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Clean & Safe: the Secret City Within the City

The Secret City Within the City

In the summer of 2021, as the city council considered renewing the Clean & Safe contract, Portland DSA and the rest of the End Clean & Safe coalition published the following content as a series of emails meant to educate the public on the deeply flawed system of enhanced service districts. Despite the vociferous objections of numerous community members and the opposition of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the rest of the city council voted to renew the contract for another five years. But the fight is not over 一 Portland’s other two enhanced service districts will soon be up for contract renewal, and the city council can vote to terminate or renegotiate the Clean & Safe contract at any time. Join our mailing list so we can keep you in the loop on future efforts to end the cruel and dangerous sweeps of our houseless population carried out in service of wealthy business interests without accountability to the people of Portland!

Table of Contents

  1. The Secret City Within the City
  2. The Haunting of Downtown Portland
  3. The Case of the Missing Oversight
  4. The Curious Case of the Bait Bike
  5. The Map of the Secret City Within the City
  6. A Journey Into the Belly of the Beast

Chapter 1: The Secret City Within the City

Between the clanging streetcars and sizzling griddles of food carts, a shadowy syndicate stalks downtown Portland’s streets.

While they’re out there, no one is safe. Houseless residents endure harassment and displacement. Homeowners, city agencies, and businesses watch, bewildered, as it siphons their resources for its own private ends. Day by day, the group lays claim to more public space, amassing an armed and unaccountable police force to keep us out of places that only yesterday belonged to everyone.

What is this monstrosity taking over our city?

Like any seasoned con artist, it goes by many names. Business Improvement District. Enhanced Service District. Polite society refers to it by its legal title: Clean & Safe.

Beneath its polished exterior, Clean & Safe is a dirty and dangerous operation. Since 1994, Clean & Safe has contracted with the City of Portland to privatize services like trash collection and security. Each year, Clean & Safe rakes in more than $5 million in mandatory fees from every business and property owner in its 213-block district to fund these “enhanced services.” However, there is little to no oversight or transparency in how those funds are spent.

In its tax filings (2018), Clean & Safe reported that 80% of its $5 million budget was managed by one independent contractor一the Portland Business Alliance. Of its total budget, the group spent:

  • 40% on patrolling public space
  • 16% on cleaning services
  • 13% on holiday lights

This September, Portland City Council votes on a 10-year renewal of its contract with Clean & Safe. Time is running out…and only we can stop them.

Join us as we pry off a manhole cover and descend into this secret city within the city. Over the next few weeks, we’ll release new chapters of this mystery and shed light on the dangerous path this shadowy syndicate is leading us down.

Who really runs Downtown Clean & Safe? What do they spend $5 million on each year? Will City Council stand with Portland residents or the Portland Business Alliance? Do twinkle lights and armed, uncertified security officers make a city clean or safe?

Chapter 2: The Haunting of Downtown Portland

Content warning: This chapter references police violence, gun violence, and death.

For a Portland August, it’s a little too hot. The sun downtown is a little too bright, so you linger on a shady sidewalk. Through the haze of the heat, a figure approaches. Could it be a Portland Police officer? No, that’s not the right uniform. Anyway, you’re not doing anything wrong, just trying to catch a moment’s rest. As the figure draws closer, you can make out a badge and a gun. The armed guard demands you move off the sidewalk. Your heart races as you watch the hand stretch menacingly toward the holster. If this isn’t the police, who could it be?

Last month, we lamented a loss of life in Delta Park. A man named Freddy Nelson, Jr., fell at the hand of a private armed security guard — not licensed to carry a weapon, but commissioned by a wealthy developer to police a BottleDrop.

Not long after, Old Town property owners copped to signing contracts with a hodgepodge of private security firms, turning the Entertainment District into a Wild West town. As late night revelers swarm, armed vigilantes prowl our streets with assault rifles. “We’re kind of running an underground government,” a hotel owner boasted, “to keep things safe.”

It’s almost more than you can believe. Almost.

Peer through the doors of any shopping mall or grocery store and you find them there, too: private security guards endowed with the power to turn lives upside down. We’ve taken consolation in the notion that their authority meets an abrupt end at the property line.

But what happens when property owners no longer observe the line between their private holdings and the public way? What if they set their goons loose into our streets?

By now you’ve heard about Downtown Clean & Safe, the Enhanced Services District (ESD) controlling 213 blocks of downtown Portland. Each year, Clean & Safe extracts more than $5 million in special fees from the homes and businesses within its borders, whether they like it or not. An eye-popping 80% of Clean & Safe’s multi-million dollar budget is managed by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a lobbying group that represents some of the city’s largest businesses 一 and, in turn, the interests of Portland’s wealthiest crooks.

In 2012, the PBA inked a deal with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to fund, and have a hand in choosing, four of the six officers assigned to patrol the Clean & Safe district. But the racket doesn’t end there. PBA is also in league with Portland Patrol Inc (PPI), a private security firm that deploys its minions across the city, including the transit mall, Smart Park garages, and even the Apple Store.

You read that right — the Apple Store. For PPI, there’s no clear boundary between its public and private clientele. In a 2020 meeting with the City Auditor’s office, PPI’s owner, John Hren, boasted about offering “umbrella services,” which empower his employees to cross property lines however they see fit.

But the PPI umbrella stretches even wider yet. Hren told the Auditor that, in a private security scene that he called “incestuous,” his officers will lend a hand when other firms call in a favor. (Adding to the incest, Hren himself is a retired PPB commander.)

What does all this mean? When a Clean & Safe officer responds to a call, we don’t know who’s going to show up. It might be a PPI guard assigned to a Smart Park garage, or one of the six officers on loan from PPB, or a lackey from another private firm. Without access to PPI records, it’s hard to say. Hren told the City Auditor that, as a private contractor, he “doesn’t have to provide data or any information.”

As PBA and PPI blur the lines between private and public space and obscure crucial reporting data, we lose control over our own city. Meanwhile, the goons who haunt our streets answer only to the whims of a shady syndicate of wealthy business owners. You might begin to wonder if that whole 213-block zone of public sidewalks, streets, and parks hasn’t been carved right out of the city and given over to private hands. You wouldn’t be far from the truth.

While Clean & Safe operates, there really is an “underground government” at work — a secret city within the city.

Who exactly are Clean & Safe guards accountable to? Without access to their incident reports, how do we monitor their activities? Do Portland officials have any power to rein them in? Who’s calling the shots, and whose voices are being ignored?

Chapter 3: The Case of the Missing Oversight

The Central Library is buzzing with activity, but you don’t have time for distractions. In less than one month, Portland City Council will vote on extending its contract with Clean & Safe, the shadowy entity sicking armed thugs on the streets of downtown.

You look back down at the pages of the city auditor’s report, fanned out in front of you. This is, admittedly, the first audit you’ve ever read. But after that encounter with the armed security guard, you’re rattled. You can still see the officer’s gun glinting in the hot summer sun, the slight smile on his face as he orders you to keep moving. All you did was ask who he worked for.

After the incident, you nosed around on the streets to see if anyone had more information. One woman told you he was private security — “Clean & Safe,” she said.

“They don’t tell you where they’re from, you have to ask for their agency. At the beginning of COVID, people were getting kicked out from under bridges, even as people had nowhere to go with the shelters closed. It’s almost like they wait for folks to fall asleep to move them.”

Hearing her story, you felt the anger growing hot in your chest. What kind of city would allow its residents to be treated with so much malice?

But she was helpful. She was the one who hinted you should visit the library, where you found the blistering city auditor’s report. As you pore over its pages, you can hardly believe how the City of Portland neglects its oversight responsibility. The City has never received or reviewed annual reports or audits from Clean & Safe, and Mayor Wheeler has never received or reviewed incident reports from the private security contractor.

You read that right: no one tasked with monitoring Clean & Safe is doing their job.

Reading the audit, you start to notice a deafening silence: where are the voices of the houseless community? You notice that neither Portland Business Alliance nor Clean & Safe have houseless representation on their boards. If that weren’t bad enough, opportunities for input from the community are basically nonexistent, and those that exist are inaccessible. Only one of PBA’s recent listening sessions on the Clean & Safe contract renewal gave community members the option to testify in person 一 all others required access to the internet and a digital device. And while PBA hosted an exclusive session for business owners, they never sought the voices of residents who are houseless, even though many have the most contact with Clean & Safe officers. These closed-door policies have one effect: no one outside the Clean & Safe cabal has any say in the training, qualifications, or standards of the private security force.

