all of this. It's this piece of fabric that says, 'I respect and care about you.' And it's become this symbol of government control. It's going to take a long time to come back from that." AARON MESH.
It's not exactly true state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas) emerged this year.
Four years ago, when the Portland suburbs were still competitive for Republicans, Bynum, a moderate Democrat and businesswoman who, with her husband, owns four local McDonald's restaurants, won a record-setting million-dollar race for the legislative seat that represents parts of East Portland and Clackamas.
In her first term, she delivered sidewalks for her district and safer streets in East Portland as part of a transportation package passed that year—important progress if not high-profile work.
But in the past year, she championed police reform bills alongside the Black Lives Movement protests in Portland. And she rose in profile.
Then Bynum chose a seemingly unlikely path, publicly challenging Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) for her job as House speaker, a post she's held longer than anyone in state history as a lawmaker widely respected for her progressive victories. A Bynum win would be a milestone for Oregon, which has never had a Black leader run either chamber of the Legislature.
Bynum's rise is a reminder that Black voices don't speak as one and a single person can hold many ideas. She's a business-owning tax skeptic, a champion for racial justice who demands measurable change, and a Black official cautioning against the property destruction that has marred Portland's protests. She presents an interesting challenge to Portland liberals sympathetic to her argument: that racial justice means actually empowering Black leaders.
"I think it would be meaningful for people, especially those that went downtown [to protest] in Portland, who were not African American and said they wanted to live in a place where they felt like everyone could be free and everyone deserved a fair shot," she told WW in November. "When they say representation matters, it does—it really, really does."
Whether or not Bynum becomes Oregon's first Black House speaker—either in January or in years to come—she has shown a boldness uncommon in a state where Democrats now dominate the statehouse and every statewide office. RACHEL MONAHAN.
On its face, a stripper march sounds like an event out of a Portland tourist brochure.
It wasn't an act of whimsy. It was a call for equal treatment.
On June 24, 100 strippers—some wearing stiletto heels—walked through the Montavilla neighborhood to demand that local clubs hire more dancers of color. Their chant? "No justice, no booty."
The protest was an outgrowth of a movement Cat Hollis helped jump-start. As a Black stripper, Hollis has long been aware of the obstacles faced by dancers like her. But an Instagram post by Lucky Devil Lounge shortly after the start of the George Floyd protests made clear just how many shared her experience.
"This comment feed started underneath it that was like, 'That's more Black Lives Matter signs than there's ever been Black butts on your stage,'" Hollis says.
It spurred her to start the Haymarket Pole Collective, otherwise known as the Portland Stripper Strike. It wasn't a work stoppage, but it did have demands—namely, that club owners commit to racial sensitivity training for employees and better shifts for dancers of color.
Thirty clubs signed on. (One holdout, Union Jacks on East Burnside, relented after being faced with the threat of a picket line.) The movement received attention from Rolling Stone and Vogue and spread to other cities.
It was representative of a reckoning in all corners of Oregon business: a recognition that Black, Indigenous and people of color had been shoved to the side of cherished industries. Restaurant workers came forward with accounts of racism and harassment on social media, while groups like the Cannabis Workers Coalition sought to diversify the state's cannabis industry.
Haymarket has since scored other victories: In November, the group received a $590,000 grant from the Oregon Health Authority to assist BIPOC sex workers during the pandemic.
But the ultimate hope, Hollis says, is that it spurs calls for equity in other industries.
"If a strip club manager can sign on to do this," she says, "why can't a yoga studio or coffee shop?" MATTHEW SINGER.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Dacia Grayber was elected to the Oregon Legislature in May. She won the Democratic primary in May, and the general election in November.