A standoff between the police and protesters over a mixed-race family’s eviction in Portland, Oregon, is stirring up old ghosts of segregation and redlining from the 20th century, when Black families moved in for jobs and found that there were only certain places they could live.
But the barricades erected by demonstrators, and what the police said were caches of weapons surrounding the property, are also evoking modern-day concerns about urban safety, homelessness, gentrification and the coronavirus pandemic that have rattled the city.
William Kinney III, a spokesman for the Kinney family, which has lived in the 124-year-old house since the mid-1950s, said the family was the victim of predatory lenders in what they believed had been a deliberate attempt to extract them from a corner of Portland, northeast of downtown, where chic coffee shops and new condominium projects have risen.
The property known by supporters of the family as “The Red House” sits in a busy shopping district near a pub and a food cart pod — a symbol of gentrified Portland — and right next to the Roux, a condo building that last sold in 2016 for $6.35 million, according to property records.
On Thursday, barricades constructed with orange traffic cones, plywood, overturned dumpsters and wooden doors blocked vehicle access to the area around the house in all directions. Protesters dressed in black sat at the barricades, some warming themselves at makeshift fires.
Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, said that the court-ordered eviction of the Kinneys was legal and that he would not tolerate any attempt by protesters to create a no man’s land around the property where laws could not be enforced.
“I am authorizing the Portland Police to use all lawful means to end the illegal occupation,” he said in a tweet, adding, “There will be no autonomous zone in Portland.”
Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies, assisted by the Portland police, arrived at the property at about 5 a.m. on Tuesday, and were met with protesters who were seen in social media posts banging on police vehicles and shouting. The officers entered the property briefly and made six arrests but did not break up the protest, and on Thursday they were not visibly present in the vicinity.
The pandemic is also filtering into the standoff. Oregon has imposed a moratorium on housing evictions, but before it did, the ownership of the house had already been transferred to a housing development company.
The bleak history of exclusion and racism that carved out Portland’s neighborhoods, dating back to World War II when Black workers were drawn to the shipyards north of downtown but often left with nowhere to live, still hangs over everything. The Albina neighborhood where the Kinney house sits became a Black enclave only after a devastating flood of the Columbia River in 1948 destroyed a housing project built for Black military workers.
Most of Kinney’s family is Black; his mother, Julie Metcalf Kinney, is from the Upper Skagit Tribe of Washington state.
The family, unable to get a mortgage as a result of redlining policies in the 1950s, paid cash for the house in 1955, according to a website set up by supporters of the family. Kinney said his parents took out a mortgage to pay legal fees when he was arrested and sent to prison following a fatal car crash in 2002.
It became clear as early as 2016 that Albina, with its older homes, had become a desirable place for reinvestment, Kinney said, when the family got an offer to buy them out. They refused, and shortly after that, the troubles began.
According to the website, a second mortgage the family had taken out on the house was transferred to another investment company in December 2016, and both companies began sending mortgage bills every month.
The family stopped paying and put the money into an escrow account, Kinney said, until the confusion could be sorted out. But instead, a default process began, leading to the eviction order.
Kinney said he and his parents believed that the mortgage lender and investment company wanted them out of the house in order to redevelop the property — part of a general move, protesters said, to edge out the neighborhood’s older Black families.
City officials have rejected such claims. “There was a lengthy, thorough judicial proceeding resulting in a lawful judge’s order to evict people illegally occupying a home,” Wheeler said on Twitter.
Calls to the current owner of the home, Urban Housing Development LLC, according to court records, were not returned.
The Kinneys were evicted in early September, after which supporters converged in the yard and on adjacent properties. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the protesters had created “significant livability, public safety and public health concerns” in the neighborhood.
From September through November, the sheriff’s office said, there were at least 81 calls for service to the property for fights, disturbances, shots fired, burglary, thefts, vandalism, noise violations, trespassing and threats, “including by armed individuals.”
Protesters said their aim was not to declare an autonomous zone within the city but to prevent the authorities from evicting another family from a historically Black neighborhood.
Dustin Brandon, standing inside the barricade on Thursday, said that what happened at the house would set a precedent for future attempts at eviction. “We’re in the perfect circle of everything right now,” he said. “We’re fighting for Black lives and Indigenous lives on so many levels.”