Portland’s Resistance leader Gregory McKelvey on activism in the Trump era

In the wake of  the Trump election, Portland’s Resistance aims to connect the new anti-Trump movement with those who have already been working towards social justice.

Beginning as a Facebook page created by Lewis & Clark Law student Gregory McKelvey two days after the election, Portland’s Resistance (now with upwards of 20,600 likes) was borne out of several days of anti-Trump protests that happened in across America’s cities.

I met McKelvey in a Miller classroom. Students passed by, leaving their early evening classes as I nervously scrolled through his Twitter. McKelvey walked down the stairs wearing a suit and bow tie; he’s been very busy these days. In addition to becoming one of the faces of Portland activism, he has been working full time, and in the final stretch of his law degree at LC Law School. Today, he’s going to speak at an LC Civil Disobedience workshop, facilitated by Professor Reiko Hillyer, as part of a series of weekly, unofficial classes directly addressing the history of radical activism, and the modern incarnation of normalized far-right, neo-fascist ideology.

“November 8 and November 9 I was protesting, and I had been doing a lot of Black Lives Matter protests beforehand. I knew how to protest and the cops response and that kind of stuff,” McKelvey said. “I wanted a centralized location really, and to make sure that there were policies we were pushing for and so we weren’t just going to have chaos in the streets for no reason.”

The tactics of McKelvey and Portland’s Resistance blend grassroots leftist activism with that of political action. On several occasions, McKelvey alluded to their aims of establishing, “a Tea Party for the left.”

“Activists and politicians, activism and politics in general are always at war,” McKelvey said. “But, I think it’s sort of a privilege to say I’m ignoring the political system. People do rely upon these services. I mean, for example, the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade and that would have a huge human impact, so you can’t completely ignore politics.”

With that being said, Portland’s Resistance frequently goes beyond state sanctioned protest. They have not sought permits when protesting, a tactic that has faced backlash from the increasing presence of riot police, who have deployed tear gas, pepper spray, less-lethal rounds, as well as have thrown protesters, and in some cases passersby, to the ground.

McKelvey takes issues with the “Good protester vs. Bad Protester” binary that has plagued recent movements. One example is the Women’s March vs. the Inauguration Day protests (J20).

“This idea of, ‘We are the good protesters, we did it right, you are unruly,’ there’s a lot of underlying racism, as well as classicism and ageism even, that goes into that. But, I think that resistance is going to look like J20 plus the Women’s March not J20 vs. the Women’s March, ”McKelvey said.

On multiple occasions, Portland’s Resistance protests have been labeled as riots by the city, based on acts of vandalism associated with protest. The first of such was Thursday, November 10, when 25 people were arrested in response to vandalism in the Pearl District and at a Toyota dealership. What went unnoticed, however, was that none of the 25 arrested that night were charged for vandalism.

In response to the damage to businesses in the Pearl, Portland’s Resistance started a fund to repair the damage, raising over $55,000. Despite raising money for these repairs, McKelvey has routinely stressed that one shouldn’t police others’ activism. This  stance that has been controversial, even in Portland’s liberal-leaning  media.

“There’s also the fact that at some point property damage does become essential to resistance. Would we talk about Rodney King as much if there wasn’t riots afterwards? Would we have an America if we didn’t throw precious property into the Boston Harbor?” McKelvey said. “I’m a person of a lot of privilege and not a member of a ton of different marginalized communities, so I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to tell people that might of already reached that level in their oppression to tell them—no don’t worry. I mean the biggest thing about the civil rights movement is that it’s not okay for a white person to tell a black person how to fight their own oppression. When we have people out there that feel so victimized by capitalism or whatever system they view as marginalizing them, it’s not your place to tell them, ‘No, that’s not where we’re at yet.’”

Before Trump’s election, McKelvey had already been a familiar face in Portland activism, taking part in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Formerly, he worked with groups like Don’t Shoot PDX, whose leader Teressa Raiford ran a write-in campaign for Multnomah County Sheriff, losing to lone ballot incumbent Michael Reese. McKelvey also became politically involved with the Democratic Party as a delegate for former candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

“I got to broker a meeting between [Sanders] and Black Lives Matter groups which sort of catapulted me into the Bernie Sanders crowd,” McKelvey said. “There weren’t many Black people in that crowd, especially here.”

McKelvey’s first involvement with activism came in a less than traditional way, while on vacation with his family in Athens, Greece as a high school student in 2010. It was right in the midst of the far-right Greek government’s planned austerity measures that resulted in a countrywide strike and protest.

“I just joined the protest, not because I understood the intricacies of Greek government or anything, but because those people looked cool and were standing for something meaningful,” McKelvey said. “I would sneak out from the hotel I was at with my parents to go hang out with these protesters.”

Upon returning to Portland, the Occupy Movement had just begun to take form, where McKelvey listened to and learned from older local activists. He then went on to study Political Science at Oregon State University, where he started to become more interested in both the organizational and political end of activism through regular injustices in the criminal justice system towards people of color.

“Obama running really inspired me to feel empowered as a Black man. But also, while I was in college Trayvon Martin was murdered, and that’s when I saw a cause that I really care about,” McKelvey said. “I had the opportunity to go to law school in Washington, DC, but I choose not to because I wanted to be in Portland to try and better my community.”

He opted to attend law school at LC, where he is a candidate to graduate in spring 2017. In addition to his work with Portland’s Resistance, he meets regularly with the ACLU of Oregon on developing policy in response to riot police violence towards peaceful protesters.

“It’s funny because most people that have seen me in class have probably just known me as some quiet kid who rarely ever raises his hand, is always on his computer, probably not paying much attention, if he gets cold called he probably doesn’t know the answer,” McKelvey said about his life as a student.

“I’d say the majority have no idea what I do, or maybe they do and they just don’t say anything. Kids at LC Law School, kids at any school, don’t watch the evening local news. But, my professors see me on the evening local news a lot and they have largely been supportive and understanding on days where [I miss] class,” he said.

On March 4 in Lake Oswego, a computer store owner and racist internet troll helped organize a “March 4 Trump,” where conservatives and neo-nazis gathered to show support for the Trump presidency. In response, many local activist groups, including McKelvey and Portland’s Resistance, came to counter-protest. In a video of the protest posted on Twitter by Portland Mercury reporter Doug Brown, McKelvey jokingly demands for the Trump supporters to “Get back on the sidewalks,” referring to requests police made a week prior at a downtown protest against police use of excessive force, that ended with arrests and police violence. At the pro-Trump march though, police remained largely observant. A photo later surfaced showing a Trump supporter posing for a photo with riot police, with one of the police officers wearing Trump’s infamous red Make America Great Again hat. The irony was not lost on McKelvey.

“It’s ridiculous, I mean I couldn’t even get that close to a riot cop,” he said with a dry laugh. “[Trump Supporters] are always mad at us for being mean to the cops, for protesting without a permit, and for blocking roads. And they did all of those things. I still support their right to do it though.”

Despite the hypocrisy and privilege displayed in the pro-Trump march, McKelvey maintained optimism. For him, the counter-protest meant something more.  

“Some people said, ‘Why would you show up to what they’re doing?’ And if you think about it, if you’re an immigrant, a transgender person, a refugee, a Black person, or anybody that’s a part of these marginalized groups in the face of Trump, the images on TV of your city coming out in support of Trump could change your life for the worse,” he said. “But what if it’s people in your city tried to [come out for Trump], but were drowned out by many more people standing up for your rights. Even though some may not have the privilege to be able to go out and protest, that could change your life for the better, and that’s worth something. It’s not enough, but it’s worth something.”

 

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