Why you should care
Because America is splintering — and he’s streaming it for everyone to see.
The city feels like a war zone even before the boom of flashbangs crack the air. Protesters clad in body armor consisting of kneepads and elbow guards flee police in body armor made from ceramic and Kevlar. Yellow smoke fills the air with a pepper scent that triggers coughing fits, from a substance cops tweet has not been deployed by them. As some protesters retreat, Cameron Whitten begins to sprint toward the chaos.
Portland was at peace when he arrived hours earlier. He carried a frozen slushy in one hand; in the other, his iPhone on a selfie stick, streaming the scene on Facebook. “Feels pretty calm so far. Lots of different peacekeepers, medics,” he told his followers. He couldn’t take more than a few steps without someone stopping to speak to him. Most thanked him for his work; one said he should win a Pulitzer. Being the most visible activist in the City of Roses was a blessing, he knew. But it had its drawbacks too: Basic chores like buying groceries had become a hassle, and he was always running late. Left-wingers, anarchists, cops, Trumpeters, last year’s GOP Senate candidate — they all flagged him down. A woman approached to ask, “How’s it going over there?” It’s calm so far, he said — and there had been many occasions that weren’t.
The week before, two white men had been murdered on a light-rail train in Northwest Portland while protecting a pair of young girls — one was wearing a hijab — from a racially charged harasser, adding to the documented rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. in recent years. The incident sparked mourning, and then outrage, when Trump supporters and white nationalists announced a downtown, alt-right Free Speech Rally. Three counter-protests emerged surrounding Chapman Square, where the rally was held. Outside City Hall, an anti-hate event was organized. Directly east, local labor leaders chanted “Union workers here to say: Nazi thugs, not your day.” And to the north, scores of black-clad antifascists hurled expletives and water bottles. As the morning progressed, the opposing factions shouted and harassed anyone who dared cross over to another group.
Battle lines are multiplying across America — and not just in protest-heavy Portland but in places from Berkeley, California, to Washington, D.C., pitting the alt-right movement emboldened by the election of Donald Trump against activists compelled to draw arms against them. And new terminology is emerging to meet them. Left-leaning “antifa” — militant antifascists — face off against right-leaning “Kekists,” Trump-supporting meme-makers who sardonically praise Pepe the Frog, a symbol the Anti-Defamation League has declared racist and which supporters defend as social commentary. Amid these shifting coalitions are folks like Whitten, 26, trying to define ethical activism in the age of the anti-Trump resistance.
Only Whitten doesn’t quite feel up to the task today. He is sick, has been staying up too late and his thoughts are increasingly turning to self-care: how organizers must be effective but most don’t get paid. It’s especially insulting for people of color like himself, he thinks. Despite Portland’s feel-good liberalism and leafy neighborhoods filled with Black Lives Matter signs, too often he’s seen his white neighbors fall silent when they are needed most. Walking through Chapman Square, Whitten gets pulled aside once more. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” says a man in commando gear, one of the Oregon Three Percent, a self-styled patriot group that provides volunteer security for many Trump events. The man was apologizing for what had happened in Salem. “We should talk about it later,” Whitten says, and keeps moving.
In the past, Whitten would have been leading the charge, but the man The Oregonian called Portland’s most famous young radical isn’t here to agitate. It’s selfish, maybe, but these days he attends rallies not to change minds but to see how they will change him. One antifa protester drops her black mask to greet him: “Your struggle is worse, and bigger, than mine,” the middle-aged Latina says. “Before, it was hidden. And now it’s not.” From inside the Trump rally, a white-haired woman wearing a Make America Great Again hat accosts Whitten: “You are too young to know what racism is,” she says.
He turns to another woman and asks what’s in her cooler. “Medical supplies. I’m here if it goes downhill,” she says. Is she worried? “I’m worried that too many people here are going to think this was enough. To me, this is not the real work.” She points at the pro-Trump forces. “The real work is to walk across the street and start a conversation.” Asked if she’s willing to start that conversation, she seems surprised. No, she says; she’s afraid the folks here won’t listen. “Yep,” Whitten tells her: He has crossed that line before. “One time, it almost got me killed,” he says.
His phone battery is dying, but before he can get to a store, a tall redhead stops him and hands him a bag holding two battery packs. The stranger had been following the livestream. “You’re like the best at covering these things,” he says. As they walk, the stranger asks: “How did you get started?”
It was election night in November, and Whitten was biking down Burnside Street when he heard screams. “I thought it was the usual Chinatown screaming, and then I heard they were shouting ‘Fuck Trump!’” Soon, a couple hundred students were blocking traffic, and he started marching with them. In the days to come, he would stream key scenes from the resistance — from a shooting on Morrison Bridge to a flash grenade exploding on his crotch — and felt invigorated. He says he hasn’t felt that way since 2011 — “when Occupy happened.”
