Letter from Portland

First published in JewThink

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 60 days of daily demonstrations in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd by police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds in Portland Oregon, masked, observing safe physical distancing, marched to demand mercy and human decency under the message Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I  knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Houseless people came together to create “RiotRibs”, feeding thousands of protesters, grilling all night. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompanying the chants (and my shofar) are played, and signs naming too many dead at the hands of U.S. police, over 1000 in 2019, are raised. After two months, the sense of community is real and comforting, and the outrage is incandescent, and growing. The current numbers estimated to join the nightly gatherings downtown are now more than ten thousand.

The spreading sense of “enough is, finally, enough” has to do with the fact that long before the current administration of the U.S. government sent troops to assault Portlanders with tear gas, flash bang devices, LRAD sound weapons, and “less lethal” munitions in order to “to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property,” the very same type of military weapons were already being used by the Portland police.

The police violence regularly wreaked upon our fellow Portland residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

We in Portland Oregon are not unique in this, but Portland is well suited to serve as both a microcosm and a flash point because of Oregon’s uniquely racist, overwhelmingly white history. The state was created as a “racist utopia” which enacted a series of exclusionary laws in its founding. And as we might expect, the racism that discriminated against our Black neighbors blocked Jews from full belonging as well; when a new road system destroyed Black neighborhoods, the old Jewish quarter downtown was also eradicated. It’s no surprise to us, if we’ve been paying attention, that the Portland police are a case study in the upholding of white supremacy “values.” That this extends to impunity to murder is a sickening but logical outcome.

Confronted with this evil, how can a Jew do anything other than protest? Yet we see the Jewish response split between what we might call the “court Jew” response and the Torah response. The “court Jew” response arises from the generationally traumatized, fearful stance of those whose safety was very recently gained, and is none too secure. This is understandable, but has never been a basis for ethical action. As our ancestors, who lived  through that trauma, insisted, our response, whatever the consequences to ourselves, must be the Torah response. Otherwise, as Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it so well, we are worshipping nothing but ourselves.

The Torah response is, as the Prophet Isaiah has been reminding us in clarion tones for the past Three Weeks, is to pursue justice for the vulnerable, and not to stop until, like a flash flood, righteous judgment destroys every evil institution in its path. 

As a Jew, I know how to act: justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live (Deut.16.20). I’ve been schooled by brilliant, dedicated Black activists. Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot Portland and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman to serve in Portland’s City Council, are only two of the powerful Black voices that I seek to center and amplify. As a white person, I am not even aware of the ways in which I float in a sea of white privilege at all times; as a Jew, I’m fully aware that I may drown.

Yet this is no time for measured action. State violence is clear and our answer must be as clear and strong as the alarm call of the shofar. For those Jews who hesitate, pointing out Black anti-Semitism, I challenge you to see that this is a response of selfish fear, not of logic nor empathy. Even if you do regard an anti-Semitic Black person as your enemy, you must nevertheless aid them in raising their life. 

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

The blood of our Black siblings cries out to us from the ground. With my Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance I’ve been witnessing at protests with Lenny Duncan, a Black activist pastor: 

The long struggle of Black liberation for 400 years has been the canary in the coal mine in the U.S.’s often fickle relationship with its own soul. Our blood has washed the streets of America from Crispus Atticus, Sandra Bland, now George Floyd. Our blood, our pain, our cries, often ignored by the global community as the petulant cries of a privileged minority in the world’s greatest superpower, are the very screams of liberation that echo across a humanity capable of a torn down Berlin Wall and where freedom has found home in Soweto. (Rev Lenny Duncan)

The streets echo with prophecy from Portland Oregon. The Black voices warn that unless their lives matter, no lives matter: the canary sings its warning in housing, in finance, in coronavirus testing. Despite state violence determined to silence us, we will not be silent until justice is done.

Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Portland Oregon leads the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.

Shabbat Tetzaveh: Values Are Not Expendable

Our parashat hashauva for this week is Tetzaveh, which can literally be translated “tell them what to do.” One reason for the Torah’s powerful presence in our people’s lives over several millennia is the sure sense, explicitly offered, that someone is telling us the right thing to do.
If only we had such a plumb line to grasp to carry us through the chaos of our days. The President of the U.S. uses his power to sow disorder and suffering; our Jewish community finds ourselves targeted and afraid for our safety; and this week here in Portland our own police force has been found to be cooperating with violent white supremacist thugs who have targeted our city for their hate and violence.
Add to this the sufferings of normal daily life – some in our own congregational community are housing insecure, others of us are ill. Some face death. Some are struggling with other kinds of personal challenges to their happiness.
This week the Portland City Council voted to end our Portland police’s cooperation with the FBI (you can learn more from OPB’s report here). After the vote, Mayor Wheeler was reported by OPB as saying: “while values are extremely important, values alone cannot protect the safety of the community.”
With respect to the difficulty of his job and what he may have meant (since it is a Jewish value to give the benefit of the doubt), I appeared at that City Council meeting to speak of those values that I believe must define our city as a community: mutual respect, personal safety, and insistence on transparency in the service of truth.
In so many places in our lives, we are all tempted to compromise on our values in the service of being safe. The value of due process even for the evil man in the White House; the value of living our lives in the dignity of freedom despite our fear; and the value of upholding a community ethic of social justice as an end, not a luxury. The Mayor has it backward, it seems to me: unless there is a value we uphold as essential to the nature of our safety, our safety itself will be compromised. We can see this in the decision some join to militarize the security of our own Jewish institutions in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre – זכרונם לברכה may their memory be a blessing. And we can see it in the support some gave to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to the extent of excusing abuses suffered by minority communities – since once we are afraid, we have a hard time finding the room in our hearts to care about others who are also afraid, and who are the first target.
Unless we defend our values first and last, what kind of society are we creating? Not a just one, probably; not one in which, in the end, when they come for you, there will be anyone left to speak up. A society that operates without absolute values is an absolute abhorrence to our prophets, and they rightly see its destruction as brought about by internal rot (children are still in cages today) more than the outside forces that were so feared.
The first line of our parashah, the one that gives us its name, is this:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

From this we can derive what is perhaps the most important value supporting us this week, and all weeks: shed a light on it. Bring the fuel that keeps the light burning bright. Truth and goodness flourish in light; only evil cannot stand it. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to all the journalists investigating and digging and reporting in this time of rising hostility to that targeted community.
Only values that transcend moments of fear, of chaos, and of violence can protect our community, at the end of the day. May we continue to support each other in learning them, sharing them, and upholding them: hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

May Day: Short Sighted Police Leadership

I submitted this letter to the Oregonian but I can’t even find the responses they published to the “hot button” question regarding whether the police were too harsh on May Day at the rally and march downtown. I don’t think they published my response – so here it is.

The actions of the Portland Police demonstrate short-sighted thinking among those who direct them

I was there, downtown, on May Day 2017 in Portland, and I remain dismayed by the outcome for all those who had gathered to participate in this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the different groups there.

I was disappointed by the small minority of people who were clearly bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones hurled abuse at the police who stood alongside the route. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.

And I was horrified by the actions of the police. Rather than working to separate out the minority violent element from the march, there was indiscriminate escalation, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.

Those who direct police actions must be told: neither tear gas nor beatings is ever effective in creating a peaceful society. Only justice can do that.

Our police must be trained to distinguish between the destructive element and the peaceful marchers, citizens they are sworn to protect and to serve. The City of Portland must change the tone of police interaction with peaceful marchers. They did not deserve the disrespect of having their permit summarily revoked and their march ended, unjustly identified with a small minority which acted destructively.

Rabbi Ariel Stone