By: Nancy RommelmannPublished: December 30, 2022

The Reality Portland Does Not Want to See

Everything modern Portland did led up to the horrific, predictable murder of Rachael Abraham

I published a big feature today, “A Murder in Portland: How bail reform has enabled crime and chaos,” in Washington Examiner Magazine. I’ll be glad if you read this harrowing and sorrowful story. As a companion piece, I have written the following essay for you, to show how Portland found itself abetting the murder of a mother in front of her children.

In 2019 I wrote an essay called "Good Luck, Portland." I was looking at a city I'd moved to in 2004 and trying to understand when it veered from a hopeful, growing metropolis to a place riven with internecine squabbles and what seemed to me a fatal decay, a decay that turned out to be more opportunistic and fast-moving than I'd anticipated.

The speed makes sense. Portland's ascension in the new American century was fueled by energetic idealistic people, who dreamed of turning a place known for not much more than Bill Walton, salmon and lumber into a modern utopia. Which they did, creating, as I would write in "Good Luck...", "a good friction, some of it generated by mostly young, many-from-California transplants ready to get arm deep in the region’s raw materials, to make vodka and bacon and bee balm and axes. I joked back then they’d make their own water if they could."

I might mention here that when I first moved to Portland and was registering my daughter at the local public high school, I accidentally parked in someone's driveway. When we returned, there was a note on the windshield saying my California license plate gave away what an entitled moron I was, and why didn't I head back down south and leave Portland to the real Oregonians?

My husband told me that when he grew up in Portland, you never met anyone who wasn't from Oregon. So there was that friction, too, between the old and the new. Portland in 2005 was attracting more college-educated, out-of-state people between the ages of 25 and 39 than most cities in the country, with predictable results: home prices rose, competition for jobs became fierce. Tempers began to fray, people began to feel abandoned. After the local alt-weekly published a 2007 piece I wrote called, “There Goes the Neighborhood: Race, Real Estate and Gentrification on My Block,” an online commenter suggested one way to solve the housing shortage was to take transplants like me to a local park and hang them.

The comment showed the tension beneath the surface, tension that for nearly a decade fueled change, fueled growth, fueled hope. The restaurant scene exploded, a downtown warehouse district transformed into a tony shopping-and-condo destination, and a campaign rally for Obama in 2008 drew a record crowd of 80,000. In 2011, Portland got its own spoof comedy series, Portlandia, which popularized the phrase, "Portland is where young people go to retire." As I would write in "Good Luck, Portland":

"People loved this show! Which could be very funny, if not increasingly to Portland’s chattering classes, who’d wearied of the outside attention (sample headline: “Sorry, NYT, We’re Just Not That Into You”) and wanted it understood that while parody was all well and good, Portland was in fact very serious in its commitment to tolerance and diversity and doing things in eco-friendly ways, like installing bike lanes, lots and lots of bike lanes, which would help Portland evolve into a uniquely new kind of American city, patterned not after Seattle, serial fellator of big tech, or God forbid anyplace in California, but more in the mold of a European city. I recall hearing Amsterdam mentioned a lot."

This was the same year, according to my lights, that Portland's star-turn on the national stage came to an end. Portland had taken up space in the national imagination, and it was now some other city's turn, maybe Nashville.

I cannot assess what portion of the population was content to get on with life, had not given two figs about what if anything the limelight had bestowed. But I can speak to the portion that did not seem content to watch that identity sunset, young people who'd imagined that a Portlandia lifestyle as "the D.J.-fashion-designing-knitting-coffeemaker" (as one of my husband's employees characterized herself) was sustainable. I'd watched dozens of these employees, all of them under 30, become increasingly restive. They believed in the promise of Portland but felt they hadn't really partaken. Whose fault was this? When was their time to shine, what with rising rents and a suspicion that they were underappreciated? And now the specter of Donald Trump as president? I remember a group of baristas gathered in our kitchen to watch a debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump, the one where he followed her around the stage like a shark, and how appalled they were, and how they claimed to be frightened.

Being frightened together, when there is little actual threat, is a thing most humans are attracted to. Think: scary movies and ghost stories. Fear can also be stoked; you can blow on its embers; you can sermonize by firelight; you can mesmerize people ready to be mesmerized.

