How Portland Radicalized Me

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Today I find myself in an untenable position. I run an online encrypted mental health service to serve the Portland protest movement. This is the story of how I came to use a code name, an encrypted email and apps, and risk myself to help frontline activists.

But the movement I am serving is no longer serving my community. In Portland, we are tired, and we are afraid. I have had a front seat to witnessing the change in the movement from robust and mostly nonviolent protest to more radical extreme protest in the form of property damage, graffiti, thrown frozen water bottles, street brawling, arson, and even Molotov cocktails. A radicalized number of Portland activists are attacking alt-right, police, and even neutral free press journalists.

In the last weeks, I have born witness to the dramatic increase of armed protester protection groups and have personally been on the ground in direct action with weapons present, something which in my previous life experience had only occurred when visiting developing countries or the Middle East.

I have reached out to both the local, national and international community for help. I have trained in unarmed de-escalation and become a field reporter for the TRUST network, helping to promote mediation and violence interruption to a situation increasingly volatile and at risk of a mass casualty event. I did not set out to do this work. It came to me. This is the story of how Portland radicalized me into pacifism.

As a young psychiatrist in opening my practice in downtown Portland in 2005, I simultaneously served our homeless youth population through an agency (still operating!) called Outside In. Portland has always had a grit to our street scene that mainstream media has largely ignored.

There has also always been an element of danger that I have always found other white Portlanders refused to admit. In the time that I have worked downtown, I have been assaulted in broad daylight, helped a houseless man having a seizure in the public library when library staff would not, and taught my children not to look people in the eye who are screaming into the air. My children grew up on these streets too, attending a downtown daycare center on the Park blocks. Those same children today can no longer play outside on our downtown streets.

Four years ago, when President Trump was elected, I was twice caught in rioting prompted I believe by the some of the same extremist protest groups doing damage to our city now. The first time was a Friday afternoon. I was sitting in my office in back of the public library around 3:30 p.m. when I heard a bomb go off. I quickly gathered my things and ran, only to find that the Portland Police riot squad hiding in the nearby parking garage. Two days later my children and I would be exiting the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to the eerie sound of far-away yelling and no one on the street. As we ran to our car to drive away, we drove into the protest which had just finished smashing cars on the East Side and businesses in the Pearl District. We would have been surrounded were it not for our one-way streets which allowed me to exit left and continue my journey to safety.

One of my patients was not so fortunate. She was stuck on the Steel Bridge returning home from work when she was surrounded. As they smashed at her windows, she thought she was going to die.

When I tell these stories now, they carry a different weight. Now that we all see what we did not want to see before Jeremy Christian committed violent hate crimes and murders in 2017 on MAX trains. In the past15 years, I mostly served my community in the traditional ways. I helped bring a mindfulness program to our local public school, hoping to address the underlying racism I was seeing in my children’s school. I brought a Girls on the Run team to the school, coached and organized volunteers. I have given my time freely and with love. But I would not have identified myself as an activist.

My pandemic journey started earlier than most, the product of a catastrophic home fire in August 2019 which tumbled us down the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I coped with these very real losses with both radical acceptance and altruism. I surprised myself in my ability to let go of the inessential, my worldly possessions, and focus on what really mattered–that we had survived.

We all had lived, miraculously, all of us, pets included. In those early months of the repetition of my own traumas (my own childhood home had also burned when I was 10, the same age as my son at the time of the fire), I insisted that our family continue to serve our community, broken as we were.

It was truly the only thing which made me feel better. As we served, we often talked with those we were serving and heard their stories of trauma and loss, what unfairness life had handed them. The grace in sharing their own traumatic experiences soothed me, helped me to understand that connection is key to healing wounds, both old and new. Our fire prepared me psychologically to have to adapt to living with uncertainty and chaos, something as Americans we are all familiar with now.

When the pandemic hit in February, we were still in temporary housing, I began to move into a more serious action mode. I began scouring the Internet for scientific research, got early clinical reports smuggled out of China and prepared for service by learning a new language–that of psychological first aid. I knew instinctively that trauma was coming and that a war would eventually be fought for the mental health of us all.

True to my premonitions, as I write this, we are now seeing the true effects of this triple pandemic: viral contagion, economic devastation and social injustice both in physical and mental health. In fact, a June study from the CDC found that 40.9 percent of respondents reported one adverse mental health or adverse behavioral health conditions, a fourfold increase from the previous year.

My first step into activism was to answer the call to volunteer for the Physician Support Line (a hotline for medical doctors in crisis) and to open myself up to talking to colleagues in crisis. I gained valuable skills there and learned that there is something that brevity does to distill these brief interventions down to our essential core human values. Somehow in 15-20 minute snippets, we still had the time to discuss mortality, stress, resilience, breathing techniques, moral crisis, politics, safety, trauma, family, culture, but most of all, distress at the lack of understanding. We connected in the truth that our world was not as it seemed.