Back then he was newly arrived, a homeless teenager who headed West after an abusive childhood in northern Virginia. The Occupy Portland movement taught him to write press releases, facilitate conversations — and get arrested. Soon after, in 2012, he launched an ill-fated run for Portland mayor, campaigning the final two weeks in a cardboard box. That year, he also staged a 55-day hunger strike outside City Hall to draw attention to his three demands: that Portland dismiss fines on a local tent community, that a bond be approved for affordable housing opportunities and a temporary moratorium be placed on foreclosures across the county. The first two would eventually come to pass — years after his strike.
Whitten still fights for fair housing and serves on the boards of Pioneer Courthouse Square, which manages the urban park known as Portland’s “living room,” and Reach Community Development. When panels need a Black face to talk race, he speaks. And for the past two years, he’s been director of Know Your City, a social justice nonprofit, although he’s stepping down soon. He wants to move into consulting, start training activists and get paid for it. He knows the protest community is steeped in trauma — “None of us are OK; that’s why we’re activists,” he says — and is hobbled by scandal and infighting. It took time for him to learn, but he now understands there’s no use trying to fix the world when your own house is on fire. After eight years on the front lines, that collective trauma is taking a toll on him.
Things in downtown Portland are going downhill. Chopper blades whir overhead, drowned out by police megaphones blaring that the protest has become unlawful, and anyone who remains will be arrested. Whitten finally reaches the Elk Fountain, where protesters have gathered after being pushed from Chapman Square. They shout “Shame! Shame!” and “Who do you serve?” He’s told that protesters were throwing water bottles, Sprite cans. Later, police will say there were also red-stained tampons, and bricks. The air is heavy with pepper, and the cider vinegar activists use to counter the acrid smell of tear gas. Whitten approaches a pink-flanneled Black man, whose face is flecked with Maalox, a DIY pepper-spray treatment. “This is Gregory McKelvey,” he says. “Leader of the resistance. Kind of like Luke Skywalker.”
Humor and a smartphone are Whitten’s weapons, even as those around him don gas masks. Some protesters accuse Whitten of not being radical enough. He empathizes with the antifa, but disagrees with the chants of “A.C.A.B.: All Cops Are Bastards,” the window-smashing and vandalism, and activists who goad authorities and then blame “the pigs” when they respond in force.
The protest was in part so hostile because the stabbing was so fresh in people’s minds, and was amplified by the public outcry labeling it a terrorist act, which Whitten disagreed with. “It’s that culture of ‘terror’ that reinforces the fear that gives people the power to hate our community,” he says, and he’s not alone. “This is not what we are here for!” one woman shouts, trying in vain to quell the anti-cop chants. Watching the opposing sides gather, Andrew Hollenbeck, a veteran of both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, is troubled: “When I was in the theater overseas, if you show up in body armor ready to rattle, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Whitten knows about terror. Earlier, Dory Dae, an Oregon Three Percenter with a pixie cut, approached him with a big smile. “Take a selfie with me,” she says, the Trump supporter bragging about having already kicked out “two white nationalists.” “There’s no place for them here,” she says. At first, Whitten didn’t recognize her. If he had, he wouldn’t have been so keen to play along. “How’s it going?” Dae asks. “Better than Salem?”
Salem, where Whitten attended a Make America Great Again march three months earlier because he believes there’s value in talking to those he disagrees with. Salem, where hundreds watched his live video as a group of Three Percenters mistook him for another Black man accused of sex abuse crimes. Salem, where Whitten was accosted by an angry masked man, whom he feared had a gun, but the police officer he called over refused to help. Salem, where he managed to escape one mob, only to have another masked man start stalking him, forcing him to run from the rally. Salem, where his desire to understand and the color of his skin put him in danger.
Today in Portland, he doesn’t feel threatened, just disappointed as he watches his fellow activists calling Trump supporters “monsters” while acting monstrously themselves. Fresh political anxieties emerge each day, with names like Comey and Russia, the Paris Treaty and health care. Each met with outrage and support from dueling armies, fueling fears real or imagined, and stoking the desire for homemade weapons and body armor.
So much of their work feels reactionary, and the middle ground seems so distant. Soon, things could become so polarized there will no longer be room for reconciliation. After nearly seven continuous hours of streaming, Whitten says goodbye to his followers, and signs off.
Facebook Live video from Cameron Whitten in Salem: Confrontation begins at 19:13.
* Correction: The original version of this story unintentionally presented one quote out of context. A qualifier has been added for clarity.
Rudyard Kipling once described its residents as living “on salmon and great and increasing expectations.”
- Politics & Power
Democracy in action is sometimes as simple as a bunch of crusading volunteers on a bus.