After Trump won the election; after months of marching against the new administration’s immigration policies and Trump's gross misogyny, the newly frightened claimed to see danger around every corner. Soon, most businesses had a sign in its window proclaiming, “WE WELCOME ALL … WE WELCOME YOU, YOU ARE SAFE HERE." That "ALL" in the sign had its limits, and more than one employee would call the boss to ask if they were obligated to serve a customer wearing a MAGA cap, or three young men who, based on their flannel shirts and pick-up truck, could have been white supremacists. Did the bosses have a problem with being thus queried? Did they want their employees to feel unsafe? Did they want to risk a social media campaign to embargo their business, maybe break their windows, maybe show up with a camera-phone and accuse them of being racists or homophobes or Zionists? All of these things happened by the time I wrote "Good Luck, Portland" and then drove not south but east, back to New York City, where I sensed such campaigns would not have gotten much traction, there were too many factions worrying about a breadth of issues rather than conjuring ones that, the young people of Portland were discovering, were also a means to power.

Where their recent predecessors had built the city with their hands and their dreams, those newly in power began to dismantle it. In place of creation, they brought threats and intimidation. They seemed to derive energy from the public destruction of people and institutions, campaigns I knew could not last; knew that those who cannibalize others will at some point run out of meat and become meat themselves.

Which brings us to 2020, when it was no longer unclear to the young people of Portland whose fault everything was, it was the fault of the police, it was the fault of the landlords, of mayor Ted Wheeler, of President Trump. And on top of this, COVID, when the jobs disappeared, and the schools were closed, and you couldn’t leave the house to drink or shop or eat or fuck. And then George Floyd was killed. Here was opportunity for sanctification and relief; to proclaim one's identity; to be visibly meaningful while saving the world. Portland would, a year after Portlandia went off the air, again be in the spotlight. Trump sending in troops to protect federal property, despite protestations otherwise, was the Portland activists' wet dream, and they would riot harder and stronger and longer than anyplace in the world, 100+ nights of breaking windows and setting fires and, at least once, sloshing a bucket of diarrhea into the police station, an act a young couple I asked to speak with found amusing enough to snicker at. They were outfitted in the black bloc uniform of head-to-toe black, and affected boredom with my wondering if they saw throwing human shit as an effective tactic.

"Do you believe that property is worth more than human lives?" asked the boy.

"Do you believe the police should be allowed to murder people?" asked the girl.

I did not mention, at this point in 2020, that there had been exactly one deadly police shooting in Portland, and I did not mention it because, after covering the violence in Portland for dozens of nights, I knew the city's fledgling anarchists were disinterested in facts, facts were challenging, better to keep a set of platitudes up those black sleeves and whip them out as needed. I had never in my time on the planet seen people as incurious, as ideologically brittle, which betrayed to me what they were afraid of; nor the cops or the landlords of the mayor; they were afraid of growing up and so instead played grown-up, hence the uniforms, the homemade MEDIC and PRESS badges stuck to their clothes, and their insistence, as they flung poo and tipped lit barbecue grills over the temporary fencing surrounding the federal courthouse, that they were making the world better for everyone.

"We've tried for 20 years to do it another way. It hasn't worked. Nothing changes except with violence," said the black bloc boy, who was maybe 22. Then he flipped me the bird.

I could chart how the young people of Portland found themselves where they were in the summer of 2020. I had a harder time understanding why politicians and the press were, in the main, so ready to give them an assist. I would live-stream activists bashing in the face of the federal building with a fire extinguisher and be told, variously, that they were defending themselves against “Trump’s goons,” that the police did worse, and that it was clear I’d staged the attack in a studio. Most media outlets seemed of the opinion that to distinguish protester from rioter risked shining a bad light on the entire protest movement, and they were unwilling or institutionally discouraged from reporting from more than one vantage point. (Reason magazine, on the other hand, never asked that I report from any particular position.) Those witnessing or participating in the destruction would make sure to capture and stream images of the activists on defense-only. When I filmed things that people thought countered the narrative of activists/heroes, police/evil, they would cover my camera with their hands, shout “PHOTOGRAPHY EQUALS DEATH!" or, one time, steal my phone. I should mention that some of these same people washed teargas out of my eyes one night in the park across from the federal building. So, at a different event, did a Proud Boy.

