It’s been a rough year for the Chamber of Commerce and its friends at City Hall. Last November, Portland voters passed four referenda providing for a $15 an hour wage, renter protections, Green New Deal building codes, and a ban on police use of facial recognition technology. And on June 8, Portlanders elected nine commissioners to draft a new City Charter to be approved by the voters. The progressive left swept the race, led by the Rose Slate of feminist, anti-racist activists. But is this simply a radical “moment,” as Portland Press Herald editorial board member Greg Kesich wonders, or the beginning of something more profound?

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BLM protest at Portland City Hall, June 1, 2020. Photo credit Todd Chretien.

Unsurprisingly, the powers-that-be have lashed out and are now trying to discredit the Charter results, launching a racist witch hunt against the most popular candidate, Charter Commissioner-elect Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef. Her crime is simple in the establishment’s view: she’s not afraid. As she posted on her Facebook page on June 12, “They all think that I will be like other elected officials and stay silent and not say anything. NO, it is not going to happen.” 

Just as the tourists are starting to swarm, Portland’s long-simmering political crisis may be coming to a boil. Last year’s Black Lives Matter mobilizations, Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and the Covid-19 pandemic created what Maine DSA’s Kate Sykes called a “perfect storm.” Beyond putting the police on notice and building dense networks of anti-racists, one local outcome of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor rebellion was to elevate the City Charter in the popular imagination. What’s the connection between the two? 

Portland B.L.A.C.K. Power called for the resignation of City Manager Jon Jennings, rightly identifying his pro-police priorities as a real-and-present danger. Yet, as responsible as Jon Jennings is for his own policies, the deeper problem is the unelected city manager position itself; its origins arising from racist and anti-people politics championed by no less than the KKK

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KKK marches in Maine ca. 1923. Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society.

But simply replacing Jennings with a kinder, gentler bureaucrat is not enough. The Charter Commission majority’s mandate is to abolish the City Council’s reliance on the old KKK-backed structure and to fundamentally shift decision-making power into the hands of the people.

That’s why city councilors and the Chamber are calling on Nasreen to resign and why Mayor Kate Snyder is accusing her of “hate-filled attacks.” Snyder’s willing to replace Jennings, but she’s not willing to dig up the city’s rotten foundations. As Todd Ricker wrote in the Portland Press Herald, “One of the more subtle elements of the white supremacy in which we white folks were raised is the privilege to insist on politeness from those who are screaming in pain. We have been taught that we have the right to make others be nice to us, in order for them to be heard by us.” And a statement in solidarity with Nasreen by Maine DSA hit the nail on the head, “A City Council that condemns hatred and bigotry while doing nothing to change the structures that create it is white supremacist.”

If you want the lineup card for who is going to spend big and run every trick in the book to gum up the Charter Commission majority’s work, just look at who spent $1,000,000 last November to stop People First Portland. They’re singing from the same hymnal today and there’s plenty of money to spread their tune. Remember that the Chamber and the mayor teamed up last fall, refusing to enforce the hazard pay provision to the $15 an hour wage for Portland’s lowest-paid and hardest-working people. Nasreen is not alone in coming under the gun.

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City Commissioner-elect Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef.

Which brings us to what we have to do now. In the words of the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass,

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning… This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. 

What can we expect power to concede without a struggle in the Charter Commission? Perhaps some redistricting, a few bylaw amendments to city and school tax apportionments, a committee or two to “study” racism and poverty, etc. These individual reforms may (or may not) be significant on their own. But if we want freedom from the power of the Chamber, we’re going to have to fight for it. 

The most steadfast of the Commissioners will put up a struggle, but they should not be left to fight on their own. The city will wear them down through long hours of lawyerly shenanigans while chipping away at the one or two votes it needs to salvage as much of the status quo as possible. As Douglass concluded, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

Conversely, find out just how well any people are organized and you will find the approximate measure of how much justice they can win. Concretely, this means that the Charter Commission’s meetings and hearings should be public affairs. Our friends on the Commission will take strength and solace from housing and homeless and harm reduction activists, from teachers and students, from firefighters and nurses and city workers packing the chambers. They should be cheered on by delegations from our neighborhoods, young and old, multi-racial and multi-gender, coming to demand their voices be heard. If Portland is to belong to young people, to our BIPOC and immigrant communities, to feminists, to union members, to our LGTBQ community, to ecologists, progressives, socialists, and organizers, that is, to the working classes, then the Charter must belong to us as well. 

If you want a livable and just city, you need a radical charter. And if you want a radical charter, you’re going to have to fight for it. 

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