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

Edit: On Wednesday, Feb 7, 2018 at 6:09 PM Margot Black emailed me, with subject line “Original Article.” She requested proof with screenshots that I have not edited this Medium article since its Jan 3rd publish date, since within PTU there have been unfounded allegations circling around that I published an original article with misogynist language used to describe Margot that has since been edited. I sent her the requested screenshot of this article’s edit history, but Margot was unconvinced that the proof was adequate. She asked me to make a small edit to my article and re-publish it to show additional proof that I’m not covering up misogynist or offensive language about Margot or any other PTU members. Thus, this is the small edit.

This is the first communication I’ve received directly from Margot, or anyone else with PTU’s Organizing Committee since the article was published over a month ago. In her email, Margot said, “I do not mean to send this email as if the recent events haven’t occurred. However, I am not yet in a place to be able to address those events, the allegations therein, and the impact with you. Hence, I’d like to keep this email limited to this simple request, rather than proffer any thoughts, opinions, or explanations about your article, as that will take more intention, time, and energy.”

Extra period.

Original Article —

For many people, the day Donald Trump was elected was as a day of national tragedy. But for me, I’ve been grateful for the new level of political discourse that has accompanied the election of a populist hatemonger. Two hundred years of America’s racist, xenophobic, sexist, and ableist history was forced from passive mainstream ignorance and into the spotlight.

Image of Cameron Whitten working as a citizen journalist at the week of protests following Trump’s election.

For the recently “woke,” one of the biggest lessons has been that bigotry isn’t isolated to the red states that propelled 45 into office. I’ve lived in Portland for eight years, and just a week in my shoes would easily dispel the image of Portland as a liberal and inclusive Bohemia. In fact, Portland and Oregon have frequently been written about as a national example of white superiority.

Following the election, there has been necessary conversation about how white allies can show solidarity and support to people of color. But my 2017 ended with an unsavory taste towards Portland activism. This was due to the actions committed by one of Portland’s most visible radical groups, Portland Tenants United (PTU). This article recounts multiple stories of white activists who orchestrated the harassment and emotional abuse of multiple activists of color. While these incidents involve multiple perpetrators, most individuals involved are not named in this article. I believe the focus should be directed towards PTU leadership, specifically co-founder and poster child, Margot Black, whose actions have been regularly covered up by complicit activists on the PTU Organizing Committee.

I plunged into the Resistance movement after Trump’s election, including using Facebook Live for citizen journalism and serving on the Organizing Committee of Portland’s Resistance. My community role led me to deepen my relationship with PTU, a young organization which only began organizing tenants in the summer of 2015. In early 2017, I was invited to emcee at PTU’s rally for Relocation Assistance, which preceded the vote on a Portland City Council resolution. I had previously collaborated with PTU as Executive Director of Know Your City, admiring their work and enthusiastically participating in some of their rallies. I was honored to accept the invitation. Out of what was about a dozen speakers, I ended up being the only presenter of color. I wasn’t bothered by the lack of diverse representation at the time.

But in hindsight, that moment served as a grave omen of what would happen as my relationship with PTU began to falter.

Cameron Whitten speaking as emcee at the 2017 “Rally for Relocation” organized by PTU.

A few months later, I made the decision to transition from my leadership role in Portland’s Resistance — and was in search of a new activist home. I accepted an invitation from Margot Black to attend one of their Organizing Committee meetings. Once there, I learned it was unusual for outsiders like me to participate in a meeting of their core activists. But seeing that they had an optics issue of being a bunch of white activists organizing for the racially-relevant social justice issue, PTU had no issues inviting me.

That one meeting was agonizing. More agonizing than any of the countless meetings I’ve sat through over the years. At this all-white leadership gathering, PTU engaged in a circular firing squad about a black woman activist they’d been having personality and political conflicts with. The conversation devolved so badly that a PTU leader insinuated that this black woman had caused another prominent activist to commit suicide earlier that year. To paraphrase the statement, “she was always calling him out on his white male privilege, even when it was unnecessary. I remember the last conversation I had with him, and he said he had to check himself on his privilege. I think his relationship with her was apart of what got to him.”

