Ruth and I have lived across the Columbia River from Portland, OR since 2003. It’s a quirky city in a natural setting of unsurpassed beauty. I have been mystified by the protests that have gone on there for more than 60 days. Like other outsiders, Ruth & I have avoided going to Portland during that time. Only once have we driven through it, and I admit to shock at the number of burned out cars and other signs of destruction I saw far from the scenes of major protest downtown. I did not understand why Portland erupted until I got a partial answer by reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times called Who Gets to Be a ‘Naked Athena’? by Mitchell S. Jackson of the University of Chicago.
Jackson explains that “Oregon was intended as a white man’s Zion.” I didn’t know that “Oregon Country’s provisional government passed a law excluding Blacks from the territory” and that Oregon once boasted the largest KKK chapter west of the Mississippi….” I did know that Portland has done a good job of marketing itself as “a bastion of lefty quirkiness” because I’m familiar with Portlandia. Jackson, a native son, points out that Oregon is 86.7 percent white, and 2.2 percent black” and that Portland is “77.1 percent white and 5.8 percent Black.” Jackson understands why his birth city has become “…the voice, between ardent allyship and white saviorship…” and I get it now too. Jackson talks about the mostly white faces in a protest gathering on the Burnside Bridge after George Floyd was killed and the welcomed toppling of a Thomas Jefferson statue at his alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School. The reader suspects but does not find out until the last paragraph that Mitchell S. Jackson is Black after he says that the Rose City “has never been my utopia” and is a place “where whiteness hovers over us Black folk”.
So who is the Naked Athena? She is the woman so named after she confronted authorities in a Portland street during the protests while wearing only a mask and a skullcap. Her real name has not been revealed but a friend described her as “…a light-skinned person of color and outspoken feminist.” I was not surprised to learn that Portland’s Naked Bike Ride that reportedly attracted 10,000 participants in 2019 occurred in the year of the virus. It happened on May 6, 2020, in the City of Roses.