Who Gets to Be a ‘Naked Athena’?
On weirdness, whiteness and federal agents in Portland
By Mitchell S. Jackson
Mr. Jackson is a writer.
July 25, 2020
A nude protester faces off against law enforcement officers during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Ore., on July 18.
A nude protester faces off against law enforcement officers during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Ore., on July 18.Credit...Nathan Howard/Reuters
“Naked Athena.” Have you heard of her? She’s the woman who was so christened after she strolled into a recent Portland protest — one that was ostensibly, crucially, about Black lives — stark naked, save a mask (kudos to that) and skullcap. She sat down with her legs wide, and proceeded to do some yoga poses. Some say she was putting herself between protesters and police, that she was turning the cultural sacredness of a white (or at least a white-passing) woman’s body into a shield against rubber bullets and tear gas.
Naked Athena — whose friend describes her as a light-skinned person of color and outspoken feminist — said nada during her demonstration and hasn’t been interviewed, so I can’t know her intentions. What I can say with confidence is that what she did was aligned with the “weird” that Portland espouses in its beloved slogan: “Keep Portland Weird.” What I can say with reasonable assurance is that, were she a Black woman, she would’ve reaped a different public reaction than the ample awe and admiration I’ve seen on social media. And what I must say is that no matter her intentions, for a moment at least, she might’ve upstaged the movement, and not in a way I could discern as connected to its stated objectives.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Naked Athena, and the white Navy veteran whose passivity exposed the bellicose bent of federal agents. I’m thankful for the passion and courage of other white allies during this movement.
But I’ve also been musing on the subject of weirdness — how that quality requires freedom, or at least the belief that one possesses it. How the ability to express passion and courage and weirdness is a product of that privilege; how a sense of utopianism of the sort that exists for white people in Portland, my hometown, leads to a certain audacity when it comes to both self-expression and political radicalism; how that audacity can make a city into a tempting target for a federal government that’s determined to look tough against a purported paragon of eccentric liberalism.
Let’s be clear: Oregon was intended as a white man’s Zion. And since its admission into the union, it has remained one. That isn’t intended to distract from, or in any way excuse, the ongoing state violence there; it’s just that there should be no serious discussion of my home state or what’s happening in my home city that excludes or forgets its founding ethos.
Oregon Country’s provisional government passed a law excluding Blacks from the territory and, though it voted against slavery, thanks to a member of its first provisional government — a former slave holder from Missouri — it amended this law to disallow Blacks from remaining within its borders beyond a three-year residence. You wouldn’t know unless you Sherlocked that Oregon once boasted the largest KKK chapter west of the Mississippi, that it waited over 100 years after the Civil War to ratify the 14th Amendment; it took almost 90 years to ratify the 15th.
In the years since, Oregon’s largest city has done a bang-up job of marketing itself as a bastion of lefty quirkiness as well as a place for great food, beautiful landscapes, formidable cultural scenes and, of course, Just Doing It. But the laws keeping black people out? Oregonians didn’t vote to scrub them from the state’s books ’til 2002.
Per the latest U.S. census statistics, Oregon is 86.7 percent white, and 2.2 percent Black. Portland itself is 77.1 percent white and 5.8 percent Black. That’s why the Black Lives Matter protests there look like they do — white. They have to; that’s who lives there.
But in a monolith, it’s even easier for white people to center themselves at the expense of those they claim to support. That must make it harder to know where the line is between amplifying a voice and becoming the voice, between ardent allyship and white saviorship, between the values of a cause and the culture of a city. But the difficult thing, the complicated thing, is this movement can’t afford to be distorted by “weird.”
My beloved City of Roses made a great showing at the outset of the Black Lives Matter protests; you might’ve seen them gathered in a thousands-strong die-in on the Burnside Bridge, a preponderance of white faces turned downward in an apt symbol of George Floyd, pinned and pleading, under the knee of Derek Chauvin. It made me proud to witness my city’s collective conscience over the tragic death of a Black man in far-off Minneapolis.
But I’ve felt a bit more ambivalent about the past 50-some days of protests since. A small few have employed anarchist tactics, and/or seem to have lost the vision of a unified agenda. And I’ve seen nary national coverage of the smaller marches or activism led by Blacks and other people of color out in the Numbers: what we call the part of the city that Black people were dispersed to when whites gentrified my old neighborhood.
And now, the feds are there.
When I hear Keep Portland Weird, it always sounds to me a lot like Keep Portland White. But I imagine for the 76.3 percent of Americans who still claim white alone on the census, it sounds like Keep Portland a Symbol. Portland is Portlandia. Portland is the new frontier for migrating Brooklyn hipsters. Portland is Bush Sr.’s “Little Beirut,” the same place where almost all-white Antifa activists once battled neo-fascist Proud Boys. Portland whiteness: It leans way left but stretches far right.
It’s the opposite of ironic, isn’t it? A president who has defended white supremacists and championed white-power-esque policies sent federal agents to a notable bulwark of liberal whiteness, a place engaged in brazen support of a movement pursuing Black freedom. The footage has been straight terrifying: Agents instigating violence, abducting people into unmarked cars, providing more evidence of an administration trooping double-time toward totalitarianism. Can you imagine if Trump dispatches these tactics to Chicago and Albuquerque, to blacker and browner cities elsewhere?
Let me back up: This ain’t me arguing that whiteness always leads to weirdness; that weirdness is necessarily connected to anarchy, and, hell, even anarchists don’t excuse fascism. People ringing the alarm about what’s happening in Portland are right. But Portland’s racial dynamics aren’t a distraction from the real story of what’s happening there; they’re at the heart of it. And what bothers me is that, amid the naked woman, the brave white veterans, the heroic wall of lullabying white moms, the tear-gassed mayor, and the unidentified federal agents, we’ve once again stopped discussing the fight against institutional racism and state-sponsored violence against Black people in this country.
Those objectives were on my mind in mid-June when my homeboy forwarded me a clip of Portland protesters toppling a statue of Thomas Jefferson at his eponymous high school — the Oregon high school with the largest share of Black students, and where I graduated in 1993 (One time for the Demos!). Go figure, white men were part of the small crowd that cheered and tugged the statue on the ground and bashed it.
And peep this: I must’ve passed that statue a hundred-plus times over the years, and not a once did it occur to me that I could do a damn thing about its flagrance.
Amen that it did to those audacious few. These decades hence, I’ve realized that, though born and raised in the Rose City, it has never been my utopia, and in truth was never meant to be. It’s only ever been a home: where whiteness hovers over us Black folk, as perennial as old Jefferson’s duplicitous self-evident truth.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of The Residue Years and Survival Math. His next novel John of Watts is forthcoming. He teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.
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