Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The mayor and police chief in Portland, Oregon, have apologized to a Black and Indigenous family for tweets the officials posted about protests against the family’s eviction from their longtime home.

In a letter sent Sunday, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell acknowledged that their tweets resulted in threats to the family.

“We did not intend to attract attention that results in threats of harm and violence to your family or that escalated tensions in our community,” Wheeler and Lovell wrote. “Nobody should be subjected to this kind of stress and harm, and we apologize for the role our tweets played in this.”

In the tweets last week, Wheeler called the protest an “illegal occupation” and authorized police to “use all lawful means” to end it. He referred to the protest site as an “autonomous zone,” a reference to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone that existed in Seattle, Washington, for much of June. Protests in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone were marked by police using flashbangs and pepper spray on protesters, and protesters throwing bottles, rocks and fireworks at officers.

(Previous story: The painful history of Portland's 'Red house')

Lovell referred to a “stockpile of weapons” and firearms at the protest site and warned that police would “enforce the law and use force if necessary to restore order to the neighborhood.”

Supporters of the family of William and Julie Metcalf Kinney – he is Black, she is Upper Skagit – say the officials escalated the situation by how they characterized the blockade and portrayed protesters.

The Kinney home, protesters said, is a community-supported eviction blockade, not an autonomous zone. They also maintain people of color who possess firearms under Oregon’s open carry law are portrayed differently and held to a different standard than Whites who carry firearms.

Step toward a resolution

This Dec. 8, 2020 photo shows a home on North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Ore. where protesters have camped to prevent a Black and Indigenous family from being forced to leave the foreclosed home, which has been dubbed the “Red House on Mississippi”. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

After Wheeler and Lovell’s letter was made public, supporters began removing barricades from the street and from in front of the home; the barricades had been placed earlier in the week after a police raid. 

City Tribal Relations Director Laura John, Blackfeet/Seneca, grew up in the neighborhood. She volunteered Sunday and helped remove barricades. She estimated more than 100 volunteers — protesters and neighbors — helped.

“It was a beautiful thing to see,” John said.

In addition, Wheeler and Lovell wrote in their letter that a detective has been assigned to investigate threats against the Kinneys and that violators will be held accountable.

“Let us be clear to your family and to the entire community: Any threat with the intent to cause harm or intimidate is unacceptable,” they wrote. “We take these threats seriously. The Portland Police Bureau wants to investigate them. … We want to hold those who made the threats accountable.”

Wheeler and Lovell also acknowledged “institutional racism and overt racist action [continue] to oppress Black and Indigenous people” in Portland and in the United States.

They added, “Gentrification and displacement, income inequality, and predatory lending practices continue to harm your family, others who are Black and Indigenous, and our entire community.”

The letter to the Kinney family was a first step toward resolving the crisis in Portland’s Albina neighborhood, for years one of the only parts of town where people of color could buy homes. The Kinneys and others say gentrification is forcing those families out.

Reform needed ‘from top to bottom’

Earlier this year, as protests for racial justice took place in Portland and other U.S. cities, Wheeler introduced a 19-part plan to root out institutional racism and change policing in his city. Included in the plan: building a city workforce that “reflects the communities it serves”; investment in social services in communities of color; reestablishing the Equity & Inclusion Office in the police department; making the Committee on Community Engaged Policing a permanent oversight body; and officially banning chokeholds and racial profiling.

Philo Kinney, one of William and Julie Kinney’s sons, said legislation is needed on a state and national level to prevent banking practices that fuel gentrification and displacement of families.

"We need legislation to be changed about nonjudicial foreclosures. We need big banks to be held accountable for mispractices and fraudulent loan documents," he said. "There’s a lot we need to do. I just think those two things are a good start.

“There is evidence of gentrification happening all across America. This systemic racism is the crutch of gentrification and displacing of families and reaping the economic benefits of those neighborhoods.”

The Kinney family has owned their home on Mississippi Avenue since 1955. William and Julie Kinney inherited it from his parents in 1995. The couple owned it free and clear until 2002, when they borrowed money on the home to pay legal expenses resulting from a son’s vehicle collision, in which a person was killed.

A son, William Kinney III, who goes by William X. Nietzsche, said the loan was subprime – a type of loan characterized by higher interest rates and less favorable terms, presumably to compensate for the borrower’s higher credit risk. Defaults on subprime loans, which were often repackaged with securities and sold to investors, contributed to the financial crisis of 2007-08, aka the Great Recession.

