As horrific as is this moment of our political derangement, I participated in two lectures on Sunday that left me feeling that we will survive, thanks to the example set by two individuals I learned about.
In the afternoon, at a library a mile north of us, Kent Ford reviewed the activities of the Black Panther Party in my neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Ford was born in Louisiana and found his way to Albina – my neighborhood – by the time he was 20, and within a few years founded the Panther branch in Portland. The Panthers opened free medical and dental clinics and a breakfast program for kids. J. Edgar Hoover feared the Portland branch enough to sick COINTELPRO on its members, regularly sending Panthers to jail. For a few days.
In 1970, after a decade of planning without any community involvement, Portland and Emanuel Hospital disclosed an expansion plan and evicted residents (and the Panthers) from 55 acres a few blocks south of where we live. What once was a vibrant commercial area in a red-lined neighborhood was destroyed. Emanuel expanded, but it ran out of money, some from federal urban renewal grants, before building on much of the area the city had razed. Today a large swath between Vancouver and Williams avenues could be a city park, but it’s vacant land with some trees and regularly cut grass. The Urban League building remains on what was one corner of downtown Albina.
At the library, Ford was asked what lessons from that moment apply to this one. Now 77 years old, he said, “The struggle is endless.” Ford and his comrades borrowed lessons from King, SNCC, the Panthers in Oakland and Chicago. Just as we do now, online, from groups that start small and mushroom, like Indivisible.
In the evening we attended a reading of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country, by Sierra Crane Murdoch, who has spent much of the last eight years immersed in the life of Lissa Yellow Bird, an Arikara/Mandan/Hidatsa on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. The middle of the Bakken oil boom, the latest white man’s colonization of their lands. Also where the Army Corps of Engineers, 70 years ago, appropriated for a dam Missouri River bottomland on which the Affiliated Tribes farmed. The reservoir, named for Sakakawea, the Lewis and Clark guide who had been kidnapped from her Hidatsa tribe, submerged fields and villages.
Listening to Sierra describe her protagonist, Lissa Yellow Bird, I thought of Kent Ford. The tribes had no more say in what was done to their otherwise ignored neighborhood than residents of Albina did in theirs.
We went to Powell’s because Sierra is the daughter of my childhood pal four doors up the street, Ellen Crane, who flew across the country for the reading. Sierra’s first book was published last week, and the first stop on the tour is Portland, a bit west of where Sierra lives. Everything starts somewhere.
The work continues, now and after Trump has passed from his field of corruption, perversion of justice, and destruction of decades of slow building toward a more perfect union. People like Kent and Lissa and my friends in Richmond and all over the country will get up every day, just like I did today in driving to the Capitol in Salem, and engage in the often frustrating struggle for justice.
Because our work is as natural as a sunflower bending toward the light.