This is doubly dangerous because private security targets those who are already marginalized in our community, including housed people of color and houseless people of all races. (Communities of color 一 specifically Black and Native American communitiesare represented at disproportionately higher rates in Portland’s homelessness population.)

By the time you finish your reading it’s dark. The library is about to close. Looking down at page after page of notes, covered in arrows and question marks, you wonder: who is the PBA? How much are they spending on private security? If they aren’t spending their entire $5 million budget on security and attorneys, where could the rest of it be going?

Chapter 4: The Curious Case of the Bait Bike

You push through the heavy doors of the library and into the darkness on SW 10th. The cool fall air sends a shiver up your spine; you pull your coat a little tighter. These days, the library feels like one of the last truly public spaces left in town: a place where anyone can come in from the cold or use the bathroom 一 simply be a human 一 without having to pay a fee.

You’ve had a fruitful night of research. Now you know the Central Library sits just outside the boundaries of Clean & Safe, an Enhanced Services District (ESD) where private armed security officers freely roam the streets with no oversight from the city. In that sense, Clean & Safe is the opposite of the library: Instead of opening its arms to neighbors seeking shelter, the ESD forces out people who have nowhere else to go.

The bell of the streetcar clangs, pulling you out of your reveries. You rush on board towards your next destination. After a few stops, you hop off and hurry inside a dingy brick building. Down the hall, light streams through a frosted glass door emblazoned with the words “CRIMINAL DEFENSE.”

You nudge the door open. Behind a desk littered with stacks of paper, a woman in a Stetson fedora punches notes into a battered typewriter. A cigarette dangles from her lips. Maybe she’s leaning a little hard into this Maltese Falcon bit. Then again, with everything you’ve learned about Clean & Safe, you’re starting to feel like you stepped onto the set of a film noir.

“Ah, come in,” she says, clearing a seat. “I wondered when you’d come to see me. They say I’m a criminal defense lawyer, but I’ll tell you what: the real criminals aren’t my clients on the streets 一 they’re the ones working in swanky high-rises downtown.”

You came to her office on a tip from your contacts on the street. She’d taken on pro bono work for houseless folks who had run-ins with Clean & Safe security. She says, “The sweeps are traumatizing and inhumane. They’re also criminal: City contractors steal the belongings of houseless community members and take them to the dump. In at least one case, they stole a woman’s medication, leading to her death!”

But sweeps are just the beginning, she explains. ESDs increase resources for policing, which in turn increases criminalization. Within ESDs, houseless people are arrested 22 times more frequently than in other parts of Portland. ESD resources may even create crime where it doesn’t otherwise exist: Clean & Safe and its private security contractor recently bought the Portland police a “bait bike,” a $2,000 bicycle equipped with GPS tracking, to ensnare people into theft.

Even worse, some ESDs pay for extra staff members in district attorneys’ offices to speed up prosecution. Pre-pandemic, ESDs also funded and operated community courts that could sentence people who were arrested to clean the streets under the supervision of ESDs 一 all for the crime of being poor.

“Those DAs in their $3,000 suits and air conditioned offices love to prosecute people for the terrible offense of napping in public,” she snorts.

You’re starting to connect the dots. Under the guise of Clean & Safe, private businesses are building their own security forces, increasing arrests, funding prosecutors, and sentencing houseless people to do their bidding for free. They really are running a secret city within the city.

As the lawyer finishes her story, she says, “If you want to get to the bottom of this, you’ll need to look into who runs Clean & Safe.” Suddenly, she leans forward and points a shaking finger at you. “But if you do, be on your guard. Powerful people are wrapped up in this … and they’ll do anything they can to keep their grip on this city.”

Stepping back outside onto the foggy streets downtown, you can’t help but wonder: Who is really the criminal in this case? Who are the puppeteers pulling the strings? What’s their agenda? Who really runs Clean & Safe … and the streets of downtown Portland?

Chapter 5: The Map of the Secret City Within the City

Last night was too much to take in — a secret city within the city?!

Who would believe that?

To clear your head, you pass the early morning strolling the waterfront. Pausing to watch the waves tease the boat moored north of the bridge, you continue south towards Salmon Springs. For a moment it seems the fog is starting to lift. You shake out your coat, relieved at the promise of a sunny morning. But you’ve only caught a gap in the fog — it hasn’t lifted at all. And is this fog, or is it something else? What fog carries such a pungent, chemical stench, the way that cities used to smell? You wipe your eyes with your sleeve and tell yourself you’re overtired, it’s nothing, you’re imagining things. But you can’t shake this sense of something nefarious rolling through the city.

You turn and head back across SW Naito, when a yellow-gloved hand beckons you down a parking ramp. The man wears the jumpsuit of a janitor and draws your attention to the cameras overhead. “Stay close,” he warns, “we don’t have much time!” Through heavy doors and down dark corridors, he delivers you into a windowless room and flips the switch. When your eyes adjust, you can make out a giant corkboard with printouts in haphazard array, with yarn anchored to the sheets with pushpins.

And that’s when it clicks.

“This can’t be real,” you insist.

The man stands straight, radiating confidence. “Oh it’s real alright.”

You protest that it looks like a meme. This draws a laugh. “Don’t you know what building you’re in?” His rubber-gloved hand taps a sheet in the corner of the board bearing the now-familiar mark of Downtown Clean & Safe, his eyes flashing with conspiracy. “These business types,” he goes on, “they’ve got plans for this town.” There’s a sudden shift in his demeanor — one yellow glove extending back to the switch while the other reaches for your sleeve. “This way,” as he tugs you out the door. “Make it quick!”

Back on the surface, you sprint home with a burst of energy and a food cart tofu wrap in hand, running what you’ve just seen against what you already know. As your shoes clap the pavement you rehash the basics: Clean & Safe is an Enhanced Services District (ESD) covering 213 blocks of downtown Portland. Every business and homeowner with an address inside the district pays a mandatory fee (on top of other taxes and fees). These fees furnish Clean & Safe with more than $5 million each year.

Unlike with the city budget, ESD ratepayers have no say in how their money gets spent. There is no public budget process they can shape — no votes to cast, no commissioners or representatives to contend with. Decisions take place behind the closed doors of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a group that speaks for some of the city’s wealthiest businesses.

You turn the lock and settle in at the table, not bothering to hang up your coat, and start to diagram your findings.

First, you write down City and the letters ESD and draw a short line between them. From ESD, you draw a line down to PBA, the primary contractor for Clean & Safe. The PBA lays claim to 8 of Clean & Safe’s 12 staff positions, and three-quarters of Clean & Safe’s Board of Directors represent PBA member organizations.

From PBA you draw a three-pronged line connecting to PPB, PPI, and CCC, each one representing a subcontract the PBA holds with another agency.

PPB: Clean & Safe gets six officers from the Portland Police Bureau for its patrols (you draw a dashed line between City and PPB), and the PBA gets a say in which officers are assigned to Clean & Safe.

PPI: The six PPB officers work with the armed guards hired by Portland Patrol, Inc., a private security agency (a solid line between PPB and PPI) whose owner made it clear to the City Auditor that he answers to PBA, not to the City. You rummage through your files for your copy of the Auditor’s interview and tape it to the wall next to the sheet with your diagram, running a length of yarn between the pages.

CCC: The “Clean” in Clean & Safe, Central City Concern receives around 20% of the budget. What’s more, those arrested by the ESD’s private security officers and convicted in the ESD’s private court system have served out their sentences with CCC.

You step back to think through a hunch. Of the millions of dollars that Clean & Safe extracts from zoned-in businesses and residents, just over $1 million pays the salaries for staff, most of whom are PBA staff. And these staff work under the direction of a board effectively controlled by PBA members. Does Clean & Safe exist solely to benefit the Portland Business Alliance and its members?

A quick google lends credence to your hunch. According to Willamette Week, PBA’s CEO, a recent Brooklynite named Andrew Hoan, confirms the intermingling of Clean & Safe and the PBA: “It’s better for both organizations.” What’s more, the same article reports, “Audit results show that he and other administrative staff spend more than 50% of their time on Clean & Safe issues.” You print it out and tape it to the wall, using an old shoelace to draw a line between the sheets.

But wait a minute — more than 50% of their time? What issues could these be? You have the private police force, the paid-for positions in the district attorney’s office, the “community” court system, the branded garbage cans and sanitation teams? And why this scheme to get the City to assent to shaking down those 213 blocks of separate businesses and homes? Couldn’t PBA’s wealthy business owners raise their own $5 million? It’s like they really are constructing a whole other city — a mirror image of the legal one — from the inside out!