Following that comment, I watched in horror as PTU organizers nodded their heads, listening silently and intently as this organizer continued their accusation-laden story. I lost my patience, and called out the person who made the comment, divulging my experience of having found the body my roommate after he committed suicide. These comments were irresponsible, and more horrifying than I was able to describe. It it hurt doubly to hear a self-identified radical verbalize their belief that black people speaking about their pain is so detrimental to white people — that it can kill. Other folks joined in after me, admitting it wasn’t the best choice of words. But I suspect, if I hadn’t been there, the person would not have been held accountable for their actions. The racial hostility I witnessed throughout this meeting would’ve been enough to make many activists of color run away screaming.

But despite all the red flags and trigger warnings, I chose to stay.

I offered my time and emotional labor, for free, to help PTU address their racial dead spots and repair the relationship with the aforementioned black activist through facilitated mediation. I met the black activist weeks later for a meal and listened to her side of the story. To me, it was evident that PTU, and specifically Margot Black, was using anti-black stigma to undermine the credibility of this activist and gain personal advantage. It was also clear the activist was still willing to work towards a resolution with PTU, knowing that consolidating their strategy would be helpful to the entire tenants’ movement.

Image of Margot Black, which was featured on the cover of the Willamette Week in 2016.

I relayed the results of my talk with Margot, and we talked on the phone for two hours. She was extremely hostile and defensive towards me the entire time. We talked about the work PTU was doing to address internal racial dynamics — which at the time, wasn’t much. Margot informed me that PTU was having a one hour sit-down with a professional consultant from the Nonprofit Association of Oregon. My opinion was that after the meeting the well-paid consultant would give a estimated quote for labor that PTU wouldn’t be able to afford, and the group should also be talking about next steps. Margot was infuriated by my response, and demanded that I recognize that this was the first step PTU was taking to address racism, and I shouldn’t be so critical.

I also felt pressure to ignore all the things Margot Black had said/done to people of color, centering her own feelings over the people she’d harmed. One of the worst parts of that conversation was when Margot told me “I think these people of color are coming after me,” in reference to the multiple criticisms facing her actions. I told Margot that she should never speak those words. They were utterly offensive and not helping her remedy the reputation of a racist organization that PTU was beginning to catch on. She then told me, “I regret telling you this, not because I feel bad saying it to you, because I thought you were my friend and I could be honest with my feelings.” I told her that her feelings were traumatic to my experience, and I was helping her out on a professional capacity and to try to mend an organizing relationship. For two hours, she was resistant to hearing how her behavior was harmful to people of color — insistently demanding that I “be her friend and listen to her emotions,” which consisted of making denigrating remarks about a number of Portland’s activists of color.

After that call, I realized that trying to address PTU’s racial bias would be met with serious resistance. I started meeting with other PTU members to see if there might be a better approach. But I only learned more examples of how PTU was perpetuating racism. According to testimony from PTU activists, a number of PTU leaders were spreading negative stories about me and other activists of color behind our backs. For example, when a PTU member suggested the group participate in one of my diversity trainings, one unemployed PTU member who I had given a free ticket to one of my fiction writing workshops, made a blanket statement to PTU that they shouldn’t pay for my equity trainings, saying “I went to one of his trainings and I thought it was boring.” Another member reinforced this narrative despite neither having attended one of my equity trainings, saying, “are you suggesting that because it’s worth our time, or because he’s mad at us?”

Here’s a more serious example: a former PTU organizer described an event where the group hired a Native American activist to work as facilitator for a PTU weekend strategic retreat. At this retreat, PTU resisted most of this person’s suggested activities, and used an ample amount of the time to get drunk and party. One night during the retreat, a PTU member grabbed a guitar and suggested that they all sing “This Land is Your Land.” The Native activist requested they not perform it because the song is tone deaf and offensive to the struggles of indigenous people. PTU then waited until the Native activist left the room, and members of the group went on to sing the song. One of the PTU members actually stood outside and blocked the door so the activist was trapped outside and incapable of interrupting this offensive act. Post-event, PTU leadership has continually complained that hiring this Native American activist was a waste of their money.

Portland Tenants United’s logo.

Over the summer, I sacrificed hours of my time trying to help PTU through their self-inflicted situation. The result was traumatic.

I grappled with emotions like isolation, self-doubt, and anger. I became disillusioned with the prospect of working with predominantly white activist groups. I had to be honest with myself. I realized my mental wellbeing would only improve if I left the organization. On August 21st, I posted this resignation in the PTU Organizers Facebook Group:

“It’s with a heavy heart that I’m announcing that I will be removing myself from the PTU organizers page and will no longer be formally affiliating myself with the organization, due to ongoing concerns about white supremacy.

