A Democratic Socialist City Council

Portland DSA’s Plan to elect socialists in the Rose City

Portland DSA members met Sunday March 12th for our General Meeting, and ratified a new Endorsement Policy for the chapter. A slideshow explaining the policy can be found here. The authors of the new policy, Wallace Milner and Spencer Mann, explain their perspective on the policy and its purpose.

Sunday March 12th, Portland DSA took an important step towards electing socialists to City Council with the passage of a new chapter endorsement policy. This comes at an essential time for electoral organizing in Portland. With the implementation of city charter reform, instituting ranked choice voting and multi-member districts for City Council elections, the 2024 election cycle presents an extraordinary opportunity for Portland DSA to disrupt the capitalist municipal order, and our new policy enables us to meet the moment.

Our new policy is designed to enable the chapter to run committed, cadre candidates for office. It aims to help us run campaigns in a way which builds the chapter, leverage the rank and file power we’ve built through our orientation to labor, maximize the coalition work and field organizing we’ve done through ERA (Eviction Representation for All) and UPNOW (Universal Preschool Now), and elect socialists who will put forward a socialist vision for society and fight for our politics in state and city government.

Socialist representatives should be expected to build DSA, advance socialist politics, and draw a clear distinction between themselves and capitalist politicians. At the same time, we must also prepare our candidates to run competitive campaigns if they are going to take power. This endorsement policy aims to balance these two commitments, providing tactical flexibility and political accountability.

How Will Endorsement Work?

  1. To apply for an endorsement, a candidate will begin by filling out an application form on our website.
  2. When this application is received, the SC will share the information to the membership, and will also share a nominating signature form.
  3. If a candidate gets 25 nominating signatures from members in good standing, the candidate is sent a questionnaire, and the endorsement advances to a vote at a general meeting.
  4. At the general meeting, the candidate will present themselves to the membership and there will be a Q and A and then a debate. According to our chapter bylaws, a candidate will need 2/3rds of the vote to receive an endorsement.

Two Types of Endorsement

This new policy creates two paths of endorsement — an external endorsement and a cadre endorsement. When applying, a candidate picks which type of endorsement to apply for.

A cadre candidate comes from a background of organizing in DSA. Their campaign is run as a chapter project, and they are held to a very high standard. An external candidate is one where DSA is one part of a wider coalition supporting a candidate.

Cadre candidates have additional expectations. They are required to meet with the chapter twice a month, to brand themselves as a democratic socialist in all their literature, and to form a socialist caucus in the legislative body they are elected to. External candidates will be encouraged to do all these things, but they won’t necessarily be required to. They will be asked about their stance and plans on these topics, and the chapter will decide if their answers are acceptable.

External and cadre candidates will also be presented differently in public campaigns. Cadre candidates are expected to be fully and uncompromisingly representatives of DSA’s politics, platform, and decisions made through internal chapter democracy. For external candidates, DSA will be part of a coalition of other political forces supporting them, and DSA campaigns will have an independent orientation, simultaneously being a part of the coalition and being the best fighters for the cause, while also clearly and distinctly articulating our own socialist principles and building our organization.

This setup is designed to strengthen democratic debate in the chapter. It empowers the members to decide whether candidates meet the standard for endorsement at the cadre or external level and emphasizes electoral accountability. It enables the chapter to exercise tactical flexibility based on the nature of the campaign and ensures membership control over cadre representatives.

Socialists in Office Committee (SIOC)

Our new policy creates a socialists in office committee. Their job is to coordinate with campaigns, candidates, and officeholders in order to apply our standards and politics to nuanced situations, recommend suitable actions to leadership and membership, and empower our elected officials, candidates, campaigns, and membership to build socialist power.

The socialist movement faces two, twin challenges — the danger of sectarianism, where one fails to build up our movements beyond small isolated groups, and the danger of opportunism, where one prioritizes the short term gains of a campaign over the long term principles of a movement.