Worse still, PBA staff routinely violate lobbying rules and campaign finance regulations. In May, Hoan contested the Auditor’s finding that the PBA failed to disclose at least 25 interactions with city officials, levying the office’s second-ever fine for PBA’s undisclosed requests for “access, funding or action.” The Auditor also fielded campaign finance complaints against PBA board chair Vanessa Sturgeon and chair emeritus Mike Golub, whose individual contributions to Mayor Wheeler’s reelection campaign far exceeded voter-approved contribution limits.

By now your wall is looking like the corkboard that yellow-gloved janitor revealed. Your head begins to spin, your tofu wrap-fueled boost is fading, and the late nights are catching up to you. Before giving in at last and crashing on the bed, you turn your gaze back to the window, the fog still rolling through the streets like a smokescreen.

What future does this “secret city” portend for those who live here? How deep does PBA influence run at City Hall? What can Portland city government do to stop it? Who’s really pulling the strings here?

Chapter 6: A Journey Into the Belly of the Beast

Morning comes too soon, and you blink awake at the sun in your eyes. On your wall, the documents that spell out the truth to the secret city in the city. With all you’ve pieced together, you should feel proud. Except that what you’ve found is a deeply ineffective system that hurts people. You no longer want answers. You want to stop Clean & Safe and protect your community. The flood of adrenaline is almost better than coffee. Almost.

Per the city’s contract with Clean & Safe, it’s the City of Portland that’s supposed to monitor annual reports. You pace around your desk, find a copy of the Clean & Safe audit, and confirm your hunch: the City’s Revenue Division did not review any reports. Neither did Mayor Wheeler, the police commissioner charged with reviewing any reports regarding private security within the enhanced services district (ESD).

You can’t be the only one angry about this, you reason, so you dress and hurry outside to compare notes with your contacts. The woman who sent you to the library to learn about ESDs is sipping a cortado, her bright expression turning thoughtful once you explain that you’re searching for others who want to stop the ESDs. Now she points you towards City Hall, describing a press conference held by activists making exactly that demand.

You hurry over, stopping only for an oat milk turmeric latte. When you arrive, the press conference has just begun. You hear from Barbie Weber, who says that her camp was once swept ten times in a month: “Living outside, you lack the resources to properly store your belongings and it’s a constant battle. You want to be comfortable. And what is wrong with comfort? What is wrong with wanting that blanket that your granny made you?”

Other speakers detail the harms of the ESDs, still others talking about the ways they’re pushing back. You learn that even though the auditor’s office released their ESD report more than a year ago (and even though the End Clean & Safe coalition has been speaking to City Council members about the audit for weeks during the open comment period), the City has never publicly acknowledged the report, let alone taken action on its recommendations. When coalition members stressed the importance of a transparent, open contract renewal process, the City denied them: it refused to share draft contract language. Even worse, City Council let the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) hold inaccessible virtual hearings, the first two targeted only at housed community members who live or work inside the ESD. Only one hearing was held in person, allowing for the attendance of individuals who may not have easy internet or computer access. Despite this, the coalition members say, the feedback from community members was overwhelmingly negative towards the renewal, sharing their concerns that it was undemocratic and harmful. You swell with pride and gratitude for your fellow Portlanders.

At the end of the press conference, organizers remind you that the Clean & Safe contract will be up for a vote on September 23 at 2 PM. You note the date and start brainstorming testimony, doodling a chart in your notebook not dissimilar to the one on your wall, marking down phrases like, “no democratic process” and “brutality from private security” in the margins. As the page fills up you’re hit with a wave of anger. You can’t wait until the hearing on the 23rd. You turn on your heel and head towards City Hall.

To your surprise, the doors are unlocked. While it appears that the building is lightly staffed, you spot a bored young man at a desk behind a glass door labeled “Mayor Wheeler’s Office.” You head through the door.

“Can I help you?” the young man politely asks. You tell him you’re there to comment about ESDs. He looks confused, so you explain a little.

“Oh yeah, that,” he says, clicking his mouse for longer than seems reasonable. “Yeah, it’s up for a vote on the 23rd. Of course, PBA was just here, and they told us that there’s really nothing to worry about. It’s just a routine contract renewal.”

You stand there, taken aback by his blind faith in the PBA. He appears to not notice the expression on your face, and continues tapping away at his computer. At that moment, you see the door open, and a middle-aged man with the look of a washed-up surfer emerges. He begins barking orders at the young man, who starts furiously taking notes, when he notices you and stops short.

“Sorry, I don’t have time for you. I have a meeting,” he states, brushing past you.

You start to explain that you’re concerned about the Clean & Safe renewal, how it will continue to hurt houseless Portlanders, how it doesn’t help anyone, and he turns back to you and cuts you off.

“You know, I’m so sick of you activist types coming in here and telling me how to do my job. The community loves Clean & Safe. It works great! Don’t you know there’s a homeless crisis?” He looks you up and down, taking in your coat with its missing button and worn shoes with a sneer. “By the way, I don’t have to listen to you. You’d never donate to my next campaign.” He storms off, slamming the door behind him.

In the glow of that warm reception, you pause to collect yourself. Finally, you head out of City Hall. You know that there’s only one option left if you want to stop this renewal, and that’s to get as many people as possible to tell City Council to vote the renewal down, or at least to pause the vote. You begin calling your contacts as soon as you leave the silence of that strange building. Clean & Safe can be stopped … but stopping it will take everyone’s help.

Mayor Wheeler is a Danger to Our Community

A statement from the Portland DSA Safety Working Group
illustration by Brubaker, courtesy of DSA

With his latest statement, Ted Wheeler actively threatens the safety of Portland residents. By directing unknown people to track, record, and report so-called “black bloc” protesters, he is jeopardizing the safety and security of any number of Portland residents. These residents may or may not be associated with any protests. Furthermore, Wheeler is, wittingly or unwittingly, inviting and encouraging violent, far-right cells to act as vigilantes within our community. Because Ted Wheeler cannot offer real solutions to our city’s problems, and cannot rally the support of people who live in this city, he is placing untold numbers of our fellow residents in danger in an ill conceived attempt to quell righteously justified protests against him and his police.

Sadly, each and every time Ted Wheeler has been faced with an opportunity to lead this city and solve real problems he has made the lives of the people of Portland far worse and less safe. This is true whether the problems stem from traveling bands of white supremacists invading our streets and terrorizing our residents or from his own unaccountable, violent and murderous police force.

In the last few months alone we have seen Ted Wheeler’s police collaborate with far-right brawlers who later went on to storm the capitol in DC, dox the District Attorney (elected by a popular margin, unlike Wheeler who couldn’t muster even a simple majority), and attempt to frame a city council member by leaking information to online grifters. And just outside our city last summer, we watched as right-wing vigilantes established armed checkpoints, some with the explicit help of law enforcement, due to false rumors of “antifa” starting forest fires. These are the legacies of Ted Wheeler’s tenure as mayor and police commissioner.

Now Ted Wheeler is calling on these same elements to harass and intimidate Portland residents accused of no crime, solely based on attire and general proximity to a protest that he believes might be involved in some kind of future crime. In the midst of uprisings against an unjust system, Ted Wheeler has firmly sided with those who attempt to harm us with impunity again and again. He is unfit to be mayor and is a danger to our community.

Ted Wheeler is a threat to anyone who believes in freedom of assembly and speech. We condemn Ted Wheeler’s attempt to restrict the freedom of Portlanders and we call on our fellow residents to condemn his cowardly actions that will hurt us and our neighbors.

Statement on Police Murder in Lents Park

Police at Lents Park on Friday, April 16, 2021

Portland DSA condemns the police murder of our community member yesterday in Lents Park.

The brutality of policing is an everyday horror perpetrated against the most marginalized people in our society — and it is a tool of capitalism to maintain inequality.

Last year, Portlanders mobilized alongside millions of others around the country to protest racist police violence. Our demonstrations forced the Portland City Council to take action: they voted to defund the Portland Police Bureau by $15 million and remove police presence from schools and public transit. But we must not only prevent this funding from being reinstated — we must go further and strip the police of their power to terrorize and kill with impunity.

This most recent murder by the police happened in the pilot zone of the Portland Street Response. This clearly demonstrates that it’s not enough to create an alternative to the police if nothing is done to decrease the power, scope, and size of the Portland Police Bureau.

To do that, we need an organized mass movement of working class people capable of challenging the police and the ruling class interests they serve. Through coordinated, strategic mass action, we can build the power required to transform the system.

Socialists believe in a world where everyone is guaranteed a home and health care — not a military occupation masquerading as “safety.” We must divest from policing and use those funds to support essential public services that directly address the root causes of poverty, crime, and violence. True safety means dismantling the systems that perpetuate injustice, including the police and the prison industrial complex, and reinvesting in our communities.

