How Young Black Activists Are Fighting Police Brutality in Portland
Since the death of George Floyd, the nightly Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon, have escalated — and become a national spectacle. Protestors continually clash with federal troops who have been deployed to the city. From Mayor Ted Wheeler being tear-gassed to the Wall of Moms being attacked to dads fighting tear gas with leaf blowers, harsh tactics against protesters has garnered national outrage. Much of the police violence and civil unrest has been centered around Portland’s Justice Center, where protesters say they are tear-gassed almost every night.
Among the many groups organizing in Portland over the last two months is the Portland Black Youth Movement (BYM), a group of 15 young Black people — most of whom are women or part of the LGBTQ+ community. Since early June, they’ve held three events and been unofficial crowd leaders for protests in downtown Portland. For weeks, these young activists have seen their city become a focal point to the country’s reckoning with its racist past and present.
YR Media’s Lucy Barnum talked to Kai Ingram and Enajah Glass, two of BYM’s founders, about being young Black leaders on the front lines of the Portland protests.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
YR Media: What has it been like to be on the front lines of the Portland protests?
Enajah Glass: Honestly, it gives me a lot of anxiety, especially because the police are so random. You don’t know when they’re going to tear-gas you or when they’re going to pop off.
Some people are not out there for Black lives. You can tell that there are some people that go to protest to just mess with cops, to mess things up and be destructive. And those are the people that we try and stay away from. When I was at the Justice Center, there was this group of white males literally pulling the fences off the Justice Center. And they know that was going to make the police mad. You’re being irresponsible: like that is setting up all these people to get tear-gassed, which is rude.
Kai Ingram: Our protests are a lot different from the Justice Center protests— they’re at 6 p.m. and usually in actual Portland neighborhoods. For us, I think some days can be a little bit sad and draining. But other days we have a lot of fun — we’re chanting and dancing and stuff.
YR: Have you guys personally been in protests that have been tear-gassed or shot at?
Enajah: Yeah. I think it might have been one of my first nights protesting at the Justice Center. But every night I was down there, they were tear-gassing people — every single night. And I’ve been down there since the beginning.
I literally had to run away. Last time I was running and I tripped because a bunch of people were running. It’s just really dangerous and scary.
YR: How do you feel about Trump sending federal agents to Portland? How has that changed the protests?
Kai: It creates another level of unsafety, especially for Black people, especially for us — most of us are Black girls. There’s this whole other layer of unsafety. Not even wanting to be downtown at all, even during the daytime, or not even being able to drive around in certain areas. It’s another layer of not being able to trust your government. The whole story about people being taken to unmarked cars, that’s a real-life threat for us and always has been. It’s really scary, and it’s really hard because it’s changed our lives. We have to move around, knowing that one of us could get taken.
Especially with us being in the media organizing, people know our faces. They know our names. Some people will have tracked down where we live or things like that. Police have already been watching my car. I get tickets all the time. A lot of times we’re all together just because of safety. But that also puts a big target on our back because we are all together. It’s scary either way because Portland police are the same way. They’re all bad. All relentless, all careless and violent.
Every time you drive around the Justice Center, it looks like an apocalypse. There’s people in black, smoke, cars, trucks. There is no way to explain what it looks like.
Enajah: And a lot of people don’t even know the truth. They think, ‘Oh, people might say things in the media, but those things are not true.’ But like Kai was saying, these things are real. People are being taken away in unmarked cars. People are still getting hurt by the police. People are getting shot by rubber bullets. Like, someone in our group has gotten shot by rubber bullets. They’re really out here doing this to people.
YR: How has the Portland city government and police department been handling the situation?
Enajah: There was this one time we were at a protest — this was in the beginning. Another member of our group and I were talking to the police with a group of people. And the other police in the background were laughing at us.
You can tell that the Portland Police Department does not care about Black Lives Matter. They do not care about none of this. I know they’re waiting — they’re praying that this just blows over so they can go back to their normal lives, and people can stop hating them. But this doesn’t stop for us.
YR: How did you two and the 13 other founders become the Portland Black Youth Movement? What are some of your long term goals?
Kai: What really brought us together is that we’re all so passionate, and we were so broken by George Floyd’s death and everything that’s happened since. It was that kind of trauma and that pain that kind of brought us all together. Because a lot of times we were crying at protests and, you know, couldn’t function. We were so hurt, the trauma had built up so much.
I think all of us have very strong personalities as a group, but we’re also best friends. I think we all use protesting as our own kind of semi-therapy. It’s a semi-coping mechanism to get the anger out, maybe do something about it, even if it’s a small thing.
And I think now is the time, because we have this media representation. We’re getting white people to notice that we’re tired of it. So it’s very important for us to use this time.
Enajah: No matter what it takes, we just want the injustice to stop. Because we don’t want our kids to go through the same things that we’re going through, the same thing that our ancestors went through. We want to break the chain. We want it to stop here.
YR: Why do you think it’s so important for young people to get involved in the movement right now? Especially to take on leadership roles like you have?
Enajah: I think it’s important because we are the future. This is our future, and we have the power to make a difference. Like, it’s crazy how much the youth have power. We can do big things. Our voices are extremely powerful.
Kai: I can’t even vote yet. So I think something that the youth [are] good at is even without political power we are touching people’s emotions. I think people are able to grasp the emotions of young people a little bit more. And emotions are really what we’ve seen make the most change. When people really feel emotionally connected to us, or when people really feel our stories are powerful. That’s what will make that change.