The role of the SIOC is to address these dangers by supporting candidates and holding them accountable. The committee will meet regularly with any endorsed candidates or elected officials. In these meetings, they will strategize, enforce DSA policy, and figure out how our actions can be coordinated. When an officeholder has a big campaign, the SIOC can help them figure out how to mobilize members. When the chapter has a big campaign, the SIOC can make sure the officeholder supports it.

If a candidate violates DSA values or policy, the SIOC is empowered to make a recommendation to a general meeting or the steering committee. Of course, the ultimate decision rests with a general meeting, which, as our highest decision making body, can decide to alter our relationship to candidates.

The SIOC will ensure a strong connection between the chapter and candidates/officeholders, making sure our actions are coordinated, our ideas are shared, and our goals are pursued.

Building Socialist Power in Portland

The left in the United States has been dealing with difficult conditions since 2020. While the resurgence of labor energy is one of the most optimistic trends in the past two decades, there has been a broad decrease in energy and participation since the height of the BLM uprising and the Sanders campaigns.

In this new political moment, socialists need to adopt more deliberate, public facing campaigns with clear strategies to build our organizations. Candidate accountability, a united front approach to coalition work, and the clear expression of socialist politics are the cornerstones of a successful socialist and movement building electoral strategy.

Our new policy will facilitate a series of powerful, principled, and bold campaigns for 2024 and beyond, which we believe will enable us to win elections, grow the chapter, and advance socialism in Portland. As socialists, we have a world to win. The 2024 City Council elections will be a key test for our movement, and the passage of this policy has begun to prepare us for the challenge.

The Shared Mission of Socialists and Unionists

Portland DSA Labor Working Group

Portland DSA members at the OFNHP Rally for Respect at PeaceHealth SouthWest in October 2022

Once in 2021 and again 2022, Portland DSA received political donations of $10,000 from the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. We want to express our deepest gratitude to OFNHP for trusting us to carry out our shared political goals, and we are honored to have worked in solidarity with OFNHP to fight the profit-seeking medical system. Health care workers take on some of the most unforgiving working conditions in order to fulfill some of the most essential roles in our society. Their dedication to preserving the dignity of that work through threatening a strike is an inspiration to us all. We want to explain what their donations mean to our organization and the socialist movement.

As socialists, we understand that there are fundamentally two competing sides: the working class and the ruling class. The working class is composed of most people you’ll ever meet – everyone who is forced to get a job to survive, or depend on someone who can. The ruling class is a tiny group of obscenely rich people who get to own and control resources and profit from our labor.

Union members understand this conflict intuitively. Although all working class people suffer under capitalism, few are organized enough to fight back and win. But through collective action, working class people can wield power. When we refuse to go along with management’s nonsense, when we stick together and demand respect, when we withhold our labor and go on strike – suddenly we aren’t at the mercy of the millionaires and billionaires. For a moment, we call the shots.

That’s why Portland DSA members are fully committed to building a strong labor movement – not just as fans on the sidelines, but as union members ourselves and on solidarity committees to rally the community.

But working class people don’t just want a decent pay raise or a longer break here and there. We’re tired of this whole inhumane system. We want a world where no one has to worry about going broke when they visit the doctor, or ruining their health in an unsafe and grueling job, or losing their home because they missed a payment, or staying in an abusive relationship because they have no safety net, or getting hurt in an environmental disaster created by corporate crime, or watching their neighborhoods and schools decay as legislators starve public services of funds.

For major, lasting transformation, we need an even greater level of power that reaches beyond a single workplace or a single union. We need political organizations that are loyal to working class interests and independent of our employers’, that can harness shop-floor power on behalf of people everywhere, and that can wage battles outside the workplace in public arenas. That is our mission as DSA.

Last year we used the donation from OFNHP to send DSA members in unions – many of whom joined DSA after meeting us on their own picket lines – to the Labor Notes conference in Chicago. There they met other like-minded rank-and-file organizers from around the world and shared notes on how to energize and democratize the labor movement. Going forward, we will be thrilled to use that money to expand the scope of our efforts, particularly on selecting and running our own candidates for public office who champion class struggle politics.