That’s why we won’t stop fighting to defund, disarm, and disband the police. That’s why we demand justice for the victim, his family, and the community. And that’s why we demand accountability from Zachary Delong, the officer responsible for the public execution of a member of our community, as well as the Portland Police Bureau and every other police officer and department in this country.

Join Portland DSA at the city budget hearing on May 5 to make our demands heard!

Texas and Oregon Outages: The Case for Public Power

By Emily Castle and Serena Howell, Portland DSA Ecosocialist Working Group

A round red graphic with two hands shaking hands. The hand on the left is drawn with a black line, and the hand on the right with a white line. Above the hands is a lightning bolt, drawn with a black line, pointing down to the middle of the handshake.
Image from NYC-DSA Public Power Campaign. Design by Ethan Fox.
  • After historic winter storms, Oregon and Texas both suffered massive, predictable grid failures. At the same time, millions of people face mounting utility debt and the threat of shut-offs due to nonpayment in the midst of the pandemic.
  • Investor owned utility companies (IOUs) are privately owned, for-profit monopolies that pay dividends to shareholders. IOUs have a long history of neglecting grid safety and accessibility in favor of paying out shareholder dividends, astronomical executive salaries, and political lobbying.
  • The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) oversees 90% of Texas’s grid, which is the only deregulated market in the US not overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Despite many prior warnings, lack of oversight by ERCOT resulted in millions of Texans losing power for days in freezing temperatures, with at least 38 deaths. Meanwhile, electricity producers made $40 billion.
  • Publicly owned utilities do not operate for a profit. There are thousands of them across the US and they provide more affordable, reliable, accessible, and safer service than IOUs. They are democratized organizations that operate transparently and benefit communitiesin numerous ways.
  • With public power we can expand access to electricity, uplift marginalized communities, improve grid safety and efficiency, build resilience to climate-related disasters, and quicken the transition to renewable energy.
  • Through grid nationalization and a Green New Deal, we can put millions of people to work improving the stability of our energy system, slow climate breakdown, and place power into the hands of the public.

A crisis of power

Oregon is currently recovering from an historic winter storm that, at its peak, left more than 420,000 people without power in freezing temperatures. Though regulators had warned the two largest electric companies (PGE and Pacific Power) to maintain the vegetation near the power lines, falling limbs from ice-laden trees tore down hundreds of miles of lines in the worst damage to the system in 40 years. For several days, hundreds of thousands of people shivered in the dark and thousands have been left without power for weeks as workers scramble to repair the complex distribution web.¹

The onslaught of bitter temperatures, snow, and ice wreaked even more serious havoc on the grid farther south in Texas as it made its way into a region generally considered safe from the dangers of extreme winter weather. The local grid operator, which has also ignored weatherization recommendations from regulators, implemented rolling blackouts to mitigate the stress of the cold on the system, but the utilities failed to come back online. More than 4.5 million people were plunged into darkness as temperatures remained below freezing. Three days into the crisis, as millions still lacked electricity, the state placed more than a quarter of its residents under a “boil order,” as low water pressure caused unsafe drinking water. At least 38 people in Texas have perished, with the number rising to 58 across the many other affected states.²

Branches from a tree are pinning a power line to the ground. Behind the branches stand the tree trunk and a utility pole. In the background is a field with a partly cloudy sky above.
Fallen limbs and power lines after the February winter storm in Oregon.

Access to reliable power is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It is simply a requisite component of the society we’ve built: modern living requires machinery, and that machinery requires power. While energy bills are a reality for everyone, the poor are disproportionately shouldered with the cost burden of keeping the lights on. Utility bills essentially function as a regressive tax because the rates are the same for low-income people as they are for wealthy people.³ Under our current system, working class people cannot afford modernized energy efficiency appliances and weatherization upgrades to their homes. According to Pew Research, nearly 37% of Americans rented their homes in 2016 and they are ultimately at the mercy of the property managers to implement the upgrades needed to keep their energy bills affordable.⁴ Due to centuries of targeted racial and environmental oppressions, Indigenous communities on reservations, communities of color in cities, and migrant communities that provide our food disproportionately suffer from high utility costs — or a lack of access altogether. For example, Native American nations were largely excluded from the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Act and tens of thousands of Indigenous people do not have electricity to this day.⁵ High energy costs, in turn, force people to choose between necessities like food, medicine, and heat. The health problems associated with making these kinds of choices and living in drafty or damp conditions aggravate economic distress further through increased medical bills and/or lost wages.⁶

The COVID-19 crisis has put millions of people out of work, creating a situation where unemployed workers are racking up higher utility bills while bringing in little or no income. There is no federal rule on utility moratoriums during COVID-19, which can mean accruing crippling debt for power, water, and gas bills. Only eleven states, including California, Washington, and Hawaii, have active bans on utility shut-offs. Texas is one of twenty-two states that had utility moratoriums at the onset of the pandemic but allowed them to expire. In North Carolina approximately 30,000 households lost their water, electricity or gas in November after the state’s shut-off moratorium expired. There are more than 600,000 customers in the state still behind on utility payments.⁷

Currently there are eleven states, including Oregon, that have voluntary-based moratoriums on utility shut-offs. Larger investor-owned utility companies, like Portland General Electric and Pacific Power, have voluntarily frozen utility shut-offs. PGE reported in June 2020 that its total value of past-due payments doubled between January and June 19, from $14 million to $28 million. Some smaller utilities in the state, such as consumer-owned utilities, have resumed disconnections for unpaid bills; not all are required to share their rates of shut-off notices. The Salem Electric Cooperative and the City of Ashland have resumed disconnections for water and electricity.⁸ As there is no guaranteed financial support attached to them, statewide rent and utility moratoriums leave millions of families with the insecurity of looming evictions and shut-offs when the moratoriums inevitably expire. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association estimates there is $24 billion in utility debt that families haven’t been able to pay during the coronavirus pandemic and that amount could nearly double after March 2021. The estimated average balance for families impacted by COVID-19 that are unable to pay their utility bill is approximately $1700 per household.⁹ There is mounting pressure for the federal government to intervene and provide financial support to the millions of Americans struggling to pay their bills in the midst of a national health crisis. There should be debt forgiveness for rent and utilities at the federal level, especially since the key to reducing exposure to COVID-19 is staying home. Not only does access to running water and electricity save lives by slowing the spread of the coronavirus, it also protects low-income communities living and working at the front lines of the climate crisis. So, while millions of working class people struggle to pay their utility bills, with the hardest-hit people belonging to historically marginalized communities along racial and gender lines, who is making money off our energy use?

Profit over people

On November 8th, 2018, a live wire broke loose of an electrical tower and started an inferno that killed 85 people and leveled the town of Paradise, California. The tower was 99 years old and documents show acknowledgement from its owner, Pacific Gas and Electric, that the tower had exceeded its “useful life” 25 years previously. This was not PG&E’s first disaster: the utility giant was found to be at fault for 17 of the 21 most destructive fires of 2017 and a gas pipe explosion in 2010 killed eight people. Subsequent investigations show PG&E consistently broke the law or otherwise shirked their safety responsibility in favor of paying out dividends to their private investors. In perhaps the most outrageous example of rampant greed, the decade leading up to the gas line explosion saw the company collect $224 million more in revenue than they were legally allowed to while low spending on operation and maintenance brought them millions of dollars under budget. Though PG&E knew Paradise was in a vulnerable region and had the funds for safety upgrades, it did nothing to prevent an inevitable disaster.¹⁰

A year after the catastrophe in Paradise, PG&E preemptively cut power to 800,000 users in fire-prone areas where the grid has not been adequately maintained. As we’ve seen in Texas, utilities often resort to these kinds of forced shut-offs in the face of calamity — shut-offs that disproportionately affect marginalized populations. In New York City, the utility giant ConEd shut off power to 33,000 customers in southeast Brooklyn in the middle of a July 2019 heat wave. The neighborhoods were majority Black and were rated a 4 out of 5 on the heat vulnerability index.¹¹ As was the case last month when the low-income communities of East Austin were plunged into darkness while the downtown area filled with empty office buildings remained lit, the move begs the question of how companies choose who gets power and who does not.

