Hipster street cred hiding ‘Skinhead City’ reality of Portland
Jeremy Christian -- mugshot

Last month's fatal stabbing of two men at a Portland transit center has reunited the debate over white supremacy in the progressive city of Portland, OR.


"A man, screaming profanities at a pair of teenagers who, to him, didn’t fit his definition of an 'American,' shattered the image of the progressiveness that has come to define my hometown in the popular imagination," Casey Michel wrote for Quartz. "The murders have upended the narrative that Portland is a bastion of tolerance, and drawn much-needed attention to an insidious problem."

Jeremy Christian, 35, was booked on two aggravated murder charges, an attempted murder charge, and two hate crime charges, as well as being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon after stabbing three people who intervened when Christian was abusing two Muslim women.

The fact that Christian was a well known white supremacist, but not listed in the Portland Police Bureau's gang database, has reignited the debate over government and race in Oregon.

The racial component of the gang database is striking with only 18 percent of those in the gang database identified as white in one of the whitest cities in the country. Meanwhile, 64 percent of those on the list are black in a city with only an 8 percent black population.

Oregon's history as an intended white Utopia predates statehood.

"In the summer of 1844, for example, the Legislative Committee passed a provision that said any free black people who were in the state would be subject to flogging if they didn’t leave within two years. The floggings were supposed to continue every six months until they left the territory," Gizmado reported. "That provision was revised in December of 1845 to remove the flogging part. Instead, free black people who remained would be offered up “publicly for hire” to any white person who would remove them from the territory."

Following the "lash laws" era came constitutional exclusion.

"The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery," Gizmado noted. "The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted."

Oregon defended their exclusion laws for a century.

"Technically the state’s exclusion laws were superseded by federal law after the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. But Oregon had a rather complicated relationship with that particular Amendment," Gizmado explained. "Having ratified it in 1866, the state then rescinded its ratification when a more racist state government took control in 1868. The move was more symbolic than anything, but Oregon gave the sign that it wasn’t on board with racial equality. Astoundingly, it wouldn’t be until 1973 (and with very little fanfare) that activists would get the state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment yet again."

And there was the era when, "the segregation in Portland was as start as anything in the Jim Crow-era south."

Now, this history of "Skinhead City" is getting discussed, from Vanport to the murder of Mulugeta Seraw.

"Until recently, this deeply racist history is remained largely hidden, even from its residents," Michel wrote for Quartz. "But, clearly, my home state can no longer afford to ignore its past—or the way its past could yet shape its future."