Local politicians took a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” position and, with no bigger foe than Trump, squinted hard enough to make the continued destruction look, first, like freedom fighting, then like free speech, then as a thing to be tolerated in the name of progress. This last became harder to bear up under, when the increasingly random violence seemed impelled by little more than activists seeing what they could get away with. With the city showing no stomach to go hard on those engaging in violence - under newly elected DA Mike Schmidt, 92% of protest-arrests in 2020 would not be prosecuted - there was little reason to not, for instance, set fires in front of Ted Wheeler’s condo and demand he move out. He moved out. It was only once Trump was out of office that Portland’s mayor took a tougher stand, calling out antifa by name after a New Year’s Eve 2021 rampage that included throwing Molotov cocktails at law enforcement. “It’s the height of selfishness,” Wheeler said. “There are some people who just want to watch the world burn.”

They’d been watching it burn for months. They’re watching it burn still, if in less spectacular and more deadly ways. For a long time I worried that those involved in prolonged engagement would go full Weather Underground and start building and throwing bombs. This has successfully happened only once, so far as we know. I worried too about the erosion we might not see right away, the ding to the future economy, the observable destruction of landmarks, the security stolen from citizens. I ended more than one Portland piece with the plea that people look toward the sunshine; to make it the beautiful place they once thought it could be. But there was a problem, a problem everyone, or every adult, should have had the courage to foresee but did not: that while the press and the public and the world fixated on the theater of violence and made heroes of its actors, the system that kept violence in check was correspondingly corroding.

"Kindness to the cruel leads to cruelty to the kind," Sharia Mayfield told me this past September, citing it as a Talmudic saying that had been on her mind since the murder of Rachael Abraham. Abraham had been beaten, stabbed and strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend on August 27. Three of her children, ages 7, 4 and 2 were in the home at the time. Mohamed Adan had been repeatedly arrested for assaulting Abraham, slapped with five counts of felony strangulation, a no-contact order, and an ankle monitor. After tearing off the monitor and reattacking Abraham, he told authorities someone had broken in as he slept and taken it off him. Which would seem a pretty good reason to hold Adan in jail, but no. The ground softened in Portland for activist offenders now applied to other offenders, including those who strangle women in front of their children. Adan was set free again and again, until, after being arrested for a fourth time for beating Abraham, a judge imposed a bail of $20,000, only 10% of which needed to be paid in order for Adan to be set free. Which is what happened. A private bail fund for only black, brown and indigenous offenders came up with the money, seeing Adan, a Somali immigrant, as someone who matched their mission; they were working for a fairer Portland, a place where all were welcome, a place where you could set a building on fire and the judicial system would not hold you accountable. And when Adan a week later went and finished off Abraham, when the new systems performed exactly as intended, the D.A. and the defense attorneys and the bail fund went to ground; they didn't want to talk about Abraham's murder, or maybe they didn't know how to talk about it without inviting its ghastly weight. After a week, the Portland press stopped talking about it, too; the city was on the cusp of breaking its homicide record for the second year in a row, there were other murders to write about. One outlet did express some interest, when it asked someone associated with the bail fund whether it would carry on as before. Certainly, came the answer, and also, that while the fund considered Abraham's murder "horrific," the bail fund had received a recommendation from Adan’s lawyer, and the judge had granted bail, and as far as the fund was concerned, “the media and the D.A.’s office and for everybody to attempt to focus this, to make [the fund] a problem, in a problematic system is just, it’s ludicrous.”

A problematic system, built on ginned-up fear, on catchphrases in lieu of civil engagement, on hurling buckets of feces and calling it political action. Did I mention the black bloc kids had a patrician mien, as if under different circumstances, they might be coming from cotillion? Do you think they had any forethought of Rachael Abraham, a black woman who would pay the price for the system they helped build?

"How long would Portland keep falling for the upside-down world?" Mayfield asked. How long would Portland countenance and supply get-out-of-jail-free cards?

I told her I did not know. I keep trying to see Portland as clearly as I can and deliver the stories therein. If people outside of the city see the stories as useful, the locals often do not. They see them as an enemy of progress. Which puts me in the terrible position of knowing there will be those who count a mother murdered in front of her children as an acceptable loss, if they think about Rachael Abraham at all, their mission, as it has ever been, being all about them.

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