PG&E and ConEd are investor-owned utilities, or IOUs. IOUs are private corporations that pay dividends to shareholders, who are mostly out-of-state or international. Sixty-eight percent of Americans get their electricity from IOUs, which, because of the regional and technical nature of energy transmission, function as local monopolies. Corporate utilities in the US are monitored by municipal utility commissions — an arrangement suggested by the electric companies around the turn of the century to head off growing demand for public ownership of the grid. Then, as now, capitalist dogma held that the government could never provide a service as successfully as a private corporation.¹² These public utility boards have proven toothless, however. Commissioners are traditionally in the pocket of the utilities themselves and, even if the board wished to hold companies accountable, they lack the capacity to do so without the cooperation of the IOUs. It might go without saying they do not get this cooperation, as IOUs value deregulation above all else.

Texas has fought especially hard to eschew accountability. Deregulation in Texas goes as far back as FDR’s 1935 signing of the Federal Power Act, which gave the Federal Power Commission (now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC) the authority to regulate electricity crossing state lines. Instead of allowing for federal regulation Texas simply decided not to trade electricity with other states. A massive blackout affecting 30 million people in the Eastern US and Canada, however, spooked Texans into forming a state regulatory board in 1970: the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). About 90% of the state is powered by this Texas-only grid, which is the only deregulated energy market in the US that is not overseen by FERC. The Texas Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) have jurisdiction over ERCOT, but they have chosen not to enforce necessary safety measures to prevent catastrophes.¹³ After severe episodes of winter weather in 1989 and 2011 both left millions of Texans without power, the PUCT recommended winterization improvements to the grid. Federal regulators, such as FERC and the North American Reliability Corporation, suggested that the utilities use more insulation, install heating systems and incorporate more encompassing winterized efforts in the power plants. Because Texas currently has no regulatory penalties for not complying with weatherization guidelines, the utilities, unsurprisingly, largely ignored the recommendations. They failed to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations and failed to ensure that they had adequate fueling.¹⁴

Deregulation coupled with private greed left millions of Texans to pay the ultimate price with power blackouts and water shut-offs, leading to over 30 deaths while hundreds have been poisoned from carbon monoxide, desperate to find ways to stay warm. To add insult to injury, the state’s intentionally competitive wholesale system caused electricity and gas prices for those who did have access to skyrocket, with individual customers being slammed with three, four, and five-digit utility bills. The severely low temperatures resulted in mass spikes in energy demand and during the span of the storm rates jumped from $22 per megawatt-hour to the emergency cap of $9,000 — an increase of 10,000%.¹⁵ Watchdogs later found that ERCOT enforced the emergency surge pricing for days longer than they should have, which piled $16 billion onto the backs of utility providers and their customers (a total more than all of Texas energy trades in 2020).¹⁶ Electricity generators made an estimated $40 billion in windfall revenue from the crisis (natural gas producers raked in similar profits, leading one executive to gleefully describe the devastating situation as “like hitting the jackpot”).¹⁷ ERCOT, which acts as a middleman between producers and providers, is now over $2.5 billion in debt.¹⁸ The extreme price gouging will be at the expense of consumers, either in the form of increased rates or a public bailout (or, likely, both).¹⁹ Consumers will be further harmed by market consolidation. Nearly a quarter of Texas power companies may be forced to transfer their customers to rivals, which could result in the behemoths NRG Energy and Vistra Corp — who is already fighting against relief for debt incurred by ERCOT’s faulty pricing — controlling more than 80 percent of the deregulated market.²⁰

View looking down an indoor hallway. Icicles hang from a ceiling fan. Water or ice drips from the ceiling along the walls on both sides. The hallway is painted white, with blue along the lower part of the walls. A few blue doors line each side, and a few round light fixtures line the center of the hallway ceiling.
Icicles hang from a ceiling fan in Dallas, Texas during the historic winter storm.

What do investor-owned utilities do with the vast sums of money they collect from their captive customer base in deregulated or under-regulated markets? Besides doling out dividends to Wall Street investors, IOUs pay their executives shockingly high salaries. The Energy and Policy Institute issued their report on executive compensation policies for the top 19 largest IOUs from 2017–2019. They found that CEO compensation totaled over $764 million over three years. The highest-paid CEO, Thomas A. Fanning, based at Southern Company in Atlanta, Georgia, earned roughly $28 million in 2019 and $56 million within that same three-year period. If their company had reallocated 32% of his compensation from 2019 (leaving him $19 million), they could have wiped out the debt of approximately 76,000 customers and ultimately the 13,000 Georgians who had their power disconnected in the midst of a pandemic and sweltering summer heat.²¹

IOUs also spend enormous amounts on political campaigns and lobbying to secure favorable circumstances for maximum profits. This lobbying heavily focuses on less regulation and — alarmingly, considering climate chaos — pushes for more fossil fuel extraction. Two particularly atrocious examples come from Arizona and New York. In Arizona, the giant Pinnacle West spent at least $37.9 million in 2017 to defeat a ballot measure that would require the utility to obtain at least 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030.²² In New York, the UK-based National Grid threatened to stop new gas hook ups unless the state approved construction on a fracked gas pipeline. The company, whose annual revenue is over $20 billion, even went so far as to pester all of its customers with an email blast asking them to support the new pipeline.²³ The results of this rabid prioritization of profits over infrastructure safety and green energy are being acutely felt in Texas and Oregon’s current grid crisis: constant catastrophe.

The path forward

There are three types of bodies from which Americans get their electricity and gas. As discussed above, the largest percentage gets their power from investor-owned utilities, in which privately run corporations operate to make a profit for shareholders. Public, not-for-profit power options include cooperatives, municipal systems, and public utility districts. Cooperatives are owned and governed by members. Co-ops own and maintain 42% of the electric distribution lines in the US, serving over 40 million people.²⁴ Municipal systems are owned and managed by the cities they power. Public utility districts (PUDs) are special districts formed by a vote of the people they serve.²⁵ There are almost 3,000 publicly owned utilities and cooperatives in the US, serving about one in seven people in the United States.²⁶

The Northwest is home to around 120 public utilities which serve about half of the population. In Oregon, we have 38 utilities that are owned either publicly or by their users.²⁷ Nine of the 10 lowest cost utilities in Oregon are public, with the average cost of public power, at 9.2 cents per kWh, coming in well below the IOU average of 11.6 cents per kWh.²⁸ PUDs — which in Oregon are called People’s Utility Districts — are governed by a five-member Board of Directors that is elected by the people within the service area. In the Portland-metro area, Columbia River PUD serves 19,000 people in Columbia County and a small portion of Multnomah County. It has been operating since 1940 and in 1980, in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, Columbia River PUD purchased the electricity distribution system from the local IOU, Portland General Electric. The PUD grew as voters in surrounding areas voted to annex into the district.²⁹

Because there are no outside investors to pay dividends to, revenue from public power goes directly back into maintaining and updating the grid, making public utility systems safer, more reliable, and more affordable than IOUs. For example, Nebraska is run on 100% public power and its residents pay 15 percent less than the national average for power from a grid that has been rated number one in the US in reliability. On average, public utilities charge customers 13 percent lower rates than investor-owned utilities. Public utilities also give significantly more back to the community than IOUs in the form of taxes, fees, and special services.³⁰ While IOUs operate in the dark, making shady backroom deals outside of the public eye and outside of the public interest, public utilities make decisions in a much more democratized manner, with public meetings and publicly-elected boards. This allows customers to have a say in where the money from their bills goes and where the utility gets its energy from. By having the power to make demands and enforce accountability, users can not only ensure the system is adequately maintained and weatherized, but they can also speed the critical transition to renewable energy. The 116-year-old municipal utility of Burlington, Vermont, for example, completed its transition to 100% renewable energy in 2014, even while maintaining its rates from 2009.³¹ Seattle City Light, the 10th largest public utility in the US, became the first electric utility in the country to become carbon neutral in 2005.³²

Public power revenue and practices uplift historically marginalized communities in ways a corporation beholden to shareholders will never do. Many public utilities offer assistance to low-income users in the form of discounts, financial aid, weatherization, rebates and incentives for efficiency improvements. In this way, public power can help bolster those on the front lines of climate disaster. When catastrophe strikes, like it did recently in Texas, low-income, minority, and otherwise marginalized communities are less likely to have the financial and physical resources available in wealthy, white communities. Their finances are already strained, in part due to the proportionately higher burden utility bills place on the backs of the poor, and their homes are less likely to withstand extreme weather. They may be unable to flee a dangerous situation, while wealthy people can afford to fly to Mexico. By making electricity and weatherization affordable and reliable, public power will mitigate these kinds of disasters that overwhelmingly harm oppressed groups.

A power line pole stands against a partly cloudy sky. Power lines stretch in every direction from various points on the pole. Coming into the frame from the left, a tree branch seems poised to touch the lines as it grows.
Tree limbs in need of pruning in North Portland.