For years we have brought the power of the community to countless unions in their workplace struggles: nurses at Providence, healthcare workers at Kaiser, Starbucks baristas, City of Portland workers, Portland Community College faculty and staff, New Seasons workers, Burgerville workers, and many others. We will offer our support to any workers that are organizing for justice and a better life. And we hope you will join us in a shared mission to not just change our workplaces, but change the world.

Community Supporters to Join Striking City Workers in Light of Mayor’s Falsehoods and Strike-Breaking

Portland Democratic Socialists of America stands in full solidarity with the heroic struggle of Portland city workers on strike with LIUNA 483. We condemn Mayor Wheeler and Portland City Council for their refusal to address city workers’ economic plight in the face of our community’s affordability crisis.

Even more disturbing is the Mayor’s bald-faced effort to break this strike by bussing in strike-breakers, filing spurious legal claims, and asserting without basis to city employees that strikers engaged in acts of violence. These claims are outright lies and fabrications.

Portland DSA members joined city workers’ picket lines the very minute the strike began, and our mobilization has not wavered — we can attest without exception the Mayor’s claims about picket line conduct are without merit. Instead, Portland DSA members have experienced joy, celebration, triumph, and an unprecedented display of community and unity.

The unprecedented action by Mayor Wheeler shows his desperation. City workers who maintain our parks, roads, and wastewater treatment facility are essential workers. But the Mayor’s attacks on their right to strike represent an attack on every worker facing unjust working conditions.

Portland DSA members are city workers. Grocery and restaurant workers. Delivery drivers. Teachers and healthcare workers and more. Together, we recognize the righteous struggle of city workers, and we see their fight as our fight.

The Mayor’s attempt to injure striking workers is an injury to us all.

Join us on the picket line and take your place in this struggle for the future of our community, when we gather on Sunday, February 5 at 5:30–6:30pm, near the Wastewater Treatment Plant, 5001 N Columbia Blvd.


What: Community to Mobilize in Support of Striking CIty Workers

Where: Wastewater Treatment Plant, 5001 N Columbia Blvd

When: Sunday, February 5th 5:30p — 6:30p

Who: Portland DSA and community supporters

Statement on the Murder of Tyre Nichols

The Portland Democratic Socialists of America expresses our outrage at the murder of Tyre Nichols by the Memphis Police Department. This murder is part of the systemic violence of police everywhere against people of color and the working class. We offer our condolences to the Nichols family, and we stand in solidarity with the black community of Memphis and with all others protesting for an end to police brutality and racist violence.

55 years ago, civil rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis while organizing with striking sanitation workers. As socialists, we recognize the essential task of grappling with the profound interactions of capitalism and racism. We believe that anti-racist organizing rooted in class struggle is how we can fight back.

Police are the armed wing of the capitalist state, and their role in society is to enforce exploitation. It is police who break strikes, evict families from their homes, harass the houseless, jail the poor, and attack those who are suffering. Police do not act as a service for public safety, but rather as an occupying army, hurting those who need help, and defending those who cause harm.

The only way to rid our society of the capitalist police is the self emancipation of the working class into a socialist society. Protests, no matter how powerful, will not be enough. To win black liberation, the working class and oppressed people must organize and take control of society. The best way forward is an alliance between organized labor and the movement for black liberation — the coordination of an independent, anti-racist, working-class movement that fights to overturn racial -capitalism at the workplace, in the streets, and on the ballot line.

To meet this moment, protest energy must develop into political movement which can sustain itself. We cannot rely on the ruling class to deliver reforms.

To that end, Portland DSA calls for the following initial steps:

  1. The immediate reallocation of 50% of the PPB budget to fund housing, community services, education and healthcare
  2. The immediate establishment of a democratically elected oversight board empowered to investigate officers and hold the PPB to account
  3. End the war on drugs and tough on crime policies, provide full addiction care, and decriminalization of drug use
  4. An end to the sweeps of homeless encampments and the public provision of shelter to those in need
  5. The establishment of a labor slate for the 2024 city council elections, unified around proposals to reallocate money from the bloated police budget to provide for public services and fund housing, food, education, and healthcare.

