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The Thomas Jefferson statue in front of Jefferson High School in NE Portland was toppled the night of June 14, 2020. (photo by Kymberly Jeka)
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 13 March 2024

The policy was drafted by Commissioner Dan Ryan and his team.

“This policy is about creating a public process for Portlanders to be able to engage with the city when they have a complaint about a monument, or believe a monument should be removed,” Ryan said. “This policy does not decide which monuments should be returned or not. At its core this policy establishes a transparent and accessible platform for Portlanders to voice their concerns or opinions regarding city monuments.”

Darion Jones, senior policy director of arts and culture in Ryan’s office, presented a draft of the policy during the Feb. 28 city council meeting.

“In 2020, the city of Portland – like many other cities across the country – participated in a national conversation focused on the re-evaluation of historical monuments and declaring a call from the public for greater introspection about who and what is memorialized in public space,” Jones said.

Nationally, such conversation has focused largely on Confederate symbols. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that in 2020, amid the George Floyd protests, 94 Confederate monuments were removed nationwide, although the movement was arguably amplified earlier in 2015 when activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole at the statehouse in Columbia, SC, to remove the Confederate flag that flew there.

The monuments that have been questioned locally are of historical figures many see as having driven or having profited from White supremacy. The toppled five include statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Oregonian publisher Harvey Scott, who many denounce for his 40-year tenure of accepting and promoting racist language in the pages of the newspaper. Another statue, The Promised Land, depicts a family of three White settlers; it was damaged and put into storage. 

jeffersonstatue down2The base of the Thomas Jefferson monument in front of Jefferson High School in NE Portland was marked in remembrance of George Floyd. The statue was toppled the night of June 14, 2020. (photo by Kymberly Jeka)
Also in 2020, protesters took down a statue of Thomas Jefferson at his namesake high school, which has the highest percentage of Black students in Oregon.

“The events of 2020 only underscore the city’s need for a more structured approach to how we manage and respond to concerns about public monuments,” Ryan said.

Ryan explained the new policy changes city code to differentiate between public monuments and public art. The policy also outlines criteria that makes a public monument eligible for review, including "sustained and significant adverse public reaction or reasonable large-scale community opposition.”

Finally, the policy creates a process for public complaint and formal review. A monument that meets some of the criteria would then be detailed in a report with recommendations the city arts program submits to the City Council and Historic Landmarks Commission.

jeffersonstatue clifford walkerClifford Walker, historian for the Humboldt Neighborhood Association, sits on the toppled Thomas Jefferson statue in front of Jefferson High School. “It was an honor to be invited to sit on the statue,” the Jefferson alum told The Skanner. (photo by by Andre Lightsey-Walker)Jones confirmed the city had commitments from the Oregon Historical Society and the Ladies of Mount Vernon Association to work as partners in monument reviews.

The policy guideline drew from similar policies in Chicago, San Francisco and Vancouver. It was created and refined through the Portland Monuments Project, which was bolstered by a $350,000 grant the city received from the Mellon Foundation last year. Meanwhile, Portland’s city arts program worked with Lewis & Clark College to create the Portland Monuments and Engagements Process Committee, which issued a public engagement report around monuments and memorials around Portland.

“It’s important to note that if a monument were removed, such as the case of the five from 2020, the report would require further public engagement activities and the addition of interpretive and educational elements to the monuments, if they were removed by public request and recommended for return,” Ryan said.

But some council members had reservations about the policy.

Mayor Ted Wheeler called the policy “potentially divisive” during the Feb. 28 meeting.

“I think it would be a thankless task to serve on this committee,” he said. “Let me give you an example: Abraham Lincoln. I think he was a great leader. But I know for a fact that there’s people in this community who do not think that, they have very different opinions than I do on the greatness of Abraham Lincoln. How is a committee going to be able to resolve that conflict? It’s a question of history and perspective, background, tradition…How does a committee resolve that conflict?”

Jones pointed out that during the development of the South Park Master Plan, members of the Indigenous and Black communities were invited to weigh in and overwhelmingly stated there should be more public monuments honoring Indigenous and Black community members.

“But also when these monuments are up that have already been erected, (respondents said) they should also have greater context and clarity that talks about the full story and honors the times in which people lived, because it’s easy for us to look back in time and criticize the behaviors of folks today, but we also need to be able to talk about the world in which they lived at the same time.”

Commissioner Rene Gonzales expressed concern about a mob mentality taking over the review process.

“How do we allow citizens of Portland to speak out on a particular monument they find objectionable, but don’t make decisions by the mob breaking things down?” he said. “When I look at this language, what we’re partially responding to is what occurred in 2020, and you have – depending on how you describe it – protestors, vandals, the mob, making decisions about what statues they found objectionable, a relatively small group getting to make that decision for everyone else.”

Both Jones and Ryan emphasized that the policy did not condone criminal activity.

“What this seeks to do is provide an avenue for people to know that there is actually a process to express these complaints to the city and encourage them to use that process, versus vandalism or criminal behavior,” Jones said.

Some public testimony shared Gonzales' concerns. But local mother Emma Colburn told the council, "When I'm out and about with my family, monuments to settler culture intrude into our afternoon."

Colburn argued the new process was particularly onerous to marginalized communities.

“It’s weird to task disadvantaged members of the community with the burden of convening a volunteer commission to explain to your body, who is sitting on payroll, why it is harmful to public health and inconsistent with public opinion and just generally morally inappropriate to keep erect such statues,” she said. 

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