Systemic Change

Beyond the Police: Progressive Organizers in Portland Try to Harness the Moment

At rallies and demonstrations, there's talk of universal preschool, tenants' rights, and more.

By Julia Silverman June 21, 2020

Gabriel Matesanz with the Universal Preschool Now campaign speaks at a June 17 rally led by Rose City Justice at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

From far-ranging tenants’ rights reforms to universal preschool to new energy around reforming school fundraising, progressive organizers around Portland say the momentum around police brutality and racial justice is lifting their inter-connected causes, too. 

Police reform dominates the headlines, the nightly demonstrations, and, this past week, the city council meetings, where commissioners voted to cut $15 million from the Portland Police Bureau’s budget, reallocating it to community mental health services, among other priorities.

But bubbling below that hotly debated surface are causes that have been in the works for years. At Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland, the de facto staging ground most nights for the rallies to demand radical changes to the policing system, volunteers work the crowd, signing up new voters, reminding people to fill out their census forms, and collecting signatures for progressive leaning ballot measures—a welcome byproduct for campaigns that had been trying to adjust to an online-only engagement model.

Lilith X. Sinclair, a Black and Indigenous organizer who has emerged as one of the leaders of Portland’s decentralized protest movement, this week took over the social media feeds of Universal Preschool Now, an effort to fund universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old in Multnomah County whose family wants it, and guarantee an $18/hour wage plus benefits and the right to unionize for preschool staffers, in a historically low-wage industry largely staffed by women, who are often of color. (To qualify for the ballot, the campaign needs 22,000 signatures by early July—they are about a quarter of the way there, volunteers say.)

Access to universal education is a social justice, racial justice, and economic issue,” Sinclair said on the organization’s Instagram feed this week. 

Tenant rights activists, too, are gearing up for the pending legislative special session, starting June 24, when Gov. Kate Brown has indicated that she might request an extension of the state’s temporary ban on rental evictions, due to expire at the end of June. Advocates want to add a rent freeze, says Lauren Everett with PDX Tenants’ United: “(We) are advocating that we forgive or reduce rents for those who cannot pay, and then disburse these funds in a landlord-based program that only applies to costs, not profit. We should not be subsidizing any industry’s profits right now when there is limited funding, and that includes the real estate industry. 

Sahar Yarjani Muranovic, who heads the Oregon chapter of the National Organization for Women and is working with the universal preschool campaign, says she thinks so much suddenly seems within reach in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“If the pandemic had not happened in the way that it did, with folks at their 9-to-5 jobs, people wouldn’t be as able to protest and go to actions,” she says. “Our economic constraints keep us down on normal days. Now there is that space to think bigger, to imagine. It’s not just the police—we don’t have systems that work in isolation from each other. 

Plenty of studies suggest that investing in early-childhood education can pay off in spades down the line, leveling the playing field for children from all different backgrounds. 

Backers say the preschool initiative would be paid for via a 3.9 percent tax on the top 5 percent of income earners in Multnomah County, which is expected to generate $260 million a year. The county wouldn’t run the preschools, but disburse the funds to existing programs, whether at community centers, schools, family programs, or center-based care. The idea is to phase it in through 2028, starting first in communities with the greatest need. Eventually, backers say, 20,000 children could take part. 

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