SKINHEAD CITY

How a hipster reputation masked my hometown’s white hate for decades

I was born and raised in Portland’s Hollywood District, a relatively unremarkable neighborhood nestled into the city’s northeast quadrant. It’s where I wandered to the library, watched local parades, ordered comics and coffees and, when I got old enough, craft brews. Aside from the sparkling marquee of the Hollywood Theatre, there’s little to separate the area from the other parts of residential Portland—and there’s little of the Portlandia­-style quirk that has inundated other parts of the city over the past few years.

With its McDonald’s and Baskin Robbins, with its bank branches and bike shops, the neighborhood was a home base, an oasis of safety for my family and I as we weathered hardships and celebrated accomplishments. And then, last month, that peace cracked. A man, screaming profanities at a pair of teenagers who, to him, didn’t fit his definition of an “American,” shattered the image of the progressiveness that has come to define my hometown in the popular imagination.

The murders have upended the narrative that Portland is a bastion of tolerance, and drawn much-needed attention to an insidious problem.

That’s not to say that Portland, or Oregon, hasn’t made great strides on the issue of progressive developments. Just look at its urban infrastructure, its local leadership, or its voter-registration drives. The people and the policies are there.

But while Portland has attempted to implement the types of socio-economic models other cities have been eager to adopt elsewhere, it’s done so while maintaining the most monochromatic makeup of any major city in the US.

At this point, Portland’s status as the whitest major metropole in the US is well-known. So, too, are Oregon’s lash laws, its willingness to cater to the KKK, and its status as the lone state founded with a constitution barring black Americans from living in the state. As The Guardian’s Jason Wilson recently wrote, “Portland’s very whiteness has attracted far-right groups to attempt to make inroads in the city for more than 30 years.” These contingents remain the kinds of groups who, no matter Portland’s progressiveness, still place a threat of retribution over minority populations attempting to live, to speak, and to spread their own experiences.

Until recently, this deeply racist history is remained largely hidden, even from its residents. But, clearly, my home state can no longer afford to ignore its past—or the way its past could yet shape its future. We cannot forget what happened to Ricky Best and Taliesin Myddrin Namkai-Meche, just as we cannot forget what happened to Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant targeted by a trio of neo-Nazis in 1998.

We cannot forget why our town was once referred to Skinhead City.

Jeremy Christian, the man accused of killing Best and Namkai-Meche, as well as hurling Islamaphobic taunts, cannot be viewed as an aberration. He is, rather, the continuation of a pattern.

The details that have trickled out about Christian suggest a jumbled life of unbalanced hatred. He doesn’t fit any neat political box, despite what our partisan society might wish. A proponent of weed legalization and former supporter of Bernie Sanders, Christian espoused hatred for monotheistic religion. A man who was a known figure in the local white supremacist community, Christian claimed that these killings is “what liberalism gets you.” On the ride to the police station, he declared himself a patriot.

Portland’s far-right groups, even with Christian’s arrest, aren’t going anywhere. And no amount of hipster shops or pop culture memes is going to change the reality of our city, either. Only Portland can decide whether or not it will honor the legacy of a new trio of heroes by working to stamp out extremism and white supremacy—or whether it will do little more than wait for the next tragedy to arrive on its doorstep.

Follow Casey on Twitter at @cjcmichel. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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