The initial response to police showing up at the “Red House on Mississippi” was frantic and ad hoc, but a day later occupiers appeared determined to hold any incursions at bay.
By Wednesday, they had stockpiled homemade shields and other defensive gear, piled up rocks and bricks and laid down homemade spike strips to puncture the tires of any vehicles that could breach the barricades.
A group of social justice activists have fortified their position at the small red house on North Mississippi Avenue after camping on the property in recent months to support the Kinneys, a Black and Indigenous family who had lived there for decades but lost their home to foreclosure.
The activists had scrambled Tuesday morning to respond to Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies and Portland police officers who arrived to “re-secure” the home for the new owner, a developer that plans to demolish it.
“We heard people banging (on doors) outside asking for neighbors to come out and support the cause,” said William Travis, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years.
Police, hoping to avoid further inflaming the situation, left the scene quickly after intense clashes with protesters, and that gave activists the opportunity to take over the house and surrounding area.
Then, said Brad Ness, another longtime neighborhood resident, carloads of protesters arrived, piled onto the street and strapped on body armor and knee pads.
Ness said that, over the hours that followed, he watched as truckloads of wood, car tires, fencing and other materials were unloaded for the fortifications that now block off the street around the red house.
This was after more than three months of complaints associated with the red house and the surrounding area. From September through November, police said they received more than 80 calls about the property, including reports on fights, shots fired, burglary, theft, vandalism, noise, trespassing, threats by people with guns and blocked traffic, sidewalks and access to homes.
Now the occupiers’ blockade stretches at least two-and-a-half blocks, from North Skidmore to Blandena streets, along North Mississippi and Albina avenues, with groups of black-clad guards posted at each intersection.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has said he will not allow the protesters to establish an “autonomous zone,” like the one activists built in Seattle last summer. He said he has authorized the police to “use all lawful means to end the illegal occupation” in the gentrifying North Portland neighborhood.
So far, police have stayed away. Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell issued a videotaped message Wednesday morning to those engaged in the barricaded zone: “Leave it behind. Put down your weapons and allow the community to return to order,” he said.
Lovell tweeted another statement in the afternoon, saying Portland police “share the community’s concerns about the barricades, occupation and criminal activity on North Mississippi.”
“We are aware of the stockpile of weapons and the presence of firearms; we are aware of the threats to community, to media, to police. … The Portland police will enforce the law and use force if necessary to restore order to the neighborhood,” he said.
But activists on the scene show no sign that they’re letting down their guard or planning to leave.
Protesters and the Kinney family held an afternoon news conference in front of the red house, asking for the public to stand with them.
“Help us occupy this land,” said Ragina Rage, an activist and community organizer. “Help us do this so that we can protect other families that they’re going to do this to. They will target other Black and brown families because of the anti-Blackness that exists within this … system.”
The house, built in 1896, belonged to the Kinney family for about six decades, starting in the 1950s, according to the Red House on Mississippi website.
The Kinneys’ problems with the house began when they took out a new mortgage to pay defense lawyers after a family member was arrested in 2002, the website says.
The family hasn’t provided any documentation showing the terms of its mortgage loans. The first, in 2002, was an adjustable-rate mortgage, according to court documents. Though not uncommon, those loans were problematic for many borrowers in the run-up to the financial and mortgage crisis of 2008, as they often carried low initial teaser rates that quickly adjusted upward after a year or two, adding significantly to monthly costs. That 2002 loan was refinanced in 2004, however, and the Kinney’s remained current on the refinanced loan until they stopped making payments in January 2017, court documents show.
In 2018, the lender foreclosed for non-payment and sold the house to the developer in an auction, public records show. But the members of the Kinney family kept living in the home.
Family matriarch Julie Metcalf Kinney, 62, said during the news conference that a predatory loan caused the family’s financial problems. She described how on Sept. 9, law enforcement officers arrived to serve an eviction notice.
“It was truly unfair for that to happen to my family,” Kinney said. “Why this is taking place, the people organically saw the devastation that was taking place that day.”
The family has said that when authorities arrived to force relatives from the home Tuesday morning, they later returned to the property to find it trashed.
On Wednesday, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said deputies had the right to use “reasonable force” to enter the property. The agency said contractors hired by the current property owners then “altered and removed” objects inside the home.
Earlier Wednesday, a group within the barricades held a prayer circle Wednesday morning, attended by Demetria Hester, a prominent Black activist during the Portland protests against police violence and systemic racism this past summer.
“The world is watching us,” Hester said at the prayer circle, adding: “It is our duty to keep fighting with every breath, with our souls and our hearts.”
Watching the scene, William Travis said the blockade of the street “makes it really inconvenient for the neighbors and the residents, but protests are inconvenient.”
For his part, Brad Ness, Travis’ fellow longtime local resident, believes the city is handling the situation wrong.
“I can’t understand why Wheeler and (the police) allowed them all day to fortify the thing,” he said of the barricades. “This is ridiculous.”
Ness said the city should bring in “big snowplows” to clear the street and disperse the activists and campers. “That’s what it’s going to take.”
One neighbor, who declined to be identified because he was worried about retaliation from occupiers, said that as early as three months ago, residents had complained about a chronic cycle of vandalism, trespassing and noise violations by people camped out at the property.
The neighbor said the crowd has grown from the consistent five to 10 tents on the property since September, to at least 300 protesters at times on Tuesday and Wednesday.
He said calls to the city, county and law enforcement yielded no results. According to a list provided to The Oregonian/OregonLive, neighbors submitted a list of 26 complaints, ranging from armed security patrolling the neighborhood to occupiers not wearing face masks.
Robert King, the public-safety liaison for Portland’s mayor, said officers have responded to dozens of calls. But he said it was ultimately up to the court and Multnomah County to decide how to respond to the removal order.
“I know they’re frustrated, and wanted more action sooner,” King said. “Whatever the situation — a medical call, any kind of call for police service — police would take adequate resources in there to conduct the call safely.”
Others in the neighborhood are trying to maintain their normal routines. The popular Albina Press coffeehouse just outside the occupied area remains open and is doing brisk business.
A woman who said she lives just a couple of doors north of the barricaded avenue said police had been noticeably absent from the area since Tuesday morning, and that during that time the barricades had become more and more heavily layered.
“Honestly, I think it’s bizarre,” she said. “It definitely makes for a weird tension in the neighborhood.”
Brooke Herbert, Beth Nakamura, Ted Sickinger and Jayati Ramakrishnan of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this report.
— The Oregonian
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