“Those loans were done with little or no oversight,” Nietzsche said.

A housing 'nightmare'

Julie Kinney said subprime lenders took advantage of people in distress, as she and her husband were at the time. They borrowed $126,000 and after 14 years still owed $97,000, she said. 

“Some payments, the entire monthly payment went to interest,” she said. “It just became a nightmare.”

After a complex series of events — the mortgage was refinanced and sold by the lender to another financial institution — the loan was declared defaulted and the lender sold the Kinney home to a developer, Urban Housing Development LLC.

According to records, the lender and buyer did well. The lender sold the house for $260,000 — $163,000 more than was owed by the Kinneys. Meanwhile, the real estate market value of the Kinney home that year was $387,650 — $127,650 more than Urban Housing Development LLC paid for it. The Kinneys received nothing but an eviction notice.

The Kinneys refused to leave the home and filed a lawsuit. When a judge ordered the family evicted in September, armed sheriff’s officers entered the home and ordered the family out.

The Kinneys and supporters later returned to the residence and have refused to surrender it, establishing a camp on an adjacent lot – with the lot owner’s permission, they said — and placing barricades after a raid by Portland police.

Protesters who have camped for months to prevent a Black and Indigenous family from being forced to leave a home took the property back Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, after morning clashes with police, who said they were working to "re-secure" the foreclosed home. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian via AP)

Tensions reached a new level last week, with Wheeler authorizing the police to “use all lawful means” to end what he called an “illegal occupation,” and Lovell, who is Black, warning that police would “enforce the law and use force if necessary to restore order to the neighborhood.” That night, a line of armed police officers and state troopers in riot gear moved in and removed protesters from the immediate area.

Wheeler and Lovell met with the Kinneys late Saturday. The letter was issued the following day, and the barricades started coming down.

“This agreement is an important step toward de-escalation and a long-term resolution for the neighborhood and the Kinney family,” Wheeler said in a statement released to the media. “I maintain measured optimism that we can accomplish this step and move toward the next steps to advance the safety and well-being of the family and the safety of the neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, negotiations are underway that could lead to the house being returned to the Kinneys. Roman Ozeruga of Urban Housing Development LLC notified Wheeler’s office that his company is “actively looking for a solution for this difficult situation,” and crowdsource funding had raised about $310,000 by Monday for reacquisition of the home.

“We are still fighting for our home,” Philo Kinney said. “We’ve yet to have direct contact with the developer or their counsel. We’re in contact through middlemen.”

As of late Sunday, he said, “we’re still in negotiation.”

TIMELINE: PORTLAND, OREGON

Portland is historically the territory of the Multnomah people.

1830s: American, Canadian and British people arrive here to trade, trap and establish homes on lands belonging to the Multnomah people.

1843: Business partners William Overton and Asa Lovejoy file a land claim and begin clearing and building.

1851: The city of Portland is incorporated – four years before the United States and Indigenous leaders agreed to terms outlined in the Willamette Valley Treaty.

1859: Oregon becomes a state.

1860-1900: Portland’s population grows from 2,874 to 90,426. Many newcomers immediately after the Civil War are Confederate southerners.

1910: Most of the remaining Multnomah people relocate to reservations.

1910-1919: African Americans, drawn to Portland by maritime and railroad jobs, begin moving to the city’s Albina neighborhood, where homes are more affordable. The local real estate board reacts to the city’s changing demographics by declaring it “unethical” for an agent to sell property in White neighborhoods to people of color, essentially restricting African Americans and others to the Albina neighborhood.

2001-04: The city’s new Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area covers several neighborhoods, including Albina. The urban renewal area designation helps the city obtain federal funding for construction of the MAX Light Rail System. Construction is finished in 2004. Julie Kinney, who served on the urban renewal area committee and advocated for families within the designated area, said thousands of families of color had to move to make way for the light rail system and the redevelopment it spurred.

2004-present: Gentrification of the Albina neighborhood is underway. Mississippi Avenue is now lined with pricey condominiums, boutique shops, an art gallery, a brew pub, a cocktail bar, a distillery, an oyster bar and a pizzeria. The Kinneys’ 124-year-old home is now next door to a four-story apartment building called The Roux and a Florida-inspired cocktail bar called Sweet Nothing.

Portland’s population today is 654,000; 70.6 percent of the population is White.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Portland School District

ONLINE:

ICT Phone Logo

Richard Arlin Walker (Mexican/Yaqui) is a journalist and mariner living in Anacortes, Washington, about 80 miles north of Seattle.