Greg McKelvey is rapidly becoming the new face of left-wing protest politics in one of America's most left-wing cities.
Greg McKelvey. Photo by Caitlin Webb.
In the first week after Donald Trump's victory, the world watched as the streets of Portland, Oregon, flooded with people who were angry and shaken to their cores. By the time the dust settled, more than 100 people had been arrested, one person had been shot, Portland's ritzy Pearl District had suffered more than $1 million in damages, and Greg McKelvey and his group Portland's Resistance found themselves as the controversial face of the movement to oppose Trump.
Sitting in a closed bar one rainy Portland afternoon not long after the protests, the 24-year-old law student McKelvey was all smiles. He's willing to talk about everything from his arrest two days earlier ("It was great for the cause") to texting Portland mayor— and frequent object of McKelvey's scorn and protests—Charlie Hales on his personal cell to Kanye West's supposed 2020 presidential run. Talking to him, it's easy to see why he's risen to prominence among Portland activists. He's quick to laugh, passionate, energetic, a born salesman. He could get you to buy a car, sign up for a time share, join a revolution. He says that international media outlets—the BBC, Al Jazeera, and Iranian TV among them—have reached out to him for quotes, and activists from all over America have asked his advice. He's the protest flavor of the month, and he'll admit as much.
Raised in Portland in a mixed-race family with a Republican father, McKelvey sees himself as someone with the heart of an activist and the mind of politician who can relate to people of all stripes. He told me he has taken a valuable lesson from Trump's rise to power: Any coverage is good coverage. "There are tons of people working on this movement, but the media likes me right now, so we're going to use that," he said. "One big thing we learned from Trump is that even if you and your cause get negative coverage, your message gets out there and someone who agrees with you might see it and get motivated."
The police called one rally in Portland a "riot" after some participants damaged businesses and cars and threw objects at cops, and naturally the protests were used as evidence by right-wingers that anti-Trump activists were violent rubes. But as someone who was on the front lines of the protests for hours multiple nights, I can attest to the great links Portland's Resistance and the other groups protesting went to to stress nonviolence. On the edges of the march, however, there were some anarchy-driven "vandals" as McKelvey called them, who were intent on nothing more than mayhem. Mindless destruction of locally owned businesses does little to garner sympathy for the cause, which is why Portland's Resistance is raising money to help pay for the damages accrued and the hospital bills of the marcher who was shot by a 14-year-old male on the Morrison Bridge.
The protests have cooled off, but there's still a lot of anger out there. When I spoke to Mayor Hales's chief of staff, Tera Pierce, over the phone, she was clearly exasperated by a lot of the rhetoric that McKelvey and other activists are using (the word "fascism" comes up often on Twitter) in relation to Portland's government. This being ultra-liberal Portland, she's also obviously sympathetic to where the activists and protesters are coming from. "I'd say 90 percent of the people in the mayor's office have been involved in protests at one point in their lives," Pierce told me. "There's never been a question on our end that this is an important component... but there needs to be more communication for the safety of everyone involved."
When I asked her what she thinks the best way for those interested to express their discontent, Pierce surprised me by saying, after a pause, "I still think it's protesting."
Liberals and leftists in Portland face the problem liberals and leftists in every city face: They're on the same side, if that side is against Trump, but how can they best come together and harness the anger and energy so many people are feeling right now?
The country—and the world—is watching places like Portland to see how these progressive American cities respond during the Trump presidency and attempt to insulate themselves from Trump's policies. "I think there's a lot of progressive ideals that people have been talking about for awhile, things like single-payer healthcare, drastic action on climate change, moving away from fossil fuels, confronting racial disparity, not just in policing but in society in general," McKelvey told me. "Especially with a Trump presidency, Portland really has an opportunity to be an outlier and an example for the rest of the country. That's what happened with pot and gay marriage—let's do that with all these issues."
Both McKelvey and Pierce expressed a strong desire to loudly and proudly proclaim that Portland is and shall remain a sanctuary city, and both believed that local governments working with community leaders seems to be the main way America's more liberal cities can oppose Trump's policies. "I'd never been that big on state's rights before—but I am since Trump," McKelvey told me, a sentiment that was echoed by Pierce as well. "Because we know it isn't going to be coming from this administration, cities are absolutely going to have to lead on things like climate change."
As we were finishing up, I asked McKelvey about his political aspirations. He didn't rule out running for office in the future, but remained adamant that his heart currently lies with the protest movement. When I told him that he's a bit like the aforementioned Kanye West, in that people seem to either absolutely love and support him adamantly or reserve a special vehemence for everything he does, McKelvey laughed, flashed me his best smile, and said, "Maybe I'll just be Kanye's running mate in 2020."
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