Portland Tenants United: a Radical Org With a Serious Race Problem
Cameron Whitten

Cameron, thank you for writing this piece. In reflecting on it, I wanted to share a little bit about my experience as a former organizer for PTU (primarily working on communications and legislative advocacy), where I witnessed much of the same behavior that Cameron speaks to in his piece.

The moment that crystallized the racist undercurrent within PTU was, for me, the campaign around House Bill 2004, the 2017 bill that would have ended no-cause evictions in Oregon. PTU ultimately opposed that bill as insufficient, while Community Alliance of Tenants and the lion’s share of the housing justice community supported it as a move in the right direction. That would ordinarily be a good-faith disagreement among allies about policy, tactics, and strategic direction, all fine and dandy as far as coalition efforts go.

Unfortunately, PTU made the decision not just to withdraw their support for the bill, but to work actively to try and kill it in the Legislature (while, again, folks of color were fighting to pass it). And beyond that, organizers went so far as to suggest that the bill itself was bad, that the dozens of organizers and advocates of color who were behind the bill just flat-out didn’t understand it, and that somehow only PTU was qualified to read and understand what the legislation would actively do. Put another way, a group of white “radicals” who were mostly new to advocacy and to organizing deemed themselves the smartest folks in the room, and would with a straight face argue that organizers with a combined decades of experience in housing justice (not to mention the lawyers and lobbyists at the table) weren’t capable of understanding the legislation that they themselves proposed.

Margot Black went farther, suggesting to me on a number of occasions that CAT and the Stable Homes Coalition were actively, knowingly lying to their community members about what this bill would do. That somehow House Bill 2004 was secretly going to backfire and lead to more evictions (how, exactly, was left unclear), and that mainstream housing justice groups were trying to hide that fact. That paranoia was a recurring feature of PTU meetings, and most often came from Margot. She asked me on one occasion, and this is a verbatim quote: “Andrew, isn’t it possible that all of these people of color are conspiring against me?” That was in reference to any number of organizers patiently, compassionately, and calmly calling Margot out on her privilege and racism.

A brief disgression to say to my fellow white radicals: if multiple people of color tell you that you’ve got a problem with privilege and that you need to unpack your racism, odds are good that you’ve got a problem with privilege and that you need to unpack your racism. Odds are pretty much zero that there’s a vast conspiracy of people of color trying to undermine you, the white radical.

On multiple occasions, Margot suggested to me and to others that CAT, housing advocates more broadly, and organized labor were “out to get” PTU, and actively sending spies to report on the organization. In my experience, any new organizers who expressed any sort of concern about the whiteness of PTU’s membership or the racism they saw within the organization were immediately dismissed as spies and saboteurs, were marginalized by the core organizing team, and were eventually driven from the organization.

Ultimately, I left PTU because of all of the above and more: the never-ending attacks on organizers of color, and grassroots organizations like the Community Alliance of Tenants; the bad-faith organizing against fellow housing advocates; the tendency for PTU and its members to claim credit for the work of others, as if PTU had invented tenant unions or tenant organizing. And I owe the community an apology: I didn’t call out PTU for all of this when I left, and for that — and for my participation in an organization that I now believe to be fatally flawed — I’m so, so sorry.