100 Days of protest: A chasm grows between Portland and the rest of Oregon

By Thomas Fuller

Trucks carrying bales of hay, horse paddocks and Christmas tree farms — drive a few miles out of Portland and the suburbs quickly give way to rural Oregon.

Barely a half hour from the Portland streets where racial justice protesters Saturday were marking 100 consecutive days of tempestuous, sometimes violent, demonstrations, there are plenty of communities where people dismiss the protesters as lawless hooligans.

“Portland is an island in Oregon,” said Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, a more conservative town of 10,000 people about 30 miles southeast of Portland that feeds off the economic dynamism of Oregon’s largest city but also strives to be separate from it. “We are scared to death that what’s happening in Portland will ever come out to where we live.”

The rural-urban divide is a reality writ large across much of the nation, a crucial dynamic as the Nov. 3 election approaches. But the proximity of left and right in Oregon, both moderates and extremists, has created a dynamic of fear, mistrust and anger that feeds the conflicts in the streets in ways that it has not in other states.

At Rapid Fire Arms, a gun shop along the main road in Sandy, owner Brian Coleman has sold 4.5 million rounds of ammunition since March, when the arrival of the pandemic drove up sales. Demand for guns and ammunition soared even further, he said, when the protests in Portland turned violent in the weeks after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis.

“There’s panic buying every once in a while but nowhere near like this,” Coleman said at the entrance of his shop, fortified with steel bars. “There’s such a massive rush, people are taking anything they can get.”

Coleman, who has sold thousands of guns this year, estimates that 70% of customers in recent months are first-time gun buyers.

In the town of Gresham, 15 miles from the urban canyons of downtown Portland, Bonnie Johnson, a member of a Republican precinct committee, is on a waiting list for her first firearm, a Smith & Wesson revolver.

“I didn’t even want a gun,” said Johnson, who grew up in the neighboring town of Boring. “But when you see all that’s going on in Portland, it scares you.”

Johnson took part in a flag-waving demonstration Wednesday evening, joining a group of 50 or so people, many of them wearing hats and T-shirts in support of President Donald Trump. They gathered at the Gresham civic center to show their patriotism and mourn the death of Aaron J. Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer who was shot Aug. 29 amid clashes between protesters from the right and left.

As a line of people beside Johnson waved American flags on a sidewalk, passing motorists honked in support, or in some cases raised a middle finger and shouted insults.

The ideological divide between Portland and its environs can be stark. Conservative groups outside Portland have held demonstrations in support of the police. Protesters in Portland have called for police forces to be abolished altogether.

Pulliam, the Sandy mayor, whose post is nonpartisan but who is registered as a Republican, says he is dismayed that the clash between left and right, while highly emotionally charged, is vague in its prescriptions.

“Neither movement has asked our leaders for any kind of concrete action,” he said.

The Portland protests began in reaction to the killing of Floyd in May but came to represent a more general campaign for racial justice and opposition to the presence of federal agents in the city. Conservatives in the Portland area say authorities have allowed protesters to hijack the downtown. When they visit, they say, they feel unwelcome and have been harassed.

Rebecca Crymer moved to the Portland area two years ago and although she leans conservative she says she was never particularly interested in politics.

In late August she was walking through the protests in Portland wearing a Captain America T-shirt. She said she was called a Nazi and followed by a man who threatened to throw dog feces at her. On Wednesday, Crymer, who grew up in a military family, joined the flag-waving demonstration in Gresham.

“I’m a normal person and I don’t have extremist views,” Crymer said. “Normal people should be able to feel like they can fly an American flag and not get hunted down for it.”

Conservatives who have lived in the Portland area for decades say they increasingly feel like strangers in their own state when they visit the city.

Similar to the Far North of California, a conservative area where residents feel vastly outnumbered in that state’s legislature, communities outside Portland often complain that laws and regulations are drafted to suit the city and then imposed on the rest of the state.

Portland and its surrounding areas make up around 60% of the state’s population of 4 million people.

As the cost of living in Portland has soared in recent years city residents have moved to the suburbs, helping transform politically conservative areas into shades of purple.

In Clackamas County, southeast of Portland and which includes Sandy, Hillary Clinton won 50% of the vote in 2016, defeating Trump by 7 points.

Clinton carried Oregon because of her strength in Portland. But the state’s electoral map was a sea of red with blue blotches in Portland and the Willamette Valley.

Those conservatives near Portland are often in the awkward position of mistrusting the city but relying on it for their livelihoods. In Sandy, where Trump won 54% of the vote in 2016, around two-thirds of residents commute to the city for work, according to the mayor.

“The outer areas hate Portland,” said Coleman, the gun shop owner in Sandy. And sometimes, he added, “Portland hates Portland.”

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