The United States has an unreliable energy grid, with power lines, wires, and transformers being used well beyond their life expectancy. Like the loose wire that caused the fire in Paradise, the oldest power lines date back to the 1880’s and the majority of the grid was built in the 50’s and 60’s. The outdated infrastructure can lead to the power flickering in and out periodically and, ultimately, power outages. The rates of power outages are consistently higher in the US than other developed nations. One research study indicated that the average length of annual blackouts in the Midwest was about 92 minutes while in Japan the average was approximately four minutes.³³ Based on a 2017 report from the American Civil Society of Engineering, the current US energy grid received a “D+” report card due to outdated technology and lack of preparation for storms and climate change.³⁴

As members of the Ecosocialist Working Group and Democratic Socialists, we are staunch advocates of transitioning our energy to public power. Our energy grid is outdated, unreliable, and not equipped to weather the climate crisis precisely because it is predominantly operated by investor-owned utilities that exist to make money for their shareholders and that will prioritize profit over people without fail. Publicly-owned utilities, on the other hand, exist to benefit their users. Public power provides safer, greener, and more affordable energy than IOUs and the benefits to the community are extensive. Our energy sources must be democratically-operated, in order to provide ample opportunity for communities to learn about complex systems and to weigh in on comprehensive ways to improve the power structures.

If our power was democratized and made public, all profit would be eliminated. We would be able to harness for public good the astronomical earnings that currently line the pockets of large for-profit corporations and their CEOs — organizations that continue to break their own records year after year, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and as the country is experiencing an economic recession. We need to democratize our energy sector to ensure that every single person has access to truly affordable power, regardless of their income. By having further democratic oversight, we would be able to reallocate more funding to low-income ratepayers and ensure that there are greater measures in place to avoid any power shut-offs due to nonpayment. If we eliminate the profit-motive, we would be able to invest in local communities by creating more sustainable, affordable rates and make more funding available for payment plans when vulnerable community members need financial support the most.

The long-term vision is transforming our system to a nationalized energy grid, where all energy grids are publicly owned and there is transparency in exactly where our energy sources are coming from. We can no longer take the neoliberal approach to addressing our impending climate catastrophe, in which proponents of capitalism argue that the market will transition to renewables at their own slow-moving pace. Just a few weeks ago in Texas we saw the fallout of the private sphere failing their customers to the degree that it impacted human dignity and caused many lost lives. Conservative politicians such as Texas Governor Gregg Abbot were quick to blame renewable energy and dismiss the calls for a Green New Deal. Left to their own devices, investor-owned utilities and corrupt politicians who have been bought out by the private sphere will not implement the rapid changes that we need to survive. With a nationalized grid, we could mandate the critical changes necessary to transform our energy grid to renewables to combat the climate crisis.

Nationalizing our energy sector would mean that we could dictate, enforce, and fully fund the changes that need to occur on a national scale. For example, we need to mandate resilience-based upgrades across the country in order to prepare the grid to withstand more extreme weather patterns and rapidly changing conditions such as the wildfires we experienced across the state in 2020. We also need to incorporate more advanced technology and update the power lines and various infrastructure that is dangerously outdated. In the instances of the 2020 fires and the winter storm of last month, upkeep of vegetation around — or the burying of — power lines could have prevented much destruction. We need to rapidly decarbonize our economy. With a nationalized energy grid, there would be more opportunity to phase out dirty polluters and prevent more fossil fuels from going into the atmosphere. We will do so through a just transition, by ensuring no worker in the fossil fuel industry is left in the dust and without a comparable-paying job. We absolutely need to transition to more renewable power at the speed and urgency that the climate crisis calls for and we would be able to do so at the scale needed through public power and, ultimately, nationalization. We would also need to nationalize the expansive fossil-fuel sector to enforce the speed and efficiency required for the transition to occur. If we had a supergrid, we would be able to import energy from different parts of the country that have excess renewable power on reserve and import it to regions of the country in need.

We need to enact the Green New Deal. By doing so we would be able to get millions of Americans back to work through a job guarantee that provides the training and skill-set necessary to implement the upgrades needed through our energy infrastructure. An empowered Labor movement is critical to the success of Democratic Socialism’s goals and taking control of power production and distribution will be an important step towards the elevation of the working class. With a public, nationalized energy grid we would be able to allocate the resources necessary to build and/or retrofit homes and public buildings to withstand the extreme weather patterns we will continue to experience, replace outdated appliances, and do mass-scale grid weatherization projects — all while employing millions of public, union-represented workers all across the country. Legislation to expand access to union representation is scheduled for a House vote on March 10th. The PRO Act — Protect the Right to Organize — would make it easier for workers to form a union and harder for companies to undermine worker power. It is a crucial step in our struggle for a just transition.

Capital’s rabid extraction of resources and labor has resulted in constant global disasters — of climate catastrophe, environmental devastation, extinction, exploitation, inequality, sickness, and societal collapse. As Democratic Socialists, we recognize that Capital will never stop expanding and will never voluntarily relinquish power. Therefore, the only chance we have to pull ourselves back from the brink is to wrest control out of the hands of the few and place it into the hands of the many. As ecosocialists, we believe that a path towards decarbonization, democratization, and decommodification are essential for climate justice. There is a growing movement across the country to take on the corruption of investor-owned utilities. DSA chapters across the country are calling for IOU’s to be transformed into democratically-run public power. Chapters such as New York, San Antonio, Chicago, and San Diego have active public power campaigns. The Portland Chapter of DSA meets frequently with the Salem Chapter of Oregon to conduct research on what it would take to get a public power campaign off the ground regionally. Please join us in this path towards public power. To learn more on how to get involved in the growing movement, please contact us at ecosocialistpdx@protonmail.com.


Sources

1. “Fewer than 9,000 remain without power in northwest Oregon nearly two weeks after winter storm.” Oregon Live. https://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/2021/02/power-outages-in-northwest-oregon-down-to-around-10000-nearly-two-weeks-after-winter-storm.html

2. “Extreme Cold Killed Texans in Their Bedrooms, Vehicles and Backyards.”New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/us/texas-deaths-winter-storm.html

3. People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons. Ashley Dawson. https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/peoples-power/

4. “More U.S. households are renting than at any point in 50 years.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/19/more-u-s-households-are-renting-than-at-any-point-in-50-years/

5. “The Land Electrification Forgot.” IEEE Spectrum. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/fossil-fuels/parts-of-the-navajo-nation-are-still-off-the-gridbut-thats-changing

6. “Energy, Poverty, and Health in Climate Change: A Comprehensive Review of an Emerging Literature.” Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2019.00357/full

7. “‘Tidal Wave’ of Evictions, Utility Shutoffs Tests Lawmakers.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/01/28/tidal-wave-of-evictions-utility-shutoffs-tests-lawmakers

8. “Some Oregon utilities continue disconnecting customers.” OPB. https://www.opb.org/article/2020/08/26/some-oregon-utilities-resume-disconnecting-customers/

9. “Unemployed, But ‘Hopeful’: How Struggling Families Are Navigating Rent, Utility Bills Piling Up.” WBUR. https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/10/27/utility-rent-bills-debt

10. “California Wildfires: How PG&E Ignored Risks in Favor of Profit.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/03/18/business/pge-california-wildfires.html

11. “During deadly heat wave, New York utility cut power to high-risk neighborhoods.” grist. https://grist.org/article/during-deadly-heat-wave-new-york-utility-cut-power-to-high-risk-neighborhoods/

12. Ashley Dawson, People’s Power.

13. “So What is ERCOT Anyway?” Houstonia. https://www.houstoniamag.com/news-and-city-life/2021/02/what-is-ercot

14. “Texas Was Warned a Decade Ago Its Grid Was Unprepared for Cold.” Bloomberg. https://www.bloombergquint.com/technology/texas-was-warned-a-decade-ago-its-grid-was-unprepared-for-cold

15. “Texas Energy Crisis Is An Epic Resilience And Leadership Failure.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2021/02/19/texas-energy-crisis-is-an-epic-resilience-and-leadership-failure/?sh=546f9c6b6eee

16. “Texas Watchdog Says Grid Operator Made $16 Billion Error.” Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-04/texas-watchdog-says-power-grid-operator-made-16-billion-error?sref=Os5mORbE

17. “White House says Biden is ‘eager’ to go to Texas, possibly as soon as this week.” Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/02/21/winter-weather-texas-updates/

18. “Texas Watchdog Says Grid Operator Made $16 Billion Error.”