This work must begin with public support for protests, and a movement to improve the lives of the most marginalized and oppressed. We must build a fighting socialist movement for black liberation.

Organized workers can overturn the racist, capitalist system. They can provide the winning leverage to Black Lives Matter.

The only way to win justice is to expand these protests into a mass movement. To achieve this, we must convince workers to join the struggle — unions and workers must become the strongest opponents of racism. This means a conscious project of reform within existing labor unions, and a coordination with organizations rooted in communities of color. We must also create our own, enduring socialist structures. And we must wholeheartedly support this protest movement.

With solidarity and shared struggle to guide us, a better world is possible.

In solidarity,

Portland DSA Steering Committee

Tax the Rich: building on our successes, plotting a course for the future

Tax The Rich is a seasoned Portland DSA working group where we think about how to move money and power from the rich to the working class. We’re a rag-tag group of amateurs and academics – all levels of expertise (or lack thereof) are welcome! We have several main categories of the work we do: wealth taxes, work on the city budget, supporting coalition campaigns, and tax education.

So far, our wealth tax work has been remarkably successful! In 2021-2022, we saw the first $208 million dollars flow from the wealthy to fund universal preschool. Our universal preschool campaign, which we worked on beginning in 2018 and through the passage of the Preschool For All measure in November of 2020, is good for kids, families, and workers. Through our work on the preschool campaign, we learned that although the tax code is famously skewed in favor of the wealthy, given the democratic choice, Multnomah County voters are more than ready to change that.

We’re also not slowing down in our ballot measure and taxation policy work! We’re already working on our next wealth tax, which would tax extreme “intangible” wealth, which includes stocks and bonds. This type of wealth is currently only taxed when it’s sold, or sometimes through the estate/inheritance tax, which means that the wealthy hold onto their money tax-free. That’s not very fair when the rest of us pay taxes on our wealth via income taxes and property taxes.

Our proposed intangible wealth tax (or an “extreme wealth tax”, as we’ve taken to calling it),  would be a 1% tax on extreme wealth over 10 million dollars, bringing  in about 2.6 billion dollars in revenue annually. But, we still have work to do: most importantly, we’re still trying to figure out what the tax should fund. Our research crew has discussed what $10 million would mean for housing, preschool and education, mental health and addiction services, and more, but we’re still mulling any and all possibilities. If you have ideas of what this tax should fund, please reach out and tell us about them!

When we’re not coming up with new taxes, we’re working on other projects. One of our long-standing traditions is advocating around the city budget. Each spring, we do our best to let Portlanders know what’s in the proposed budget, and encourage people to take action. We make shareable and easily digestible social media content, create phone scripts that Portlanders can use to call the councilors, as well as template emails for the phone-shy. Some people even get empowered to testify in front of the council!

We can’t afford to step away from the budget work this year. Over the last few years, our conservative city council has decided to spend our hard-earned tax dollars in ways that make the Portland Police Bureau and the Portland Business Alliance very happy. With this year’s even more conservative city council, the budget is probably going to reflect their cozy relationships, rather than finding ways to serve the actual needs of Portlanders. Join us for our annual deep dive into the budget, and brainstorm ways to tell our council to fund a budget that serves all of us, not just the rich and powerful.

Of course, the fight towards economic justice is too big to do alone, and so we’re proud to support all fights that work towards a more just Oregon. We helped our friends at Eviction Representation For All by developing a capital gains tax that will fully fund legal representation for all renters in eviction court, as well as other tenant services. We’ll be doing our part to ensure that their measure is successful on the ballot this spring. Additionally, we’re finding ways to support OPAL’s very cool fareless Trimet campaign, which you can learn more about here.

Lastly, our educational work is central to much of what we do. Our goal across our social media pages is to make tax policy interesting and maybe even fun. We mostly do that through social media content: we’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter! After all, it’s hard to convince people that we need to change tax policy unless they understand how and why it’s broken in the first place.

