Portland NAACP president Sharon Gary-Smith and vice president Donovan Scribes held a press conference this morning to remind voters of the organization’s priorities, to call out some “troubling public stances,” and to emphasize the importance of voting.
While the NAACP Portland does not endorse individual candidates, they urged voters to consider the authenticity of those running for office.
“We have to notice when we’re having these discussions, who is asking these types of questions about affordability on our council, and in our county and our state? Are they voting for the status quo, or are they actually challenging it?” Scribes said.
Both Scribes and Gary-Smith took issue with Portland’s approach to affordable housing. In the current campaign season, much has been made about expanding Portland’s available stock, which currently falls far short of need. But the Portland NAACP expressed its concern about holes in city policy: A tax exemption program meant to entice residential developers into creating affordable housing offers these same companies loopholes around affordability. Program participants are not subject to the state's recent rent control law, and units are only required to remain affordable for 10 years, at which point they can be leased out at market rate.
Meanwhile, the state is coming up on a 14.6% rent cap increase that will go into effect next year.
“When we look at where the affordable housing tracks are now, up and down MLK, up and down Williams and Vancouver avenues, we’re talking about the heart of a community that was taken, where our homes and property were taken, without reasonable compensation,” Gary-Smith said. “And then we’re talking about speculation and the developers who are able to get at the land that belonged to African Americans in lower Albina, in North and Northeast, and then build affordable housing that has all kinds of tax incentives and abatements, and profit off of this continuing cycle of ‘push out, eliminate, remove, gentrify.’
"That vicious cycle is a very large contributor to housing insecurity and vulnerability for African Americans, for poor people, for people of color.
“When you look at houselessness and homelessness, there’s also the possibility of being vulnerable because your homes bring profit to others outside of the community and families that we have formed.”
The NAACP Portland leaders encouraged a more effective and nuanced understanding of the surge in gun violence throughout the region, beyond the popular campaign platform of bulking up police recruitment and response.
“We know that some of it is the contribution of the pandemic and people having lost so much and fearful of losing more,” Gary-Smith said. “We know, for those who are in behavioral health care, who know that all the isolation and the further losses for those most vulnerable, creates this state of feeling like nothing matters. But we also know some of the issues of young people feeling like their future is not much.
“There are all these sociological and psychological reasons, space and place, where you live, where the services are, where you lack resources, where there’s nothing but a police response to all kinds of emergencies – we know those are contributors. We don’t excuse it, and we don’t want the violence to continue.”
But, she said, police presence is often strong in communities of color and other vulnerable areas. At issue was the fact that police response is often the only kind of public response such populations experience.
She praised solutions like Portland Street Response “that allow community members and people who are most impacted to also be participants in solutions that include law enforcement, but don’t always lead with law enforcement as though that’s the only solution.”
Scribes called out a more conservative tendency to tie blame for the uptick in violence to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“We’ve started to see ‘defunding’ used as a weaponized term during this election season.
"The false claims that defunding the police is what’s caused the surge in violence, but most of the country is seeing a surge in violence post-COVID. So these knee-jerk reactions to any Black uprising, any civil rights movement, is pretty familiar in terms of now weaponizing the language that was used during that time of unrest, and it kind of leads to the same tail-chasing that we’ve seen for decades and decades.”
Scribes pointed out that gubernatorial candidates Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson enjoy A ratings from the National Rifle Association, which he called “an obstructionist organization stopping meaningful changes to gun laws.”
Although the NAACP Portland did not issue an endorsement for governor, Scribes and Gary-Smith criticized candidate Christine Drazan for stating that she did not think systemic racism exists in Oregon.
“We cannot let the unintentional misinformation go unanswered,” Gary-Smith said. “I think it’s critical to deny racism in a country that was founded on it and in a state that carried it in when we became a part of this larger union. I think it’s disingenuous and it’s intentionally misleading, and it has everything to do with housing and homelessness, school-to-prison pipeline, education inequity – they’re all impacted by this state and the history of racism and denial and exclusion.”
Asked about the organization’s support of ranked-choice voting, Scribes pointed out that “vote-splitting” criticisms of Johnson, the unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate who is not likely to win but may attract support away from Drazan and Tina Kotek, would be made obsolete.
Finally, they drew attention to the exorbitant campaign funding from this election cycle, criticizing billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight for first donating millions to Johnson’s campaign, then to Drazan’s.
“The richest man in Oregon has no modesty about his intention of transforming politics in our state – flipping our state, that has been considered in many ways much more progressive than it actually is,” Gary-Smith said. “He wants that turned back. Then there’s the threat of taking business elsewhere when we know we’re at a time of real vulnerability, where people are lacking jobs and security, where companies are removing a lot of the protections – or trying to. Where workers are organizing for justice in the workplace. And we have these billionaires, people with excess income and benefit, who are setting the tone. And that’s Phil Knight in Oregon.”
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