Fight for Your Rights

Award-winning writer and Portland native Mitchell S. Jackson reflects on the sneaky power of protest.

By Mitchell S. Jackson June 10, 2020

Editor's note: A shortened version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Portland Monthly

Shout out to Daniel Binns, AKA Geechee Dan or Geechee. Back when I was a youngster dreaming, dreaming of biddy ball glory, Geechee Dan was a neighborhood hero. Some days I’d be practicing in Irving Park and would hear first and then see Geechee’s El Camino—the one he’d customized with large house speakers—BOOMING and BLAPPING down Fremont, a virtual one-car concert.

This was circa ’85, ’86, I was 10 or 11 and Geechee was an 18 or 19-year-old hustler. In those years, crack cocaine was still incipient in the hood. By the time I turned 18 myself, though, it was all but ubiquitous, and I was beginning to sell it. 

In the interest of space, let me forward to July 8, 1998, the day I paroled from Santiam Correctional Facility having served 16 months for selling crack. 

On August 16, 1998—my 23rd birthday—Geechee had scheduled his 4th Annual Birthday Bash (His is the 18th. Go Leos!). Geechee’s party, with crowds that numbered thousands, was a summer highlight in what we called “the hood” or “the NEP” and what a generation prior was called “Tombstone Territory.”

Best believe, I’d been on the scene for some of those “on and crackin” Beach Blasts. There would be hundreds if not thousands milling Dittlers Beach; women in colorful swimsuits or short skirts; buff dudes roaming shirtless or lithe guys in gleaming white tall tees and shorts; there would be custom cars all asparkle parked alongside the road; there would be a strong man and a dancing contest with dozens cheering the contestants; there would be plenty food fresh off a grille; not to mention a sound system at least as loud as Geechee’s old El Camino.

The problem was that by 1998, North and Northeast Portland (the hood, the NEP, the old Tombstone Territory) was suffering the predictable outcomes of decades of racism and social neglect: there was poverty, gangs, drugs, violence, heavy-handed policing; there was the general ethos of people who feel trapped and disbelieve in escape routes. In particular, there’d been some fisticuffs and a shooting at a previous Beach Blast and the police had refused Geechee a permit for the 1998 edition. Geechee, resourceful, relocated his party to Sellwood Park. But po-po put the kaput on that party too.

The next day, proclaiming discrimination and unfair treatment by the Portland Police, Geechee and a crowd of about 200 disgruntled Blacks marched up MLK to the home of then Police Chief Charles Moose (the first Black man to hold the job), an officer who lived in the hood to affirm his commitment to community policing. Chief Moose never came out to rap with Geechee or the protestors that day, but he did rant about them at a City Council meeting months later (homie had a 900-page report drafted about the fray).

To keep it a buck, I was not one of those protestors as I wasn’t about to risk a parole violation. But parole or not, I couldn’t see the value of the protest. In fact, I dismissed it as lame. They marching for what?

What I couldn’t see was, though it may have been about a party to some if not most of the people who stomped up the boulevard to confront the chief, at least a handful must’ve recognized the police shutting down the party as part of the same forces that had forged a placed once called “Tombstone Territory,” that not only let gangs flourish in the hood but created the circumstances that birthed the gangs in the first damn place, that had allowed drugs to deluge the hood, that had rounded up dozens of youngsters on racketeering charges as if they were the mob, the same forces that choked, with impunity, all the life out of Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson in ’85 and in ’96, shot dead, with impunity, Deontae Keller with a bullet in his back. At least one of those protestors must’ve discerned the police shutting down Geechee’s bash as part of the same systemic forces that policed Portland’s ever-small Black population like, well, the long arm of the law has oppressed Blacks throughout the history of American policing.

And you know what? Whoever that was, that person was right.

Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years (Bloomsbury) received the Whiting Award. His writing has been featured as cover stories for Time and Esquire, as well as in the New Yorker, Harpers, the New York Times Book Review, the Paris Review, the Washington Post Magazine, the Guardian, and elsewhere. His nonfiction book Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Scribner) was published in the spring of 2019 and named a best book of the year by fifteen publications. Jackson teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. A formerly incarcerated person, Jackson is also a social justice advocate who, as part of his outreach, visits prisons and youth facilities in the United States and abroad.

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