If any of this work sounds interesting to you, we’d love to have you! We’re really excited about our February social, which is at 8pm on Thursday, February 9th at Worker’s Tap: come hang out! Of course, we also have our regular meetings every second Thursday of the month at 6:30pm. These meetings are hybrid, so you can join us in person at the IWW, or virtually over Zoom, whichever works better for your schedule.  If you have any questions or comments for us, feel free to reach out to co-chairs Emerson or Lauren on Mattermost, or email us at taxtherichpdx@gmail.com!

From Socialist Job Fair to Socialist Workers Support Group

By Jamie Partridge, secretary PDX DSA Labor

For years now, the Portland DSA Labor group has sponsored Socialist Job Fairs, about every six months. Up to fifty socialists, half DSA members and half we are just meeting for the first time, show up to connect with about fifteen workplace organizers, looking for the right job. A job organizing with other socialists: to form a union or energize an existing union.

We manage to place about ten participants each time. At organized companies like UPS, Hyatt Hotel, City of Portland, Maletus Beverage, US Postal Service, Burgerville. etc. At unionizing companies like Starbucks and Amazon. And of those ten, some don’t stick around.

Now we are launching a Socialist Workers Support Group, to provide regular mentoring, group support and workplace organizer training and political education about socialists in unions.

In previous eras socialists were often respected workplace leaders. These radicals helped organize workers into a collective force that went beyond workplace fights and into the political arena. That is much less common today. The left often finds itself on the outside looking in when workplace struggle erupts. Socialists are more likely to be organizing strike support than leading strikes.

This divide has weakened both workers’ movements and the left. The socialist movement is stronger when tied to workers’ movements, and vice versa. Rebuilding the link between them is key to revitalizing both, and to keeping our movement grounded in the reality of workers’ lives.

Socialists should root themselves in the labor union movement. Not as supporters from afar or paid staff, but as rank-and-file workers. Not as saviors with all the answers, but as organizers for what Marx called the “self-emancipation of the working class.”

Consider the advantages of a union job that matches your talents, and of choosing one together with fellow DSAers. The pay is decent, and the work itself may be fulfilling, too. All our political work isn’t shunted off to nights and weekends; you can be talking with your co-workers every day. There’s no mismatch between your political life and what you do to keep body and soul together.

Find us at https://tinyurl.com/pdxdsalabor

Portland DSA Endorsement of Portland City Charter Reform

Portland DSA is proud to endorse the proposed Portland City Charter reforms. Portland’s dysfunctional and unrepresentative government structure has played a major role in preventing workers and popular movements from taking power in City Hall.

It is the view of Portland DSA that these reforms will create greater opportunities for candidates who represent workers and oppressed communities, allow BIPOC neighborhoods to elect representative and accountable councilors, and challenge the concentrated power of the downtown, westside business elite.

An expanded city council, a more democratic voting system and geographic districts will allow for greater representation on the council for BIPOC, LGBTQ, and immigrant Portlanders. It will allow the working class to run candidates with strong local connections, making it easier to face the financial advantages of conservative business candidates.

These reforms represent just a first step. Ultimately, the inequality in our city is attributable not just to governing structure, but to the governing class. Big business uses city government to offer tax breaks to the rich, spend millions on militarized police, and attack the houseless, while doing nothing to protect the thousands of Portlanders suffering from poverty, exploitation, and food insecurity.

In order to make our government truly representative and put power in the hands of the working class, we need a socialist majority in City Hall operating with strong & militant workers’ organizations in a mass movement. The undemocratic city council is a major roadblock to building socialist power, yet these reforms represent a direct confrontation between the people of Portland and the business association elite.

More information about the city charter campaign can be found at portlandunitedforchange.com/

You can get a link to the next Portland DSA Electoral Working Group meeting here: https://actionnetwork.org/events/portland-dsa-electoral-working-group-october-meeting/

We will soon announce further details on how members can get involved.

Portland DSA’s Statement Against Collaboration with Police

Portland DSA reaffirms our chapter’s commitment against collaborating with police.

