Teressa Raiford, the community organizer who founded Don’t Shoot PDX after her nephew was shot to death in 2014 in a still-unsolved case, finished a distant third in the mayor’s race during the May primary, with just over 8 percent of the vote, a devastating finale to years of sustained campaigning.
Then came the death of George Floyd less than a week later, followed by two months and counting of protests against police brutality in Portland, federal troops parachuting into the city and hot July nights of tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets.
Raiford and the organization she founded have been everywhere at once this summer, at the center of overlapping stories—filing suit against the federal government for the treatment of protesters, advocating for a full investigation into the death of 18-year-old Shai-India Harris, and entangled in the messy demise of one of the most high-profile endeavors to emerge this summer: the Wall of Moms. That’s the telegenic movement of protesting mothers that collapsed over allegations its first-generation leadership was preparing to monetize the cause and had lost sight of the mission to support Black Lives Matter; Raiford’s group is now working with its successor, Moms United for Black Lives Matter, to chart a course forward.
Now, a grassroots campaign to encourage voters to write in Raiford’s name on the November ballot is under way. Raiford says she won’t be actively campaigning; she has her hands full, she says. But if the write-in takes off (not unprecedented—just ask US Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska), she’d be honored to serve. It’s not her first time as a write-in candidate; back in 2016 she ran an 11th-hour write-in campaign for Multnomah County sheriff, losing out to Mike Reese, a former Portland police chief. She’s also previously run for Portland City Council and for a seat on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, but always come up short.
“I would love to make our city better, to make it what it could be,” Raiford says. “It could be safer. We haven’t tried hard enough—or we have tried to uphold a system that hurts us.”
Of Wheeler, who has been criticized by activists at the nightly protests—though his office cites his work on the $15 million cut from the police bureau’s budget, alongside in-the-works updates to bureau policies, training, and accountability measures at local, state and federal levels—Raiford is blunt. He should never have run for a second term, she says.
Challenger Sarah Iannarone is running to Wheeler’s left and has called for a series of police department reforms, including a ban on chokeholds and chemical weapons at demonstrations, and an increase in civilian oversight over the Portland Police Bureau. For Raiford, this doesn’t go far enough.
“I don’t know too much about Sarah,” she says. “But people who think they have to help us figure out how to live in America do not understand what our lives represent. We are seeing that systems were made to be inequitable. The system is racist, and until we define that new leadership, it won’t be dismantled.”
Portland is among the whitest cities in America, and yet, as Raiford notes, white people have come out in droves this summer, adding their voices to calls for the systemic change she’s outlined as her platform. Whether that will translate to direct change at the ballot box via a write-in campaign, she says, remains to be seen.
As it plays out, she says, she’ll focus on the abuse of force lawsuits Don’t Shoot PDX has filed against the federal government and the city of Portland, and its ongoing research into any connections between the protests and the spread of COVID-19, with a particular focus on the effects of repeated tear gas, which could potentially spread infected respiratory droplets over long distances.
“Everyone woke up,” Raiford says. “A switch went off—all of those months of running, the people who may not have heard me, they hear it now.”