19. “Texas’s Power Market Is $1.3 Billion Short After Energy Crisis.” Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-27/texas-s-power-market-is-1-3-billion-short-after-energy-crisis

20. “Texas power crisis could cripple small marketers, unravel market deregulation.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-weather-texas-power-idUSKBN2AQ2ZM

21. “Pollution Payday: Analysis of executive compensation and incentives of the largest US investor-owned utilities.” Energy and Policy Institute. https://www.energyandpolicy.org/utilities-executive-compensation-analysis/

22. “Newly revealed reports show that energy and utility giants poured $60 million into campaigns.” Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90338797/newly-revealed-reports-show-that-energy-and-utility-giants-poured-60-million-into-campaigns

23. “National Grid Asks Customers to Help it Lobby for a New Fracked Gas Pipeline.” The American Prospect. https://prospect.org/environment/national-grid-asks-customers-help-lobby-new-fracked-gas-pipeline/

24. “America’s Electric Cooperatives.” National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. https://www.electric.coop/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Co-op-Facts-and-Figures.pdf

25. “PUDs in Oregon.” Columbia River PUD. https://www.crpud.net/my-pud/about-puds-public-power/puds-in-oregon/

26. Ashley Dawson, People’s Power.

27. “Oregon Utilities.” Oregon.gov. https://www.oregon.gov/energy/energy-oregon/Pages/Oregon-Utilities.aspx

28. “Coast to coast, public power costs less.” American Public Power Association. https://www.publicpower.org/periodical/article/coast-coast-public-power-costs-less

29. “PUD History.” Columbia River PUD. https://www.crpud.net/my-pud/about-puds-public-power/pud-history/

30. “Public Power Pays Back.” American Public Power Association. https://www.publicpower.org/system/files/documents/Public-Power-Pays-Back-2020-update.pdf

31. “Publicly Owned Utilities Could Help Fight the Climate Crisis.” Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/public-utilities-energy-grid

32. “Climate Change and Energy.” Seattle City Light. https://www.seattle.gov/city-light/energy-and-environment/environment/climate-change-and-energy

33. “The US has more power outages than any other developed country. Here’s why.” Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/story/environment/why-us-lose-power-storms/

34. Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. American Society of Civil Engineers. https://infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/energy/

Yemen is the Greatest Humanitarian Crisis in the World.

Yemen is the Greatest Humanitarian Crisis in the World.

The conflict in Yemen is the greatest humanitarian conflict in the world. For the next 5 days, we will be sharing information about this conflict, and attempting to explain how US imperialism has made it far worse. We hope you will join us on the Yemen Day of Action on Jan 25th for a global webinar, hosted by Code Pink, at 11AM. https://www.codepink.org/globalyemen

Yemen is the Greatest Humanitarian Crisis in the World.
  • 238,000 people are facing famine conditions in Yemen today due to an ongoing civil war, which has been made worse by the intervention of the US and Saudi Arabia.
  • 7.4 million people need treatment for malnutrition, two million of which are children under five years old
  • 17.8 million people do not have access to the necessary facilities
  • 19.7 million people lack access to adequate health care
  • A massive cholera epidemic has also affected the country, and large numbers of people have been internally displaced
  • The world powers involved in this conflict are engaging in collective punishment of entire villages.
  • Since Trump has declared the Houthis as terrorists, relief from other countries or organizations is at risk.

History of the Conflict in Yemen

  • Britain was interested in Yemen as a strategic military location since the mid 1800s.
  • Britain split the country with the Ottoman Empire in 1905
  • South Yemen became a socialist country in 1967
  • Capitalist unification of the country occurred in 1990
  • The government collapsed in 2015, leading to civil conflict. 
  • Western intervention has contributed greatly to the ongoing civil war.

Why is the US committed to this war?

  • The ruling class is not united on this, Congress passed a war powers resolution to withdraw the US, Trump vetoed
  • Nonetheless, weapons manufacturers, big businesses like AMC and Domino’s Pizza see Saudi Arabia as a profit center or market for exploitation
  • Saudi Arabia and its war coalition, including the US, is treating it as a proxy war with Iran
  • Yemen is a strategic location for the Saudis, and the US has sided with Saudi Arabia in many conflicts against Iran
  • Saudi Arabia has bankrolled many US think tanks after the 2008 housing crash, leading these think tanks to support Saudi wars and political standing in the region

Yemen is an Example of Imperialism

  • Capitalists benefit from war through weapons manufacture, and especially in nations that are rich in resources or could serve as economic thoroughfares and sites for oil pipelines
  • Saudi Arabia is a reactionary monarchy that the US collaborates with to serve mutual financial and war interests, not the interests of the people of either nation
  • At this stage of capitalist production, global capitalism requires total domination of potential markets. Imperialism is a manifestation of the insatiable hunger of capitalism.
  • The people of Yemen have a right to self determination, but their struggle has been wrapped up in the imperialist plan for global financial domination. Yemeni culture deserves to survive without this imperialist intervention.
  • The exploitation that you experience at your job is directly connected to the global war machine that is causing mass suffering in Yemen.

 What Is Imperialism?

https://www.canva.com/design/DAETFbFDCgQ/_efdjMcDLGODpPhulW_jUA/edit#1

Portland DSA condemns the cruel and unnecessary decision by MultCo commissioners to rescind eviction protections for Multnomah residents.

Image for post
Portland, Oregon neon sign, superimposed over image of houseless encampment

This decision will result in more evictions, more houselessness, and more suffering. Our commissioners should reverse this immediately.

Portland has the highest concentration of low income tenants in Oregon. Strong protections were and still are necessary. But MultCo commissioners have decided to retract their prior protections, and defer to the state’s protections, which are weaker. Here’s how:

  1. They rescinded the 6 month payback period. Tenants will be on the hook for ALL accrued rent debt when the moratorium ends in July.
  2. Landlords can again evict you for no cause, including if they want to renovate or move into the property themselves. This means more evictions.
  3. Tenants are now required to submit a written hardship declaration to qualify for the moratorium. This puts the burden on tenants to navigate a continuously changing moratorium; many will slip through the cracks.

Commissioners Kafoury, Meieran, and Pederson claimed that their decision was to avoid “confusion” between the two overlapping moratoriums. Yet their decision only causes more confusion, and emboldens landlords to evict while scrapping tenant protections.

All COVID rent debt should be cancelled. Tenants need rent debt forgiveness, not just borrowed time. If our county commissioners intend to defer to the state, they are deferring to a body of landlord legislators who do not have the backs of MultCo tenants.

Clackamas County Branch of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America Chapter Calls on Congressman Kurt Schrader and County Commissioner Mark Shull to resign from their positions

Congressman Kurt Schrader and County Commissioner Mark Shull

The Clackamas County branch of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America calls for the resignation of OR-District 5 representative, Kurt Schrader. His comments on Friday, January 8th comparing possible impeachment proceedings of President Donald Trump to a “lynching” show his disregard for our country’s history of violence against Black Americans, and are completely unacceptable and indefensible.

This is just one of many incidents in which Schrader has abdicated responsibility for his working class constituents. In December, he voted no on a $2,000 stimulus check that would have provided much-needed relief to residents of Oregon’s 5th District during a pandemic and after devastating wildfires in the area. A member of the “Problem Solvers Caucus” and a self-described, “Blue Dog Democrat,” Schrader has made it clear that he sides with the ruling class, not the working class which needs relief from COVID and Donald Trump. We call on Kurt Scharder to resign. If Governor Brown must find a replacement for him, we hope that she appoints someone who will fight for the working class, unlike Schrader.

The Clackamas County Branch of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America also calls for the immediate resignation of Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull. It has been made public that he has made repeated statements in the recent past espousing hatred for Muslim, Black, and transgender members of our community. These xenophobic views are abhorrent, and he is incapable of representing residents of Clackamas County. Our Muslim, Black, immigrant, refugee, and transgender residents have always endured discrimination and hate, which has been amplified by Donald Trump’s hateful and racist rhetoric since 2016. We stand in solidarity with our community members and call on Mark Shull to resign so that he can be replaced with someone who is not a proponent of hatred and division.

Portland DSA calls for the immediate impeachment and removal of Trump from office!

Piss Boys on Bridge
Trumpista Poopoo-heads Pissed Their Pants

Portland DSA calls for the immediate impeachment and removal of Trump from office, the expulsion of all members of Congress who aided this coup attempt, and the beginning of a nationwide commitment to antifascist praxis by socialists of all tendencies.

We are witnessing an attempted coup in real time. It is already too late to reverse the damage done to our country, damage that was inevitable after a century of US coups in foreign nations and the buildup of white supremacist police forces across the nation. Imperialism is coming home to roost.