In 2017, when our chapter was less than a year old, Portland DSA participated in the Portland United Against Hate coalition to counter-protest rising far-right activity in our region. The coalition asked Portland DSA to act as police liaison; two members of our chapter joined with one other coalition partner to fill that role.

After this event, our chapter developed a non-collaboration policy for police engagement to guide our membership and keep our community safe. This policy remains in place today. The key points are:

  • Portland DSA does not coordinate with the police in direct actions and rallies without explicit permission from our steering committee
  • DSA members should not speak to the police about DSA without explicit permission from our steering committee
  • DSA members may not volunteer to act as police liaisons in coalition events unless explicitly authorized by a chapter co-chair
  • Any authorized interactions with police should be documented and reported for transparency and accountability
  • No law enforcement officer or prison guard is permitted to be a member of Portland DSA

As socialists, we recognize that police exist as a tool of capitalism to maintain inequality and protect the interests of the ruling class. In the name of “safety,” police oppress, criminalize, and terrorize the most marginalized people in our community — especially communities of color, the houseless, the undocumented, the disabled, queer and trans people, and people experiencing mental illness. We affirm that none of us are safe while others live under the threat of police violence.

Since we launched the Portland chapter of DSA, our membership has actively organized against police and private security in varied ways. We have mobilized hundreds of community members to testify against continued police investment and community disinvestment at City Council budget hearings. We worked in coalitions to divest from police and private security. During the summer 2020 uprisings, we distributed more than $10,000 worth of gas masks and protective gear to the Portland community. We stood among thousands of our neighbors night after night — many experiencing physical violence firsthand — to demand justice and an end to the military occupation of our city.

As we persist in this fight, Portland DSA vows to continue demonstrating our commitment through not only statements but also action. We are proud to stand in solidarity with the many organizations, coalitions, and community members working to abolish the police and establish a world where every person is healthy, cared for, and truly safe.

Portland DSA calls on the DSA National Political Committee to censure or expel Representative Jamaal Bowman from the Democratic Socialists of America

In the past weeks, Rep. Bowman has:

  1. Voted to provide military aid to Israel to fund the “Iron Dome” missile defense system
  2. Traveled on a propaganda delegation to Israel
  3. Visited the Israeli Knesset, met with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and met and posed for a photo with far-right Zionist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett

DSA passed its first political platform outlining the principles of the organization at our 2021 convention. The platform, passed overwhelmingly by our national organization’s highest decision making body, makes our position on Palestinian liberation quite clear. In the section titled International Solidarity, Anti-Imperialism, and Anti-Militarism, the platform states:

  • “Stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against apartheid, colonialism, and military occupation, and for equality, human rights, and self-determination, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”
  • “Discontinue US support of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, including an end to all military aid and resisting the ‘normalization’ of relations between the Israeli government and other governments.”
  • “Support self-determination for the Palestinian people and a political solution to the current crisis premised on the guarantee of basic human rights, including an end to the military occupation, an end to discrimination against Palestinians within Israel, and the right of return of refugees, as outlined in the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

Portland DSA stands in full solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation and affirms the national platform’s commitment to that cause. We note that Representative Bowman’s choice to undermine our commitment to BDS places him in substantial disagreement with our principles, as outlined by our platform. Additionally, Article I, Section III of DSA’s National Bylaws states:

Members can be expelled if they are found to be in substantial disagreement with the principles or policies of the organization or if they consistently engage in undemocratic, disruptive behavior or if they are under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization.

When our organization works to elect representatives to public office, we must hold them to a standard that truly represents the beliefs of our membership. Representative Bowman’s actions directly contradict the democratically decided positions of DSA, both as a member and as a DSA-endorsed elected official. As such, we recommend the NPC do the following.

  1. Determine a disciplinary action, such as a commitment not to re-endorse Representative Bowman for reelection, a censure, or expulsion from the organization.
  2. Develop a policy for DSA-endorsed elected officials that outlines escalating measures for repeated instances of actions in contradiction with the national platform. The policy should leave the NPC the flexibility to determine measures commensurate with the transgressions committed by the elected official and should include expulsion as a final measure.

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.