Portland's New Anti-Violence Messaging: Black-On-Black Crime Perpetuates Racism

AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus

It’s not getting much attention outside of local media, but violent crime in Portland, Oregon has been soaring upwards for months now, with no sign of any improvement in the number of shootings and homicides in the city. Even so, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is proposing several million dollars be cut from the Portland Police Bureau’s budget, and other city officials are touting unarmed park rangers and other non-law enforcement strategies in an attempt to address violent crime without necessarily putting violent criminals behind bars.

One of the latest efforts? A billboard campaign that seeks to tie-in the more than 370 shooting incidents in the city this year to “white supremacy.”

“Destroy white supremacy, not each other.”

That’s the message plastered on several new billboards across the Portland area. The provocative message is displayed between a large gold-colored bullet that includes a superimposed image of a slave ship.

At a Monday unveiling of one of the new billboards, the artist behind the image — Portland native Elijah Hasan — said the bullet, like a slave ship, is a vessel of trauma for Black people.

“It is my intention to remind the Black minds inside these Black bodies that they may think that these bullets fly because someone snitched or even killed a loved one,” said Hasan. “But I am suggesting that this is not the reason you’re shooting. But instead, it’s a symptom of the environment you find yourself in.”

Motivated by Portland’s recent homicide rate increase, community organizations and anti-gun violence advocates — including the No Hate Zone, the Portland Rotary Peace Builders Committee, Love is Stronger, and Books Not Bars Oregon — came together to create the billboards. Their goal is to “directly connect the issue of Black-on-Black gun violence to the self-hate that is procreated by racism.”

The founder of the No Hate Zone, Sam Sachs, says the billboards are designed to “bring awareness, action and solutions to the overwhelming number of shootings that impact communities of color, but more specifically Black men in Portland.”

Sachs asked S. Renee Mitchell, a former Oregonian columnist and 2019-2020 Spirit of Portland winner, to craft the billboard’s messaging. Mitchell has completed years of research on the effects of racial trauma and is the visionary for a national award-winning, youth-development organization, called I Am M.O.R.E. (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday).

“These billboards are directed to the Black community because we cannot depend on folks outside of our community to solve issues,” Mitchell said. “This requires an internal shift … in order to understand why we’re participating in a system that was designed to work against us.”

What “system” is Mitchell referring to, exactly? The criminal justice system? The cycle of violence and trauma that plays out daily on the streets of Portland? And what does non-participation look like to Mitchell, who describes herself as a “creative revolutionist”

Look, I’m a white guy in his 40s from the East Coast, so I understand that these messages aren’t meant for me. If the billboards work to reduce the number of shootings in the city, great. I’m just not convinced that all it takes is a message of “when you shoot a fellow Black man, the racists win.”

At some point, we have to deal with the fact that some folks aren’t willing or able to be persuaded to stop shooting at people, no matter what messaging is used. While I support violence prevention programs that use de-escalation and other non-policing strategies to reduce violent crime, I’ve also covered this issue long enough to know that there’s still a place for police, prosecutors, and yes, prison for those who refuse to change their ways.

Programs like Project Ceasefire have been proven effective at reducing homicide rates by as much as 50% by focusing on the most violent offenders in any given community, but because the program uses both community activists and law enforcement, I doubt that city leaders in Portland would have any interest. Instead, they’re offering less money for policing, more money for social programs, and yes, billboards hoping to shame the young men perpetuating violence into putting down their guns in the name of fighting racism.

I suppose its better than demanding new gun control laws, but honestly, I have a feeling this strategy is going to be just as ineffective as slapping a gun or magazine on the books and declaring that we’ll all be safer now. It’s long past time for Portland to get serious about addressing its violent crime, but based on the city’s current focus, don’t be surprised if things get worse instead of better as we head into summer.