I am not proud that it took the murder of George Floyd to drive me to the streets. When George called to his mother, something inside me broke. It pushed me to my own spiritual and existential crisis, already set in motion by the events of the previous year. Who am I am I if I stand by and watch? Can I live with myself? What are the ways that I contribute to white supremacy?

I attended my first protest, ever, with a small group of physicians in Peninsula Park in May. A diverse group, as we knelt for nine minutes, together in our white coats, our fists in the air, I knew this would not be my last protest.

I spent a lot of time in May and June in self-reflection about my role in promoting white supremacy and realized that I had to make changes to the way I lived my life. As a Dutch American, a dual citizen, the daughter of a mother raised in World War II with a Nazi soldier forcibly billeted in her home, I could not no longer square my values about human dignity with the American culture in which we were living. Layla Saad’s words from Me and White Supremacy continued to echo in my head. “But if you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is nonnegotiable.”

In late July, I finally attended a downtown protest with a friend. It was while the federal agents were deployed to downtown. A friend I knew through Facebook was organizing a respite station for street medics and protesters through a church. Through her encouragement, I came to my first direct action and it changed the course of my life.

Being with 20,000 citizens on the street that night and watching the violence unfold put me right back in touch with my own trauma. I had a profound awareness that in the midst of all of this spectacular political theater (the wall of moms, leaf blowers, people in costume), there was also real trauma unfolding as the federal troops deployed tear gas and munitions, sometimes on completely peaceful protest.

I found I simply could not sit by and be passive. I joined the tradition of service of my Mennonite ancestors (I am the first in 300 years on my American side not to be raised in the faith), and joined the call to the aid station, offering my services in psychological first aid. I recruited nine other mental health professionals. My conversion to activism had begun. But, as with many things in our chaotic protest movement, come late August, the respite station too fell prey to the infighting that so many protest groups in Portland had experienced, the clash of cultures combined with the toxic security culture that has infected the movement with a deep paranoia.

Victor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, “there are things which cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” For me, this was watching federal agents fire on peaceful demonstrators. It was meeting street medics who were being targeted, having an encounter with the people who really were snatched into unmarked white vans. Confronted with escalating violence, I have continually tried to meet it with mental health resources and a safe space.

But giving away my services for free only works if protesters avail themselves to my offer. The moral crisis generated by this global pandemic and the continued assault on black bodies has driven many of us to our extremes, me included. It brought me in touch with how radical it is to stand for empathy and understanding in a culture that is tearing us apart on our differences. For some this has brought anger, rage, irritability, paranoia and a willingness to bear arms publicly. This escalation of violence on all sides of the political spectrum now poses a real threat to the fabric of our society.

With the curtain ripped off of politeness, our American wounds lie exposed. This is something my Dutch relatives have commented on for my entire lifetime. They could never square American culture with reality on the ground–the homelessness, rates of gun ownership, even our portion sizes. None of it made any sense to them. Why couldn’t we cooperate to take better care of each other? Mennonites too have always stood outside mainstream Christian culture in their refusals to baptize infants, evangelize or participate in violence. I have been willing to stand outside of the dueling narratives of the Portland protest movement and try to understand, on a humanistic level, what, if anything, I can do to help for the greater good.

But my position in attempting to continue to help those who would promote violence is what drives me to write to you now. It is time for me to leave this dysfunctional movement. My personal and professional ethics forbid me from continuing to contribute my services to the diversity of tactics now on display.

I am writing with urgency to tell you: this violence is not inevitable. It can be stopped. It too is a contagion, a pandemic that has raged in and against black and brown communities for generations and white society must now confront this pandemic of violence arguably for the first time since the Civil War. We all have our part to play in understanding the nuance and complexity of what is happening on our streets.

In order to do so, we must address our own fear. Fear of the other, fear of change, fear of dialogue with those different from us. What I can tell you of the even the most extreme activists I have met along my protest journey is that they are human too. They have families, they deeply care about their cause and our shared society and some are even willing to die for it.

The past nine months of my life have changed me forever. I have put my values front and center in my life, now to my own detriment and even more critically, endangering my family. The experience of standing up for black lives, for justice, for peace, for humanistic values have revealed in me both an activist and a radical pacifist that I did not know was there.

As an empath, I have come to the crossroads in my protest journey where I must accept the things that I cannot change, just as I cannot choose for my suicidal patients whether they will choose to end their life. So too I must accept that some may choose violence as their path out of this existential crisis. I cannot in good conscience join them in a path that I believe is more driven by trauma than by logic or hope.

My dream for Portland is this: that one day we will be able to talk about it–all of it. The harm that has been done, the racism that underlies it, the fragility and white supremacy that created it, the toxicity of the United States and the activist culture that exists in our “little Beirut.”

I am reaching out to others in the peace field to join me in a call for healing circles, truth and reconciliation style. If countries like South Africa and Rwanda can heal from apartheid and genocide, so we too in Portland can forge a path into healing our deep racial wounds. Won’t you join me in this call for a truth and reconciliation commission? We need all peaceful voices to join in this effort to heal our fractured society.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.