If You Want Portland Kids to Stop Breaking Windows, Gregory McKelvey Says You Should Understand Why They’re Doing It

"I have never once cried over a window. I do cry over the murder of people who look like me." 

Downtown Portland is covered in plywood, partly because of repeated vandalism by protesters. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

So much for a fresh start. On Jan. 20, hours after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, about 200 black-clad protesters wandered the streets of Portland's Central Eastside, holding a banner that read, "We are ungovernable."

Some of them stopped by the office of the Democratic Party of Oregon, smashed its windows, and scrawled anarchist logos on the walls. Police arrested eight people—including one man with four Molotov cocktails in his backpack.

The sight of anti-fascists and other Portland leftists targeting Democrats caused many Portlanders to sigh in exhaustion. The destruction, while small in scale, signals that the end of the Trump era will not extinguish the nightly street combat that has come to define Portland during the pandemic.

Gregory McKelvey had a different response to what he saw. On Jan. 21, he wrote a thread on Twitter with a suggestion about what Portland elected officials should do with the protesters who refuse to quit: Listen to them.

He said young Portlanders were making foolish choices because they felt city leaders were ignoring impending catastrophe. "Right now, for youth, it feels like the Titanic is sinking and our politicians are the band still playing like everything is fine," McKelvey wrote. "Don't be shocked when they smash your violin."

It was a provocative argument. And McKelvey, 27, has observed street protests from within and without. He was an early organizer of anti-Trump marches in 2016, then became campaign manager for Sarah Iannarone, who nearly unseated Mayor Ted Wheeler in November.

Now he's working for a political consulting firm. So WW asked him to expand on his Twitter case and share the advice he would offer a Mayor Iannarone in this moment.

WW: What do you think the average Portlander doesn't understand about the average protester?

Gregory McKelvey: It really depends on the protest. We were at a point in the summer at the height of the uprising where 10,000 people were at marches held by young Black organizers. At that point, I really think the average protester was synonymous with the average Portlander. But things have obviously changed.

As for the protests now, I think there are a few things the average Portlander does not understand. For generations like mine and the one after, we have been told our entire lives that the world is about to end if nothing is done immediately, and that all of the evils of our world—climate chaos, racism, the ills of capitalism, and more—are all inexplicably linked. In my mind, and the minds of protesters, these things are objectively true. So if a young person is told the world is ending, and then told to sign up to testify or to go vote, that does not seem to meet the urgency of the moment.

What has been the biggest mistake City Hall and the Portland Police Bureau have made in responding to vandalism?

Neither City Hall nor the Police Bureau has effectively articulated that, while vandalism is not good, it is not on the scale of the life of George Floyd or Quanice Hayes. There is also very little acceptance that vandalism and violence are different things. There have been far more press conferences about graffiti than there have been about how we are going to move policing forward in our city, which leaves people feeling even more unheard. I have never once cried over a window. I do cry over the murder of people who look like me.

The most common criticism I hear about property destruction is that it alienates possible allies. You suggest most protesters don't see persuasion as the goal. So what's the goal?

Honestly, I think in some cases the goal has been explicitly revenge—for night after night of tear gas, beatings, disparate policing, and PPB protection of ICE detention centers. However, again, we must put ourselves in the minds of someone who probably rightfully believes the world is ending or, at a minimum, is on the brink of being unrecognizable with incredible amounts of death, pain and climate chaos.

If the world is ending, some people are going to act like it. It's amazing to me that liberal Democrats really do believe that we are on the brink of something like Armageddon and then are shocked that some people behave like it. What did you picture Armageddon to look like? Public testimony?

So you seem to be arguing that a lot of these young people are not just angry but scared.

They feel helpless. I can't blame them for that. Thousands of people marched, testified and voted and have been doing so for years. What do we have to show for it? All forms of political involvement do not seem to meet the moment. If a shooter entered your bedroom, you might throw your pillow at them. Would that save your life? No, in fact, it might make it more likely that you are shot. But it is a natural instinct.

These same kids are taught in school during school-shooter drills that once the shooter has entered, you throw everything at the suspect. Does throwing a book at a school shooter help? Probably not, but you can't blame people for feeling like it is all they have. For older generations, did hiding under a desk for nuclear bomb drills make sense? No, but it is all you have.

Does breaking a window to stop the end of the world make sense? Probably not, but for some it feels like it is all they have. I am personally betting on my methods of progressive change being productive. It is my only hope. But I cannot tell someone with certainty that it will work.

Is some of this protest activity a result of cabin fever? PTSD?

There are a lot of factors of what brings people out to protests. But I do think that lots of people are looking for any "good" reason to leave the house. Hell, sometimes I am excited to go to the grocery store, as it is my only outing of the week. Also, there is immense economic anxiety which leads people to lash out, as well as not have to get up in the morning for work because their job no longer exists. But I do believe that Portlanders who have not experienced the flash bangs, tear gas, pepper spray, and beating really do not understand the toll it takes on someone. Imagine watching someone beat your best friend, or gas your children, or arrest your grandmother. That would make anyone angry.

A substantial number of protesters did not like what you had to say on Twitter. Why not?

Criticizing anything protesters do is seen as taboo or infighting. Yet it isn't considered infighting when radicals consistently try to cancel young leaders of color or not allow them to grow into themselves. People also view my opinion as one that is sympathetic to property over people. That simply isn't the case. But people forget: When you break a bank's window, the CEO doesn't come to clean it up. Someone from the working class does. I know that some felt I ignored the notion that destruction can have a purpose towards liberation. I just simply disagree that it does at this moment.

Let's say Sarah Iannarone won in November—and people kept breaking windows. What would you be advising her to do?

I would advise her to engage in targeted arrests for violent offenders, especially at right-wing demonstrations where we have seen a consistent hands-off approach. I would also advise her to work diligently on the managed decline of militarized policing in our city alongside community partners. And lastly, I would be candid that the reason police are not trusted in our community is that they tend to not help Portlanders in the ways they expect on the crimes most people believe we need policing for—such as rapes, murders, assaults and all crimes that involve victims.

We simply ask the police to do too much. We ask them to be housing counselors, social workers, mental health providers, and more. These are entirely different skill sets, and we should be sending experts to deal with situations that require experts, not the same person who was tear-gassing our neighbors the night before.

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