Now is the critical time to cease collaborating with and assuming good faith of the right wing in this country. We must finally rid ourselves of liberalism’s fairytale belief in compromise with the right. Those in the Republican Party supporting this attempted coup are leading their party down a road to fascism.

Radical action is needed from those who hold state power. The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the President-Elect must act swiftly to root out right-wing extremism from their own halls and from the state capitals in the US. Democrats must not allow a fascist movement to metastasize.

Across the US, socialists must commit to an antifascist praxis that confronts fascists when they come into our communities, prevents them from organizing and operating with impunity from police, and roots out the inequities of Capitalism that allow them to recruit to their fatalistic cause.

Only fierce action can meet a rising fascist threat. It is clear that the US is becoming a failed state, and we are on the precipice of imperialism advancing to another, far more brutal stage. We must be vigilant and uncompromising in our response. There is no excuse for weakness.

End Cooperation with the Joint Terrorism Task Force 2020

Attorney General Bill Barr

On September 8, 2020, 27 organizations (and two individuals) signed a letter urging Portland City Council to end all Portland Police cooperation with the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Most of the groups were involved in the 2017 campaign which led to the removal of two part-time Portland Police officers from the JTTF in 2019. However, the May 2019 Council resolution allows the PPB to work with the JTTF on cases of terrorism “and/or threats to life including hate crimes.”

The new letter acknowledges the current political climate in which JTTFs are blatantly being used to spy on Americans’ First Amendment activities.

The letter is posted at http://www.portlandcopwatch.org/EndCooperationWithJTTF2020.pdf

Letter from an Occupied City

Line of Portland Police Bureau https://twitter.com/PortlandDSA/status/1282949683346726913/photo/1

To all the cities, movements, rebellions, DSA chapters, and individuals who have shown our city solidarity and support, directly or indirectly, we send our love, our gratitude, and our hope for a new future much different from this present world. We will never forget how you have aided us while you yourselves are fighting against brutal local police forces.

Robert Evans: “Update: a Portland sheriff’s deputy just threatened Garrison and I, telling us (while we were already a safe distance behind him) “if you get any closer than this I’m going to pepper spray you.” His colleagues than came up BEHIND another journalist and pepper sprayed him”

We have seen the violence across the United States ramp up in your cities, where you have sustained continued protest against police murders of Black friends and family. We have seen local police, whether in cities controlled by Republicans or Democrats, brutally crack down on any mass demonstration of protest against the police. They have assaulted you violently, weaponized criminal charges against you, intimidated you through pre-emptive arrests, and have shown themselves to be lawless, unaccountable, and irredeemable. We send you our solidarity and will never leave you to fight alone.

We will never forget how you have aided us while you yourselves are fighting against brutal local police forces.

You may have heard of a “withdrawal” of Federal officers from Portland streets, and that this means the end of the occupation of our city. We do not believe that Federal officers are truly gone, nor do we believe the new collaboration between Portland Police, Multnomah County Sheriffs, Oregon State Police, and Federal “advisors” is a better situation or worth celebrating. We are still being occupied by violent police forces that beat us for protesting and intimidate us into complacence. They are now simply under the control of Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler and Governor Kate Brown. That the governor would call her plan for cooperation between state police and the Feds a “withdrawal” shows the opportunism and cowardice of our local liberal leadership. Governor Brown, in negotiating with the Trump administration, has aligned her police forces with them and legitimized the occupation. Although Federal forces have been quiet for the last few days, we have not seen a decrease in violent policing. This occupation is not over. If anything, it has simply shifted hands.

@shane_burley1 “Tonight was the most brutal treatment that the police have given protesters that I have seen, beating people who were running away, attacking journalists, savagely and cruely mocking people too hurt to escape. At it was Portland Police, not the feds. @tedwheeler what will you do?”

The US, whether through local or Federal forces, is using Portland to implement the next phase of its emboldened and newly domesticated imperialism. This country has tested these tactics for years against undocumented immigrants through ICE raids and against Native Nations as they did at Standing Rock. This nationalist and racist terror apparatus is not the work of one singular administration, but has been perfected through decades of capitulation to and worship of Capital, approved and enacted by the bipartisan agreement of our illegitimate state. It’s now being disseminated through collaborations between the Feds and our local and state police.

We have clearly threatened the Empire. We are in this place because we have disturbed order. As we have chanted in the streets, where there is no justice, there will be no peace. And this Empire relies on a magnitude of injustice. The Imperialist Colonizer government of the United States has profited greatly off the super exploitation of Black and brown labor, and it is content to spend whatever portion of its hoarded wealth is needed to thoroughly subjugate Black and brown people through the violence of policing. Because the police across this country and in this city murder our Black friends and family and neighbors in order to repress and terrorize Black communities, we have resisted and rebelled. We are suffering the consequences and we are doing so willingly because we know we are right. Only the full abolition of the police in the United States will end this violence.

Video from Portland Independent Documentarians with this description: “PPB executed a short bullrush knocking several protesters over and macing at least one person.” This video was retweeted by Tuck Woodstock saying: “Mayor Ted Wheeler was recently quoted as saying that federal officers “brought a new kind of fear” to the city streets. These are the city streets tonight as Portland police bullrush and mace participants at a police brutality protest.”

That the United States is mortally challenged by a Black uprising to end police violence should say everything about its existential need to maintain racial violence. It wants to continue to murder Black people with impunity. It has brought its soldiers of war back from foreign lands to enforce its dominion on an unruly mass. It has imported its own colonial violence to avoid ever being held accountable for its crimes.

For three weeks we could palpably feel the pressure of the Empire crumbling above us. The dread of new violence loomed each day. When Federal forces were still in charge, we heard the sounds of helicopters ring through our city all night long. We heard the flashbangs from 50 blocks away. We smelled chlorine in the air miles away on the eastside of the river. We still don’t know what gases were being used at night, or their long-term consequences. (Federal officers collected munitions from the street and commanded the press at gunpoint not to touch any casings on the ground.) Spy planes were circling our city and gathering our cell phone data.

We hope that this desperate attempt by the state to suppress the will of the working class does not happen in your city. But if it does, and where it has, we ask that you reach out to us as a resource.

Those of us who visited the protest zone were poisoned, with unknown long-term effects. Many were beaten or hit by munitions. Dozens were arrested, and were sometimes held for days at a time. They were abused and threatened by both local and federal police, forced to sign a document that legally bars them from protesting, and were often let out of jail into a cloud of tear gas with no shoes, no money, no mask and no phone. Yet thousands of people continued to come out and are still resisting. The people of the city of Portland — the beaten down, the exploited, the oppressed — are still coming out. We have created phalanxes of newly radicalized people who are coming out: in defense of Black lives, to oppose police violence, and demanding that we defund, dismantle, and abolish the police.

If it is not yet clear to the world, capitalism is in decay. It is happening more rapidly than we thought. We do not have the ability to predict the future, but we can imagine some potential outcomes. It is time for us to think about how we want to build that other world we’re always talking about.

Garrison Davis: “The police charge toward a bicycle with a headlight and beat up multiple people.”

The movement in Portland, led by Black femmes and the houseless, and supported directly by tens of thousands of Portlanders, has already begun to show us the way. We have seen massive growth in decentralized and autonomous community care efforts unlike our city has ever seen. Care during protests comes in the form of protest medics, onsite clergy, free food, and courageous people with leaf blowers. We are seeing people coming together to provide food, water, and a ride home to protesters released from jail. Our community is providing legal support, supplies, trainings, and an abundance of emotional labor. In order to fight this hard and this long, we have learned very quickly that we need to take care of each other. Occupation is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. We are learning as we go.

We are seeing people spontaneously respond to the weapons of an invading army. We have seen mobilizations of restaurant workers, the unemployed, labor unions, moms and dads. We have stood shoulder to shoulder with comrades and trusted each other to keep ourselves safe. We have seen a community grow in front of us. And we have begun to collectively imagine what we do next.

Sarah Mirk illustration of a person playing the drum and another dancing: “When someone in the future asks what happened in 2020, I’ll tell them I once saw people dancing in the street in gas masks.”

We are grateful to everyone who has shared their solidarity, their resources, and their encouragement with us. We are struggling but we are not defeated. We encourage other DSA chapters to signal boost what’s happening in Portland. We will continue the work of assessing what is happening here and we will share that assessment with you. We hope that this desperate attempt by the state to suppress the will of the working class does not happen in your city. But if it does, and where it has, we ask that you reach out to us as a resource. The best defense against a hostile state is organizing. If you find yourselves in our situation, we know that you will be able to respond inventively and enthusiastically. We will support you as you have supported us. And together, we will win.

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