I’ve been involved with housing advocacy in Portland since 2011. Originally, my role focused on the in-your-face headlines and policy work, but as of late, I’ve found a consistent and practical place around social media organizing, relationship development, and leadership training. I’ve recently made some changes in my personal capacity as an activist, and thought that my expertise might be of use to the organization.

A few months ago, I was invited to deepen my involvement with Portland Tenants United. I attended an Organizing Committee meeting, and was shocked beyonds words by the anti-blackness that reared its ugly head from many of the white leaders on the PTU OC committee. Although the racism and white supremacy I witnessed would’ve been enough for many black activists to run away screaming, I remained, and offered my time and emotional labor to help PTU with these pressing issues. While some of my conversations with PTU members were receptive, I’ve mostly been met with hostility and resistance in my attempts to change a culture inside PTU that to me, feels like dangerous white supremacy.

These conversations have been going on for over two months, and I have tried to wait patiently to see hope for the path forward. Unfortunately, I do not feel like progress is being made in ways that I think hold PTU accountable for the harm they have caused in the black community, or to other communities of color in general. I also am concerned that activists of color are repeatedly being tokenized for their marginal participation they have in PTU, in comparison to the active participation of white PTU leadership and spokespeople.

For a long time, I’ve admired PTU’s commitment to tenants issues and their effective results. However, my concern about white supremacy within the group has become too serious for me to be silent any longer. From this point on, I refuse to participate in PTU online forums, events, meetings, and campaigns, until I am confident that PTU is leading a full-faith and urgent effort to eliminate white supremacy.”


The reaction to my resignation has not been positive. The next day, I was contacted by someone who moved from Portland over a year ago and was flown back to Portland by PTU to do a series of anti-racism workshops. During our talk, I learned they were completely unaware about PTU’s racist history — furthering my suspicion that PTU hired an uninformed trainer to elude accountability. Later, attendees of the anti-racism workshops informed me that the trainer described me to the group as a mafia boss who threatened PTU with blackmail and extortion, saying I would destroy them on social media if they didn’t pay me to cover up their racism. This conspiracy was concocted by PTU weeks before my resignation, as a defense measure in case I spoke publicly about what I witnessed. The spread of these unfounded allegations have harmed myself and the trainer who has now brought negative scrutiny to their anti-racist organizing lens.

Margot Black doubled down on her oppressive language, dismissing my experience and firing off any accusations she thought would make me appear less credible. She went as far as to block me on Facebook and has told people that her lawyer recommended suing me.

Screenshots of negative rumors spread by Margot Black.

This abusive behavior is not unique to my situation, and has been an ongoing issue for PTU when it comes to recruiting and maintaining active membership. Due to the increased racial hostility following my resignation, a number of PTU members broke off their affiliation. Two former PTU members agreed to come forward with their own experiences:

From the beginning of my time with PTU, I heard negative things about organizers from another housing group, specifically about the women of color in leadership. During PTU meetings, the name of a particular female leader was a regular topic since Margot would often tell us about what a problem this person was during their interactions. We were urged to believe that anyone from this organization was not to be trusted as an ally of PTU, and this caused PTU organizers to be hostile towards their leaders. However, on the PTU Facebook pages, this organization was a regularly recommended resource for tenants asking for help and Margot would often act like our relationship with them was good. The conflict continued throughout the campaign for Oregon House Bill 2004 and ultimately PTU pulled their support because of conflict with the women of color organizers.

PTU’s wrath seemed to have no limits to who they would turn on. Many people I had been friends and organized with left PTU one by one due to issues with Margot. Each time an organizer would leave there would be a different story, but the theme was always the same. Men were accused of being misogynistic, women were accused of being traitors. There was no place to express dissent without retribution from Margot Black.

When Cameron posted in the PTU Organizers page, I was shocked at the words he wrote. I was worried: what would it mean for PTU if someone found out about the post and his accusations? I was worried all the union members would leave, that we would all be called racists, and that I would be part of that. Instead of stepping up to comment on Cameron’s post, I did nothing. I attended one of the anti-racist trainings, hoping there would be a forum to discuss what was going on with Cameron and why there constant issues between prominent activists of color and Margot. When I asked if this was the forum to discuss our thoughts about what had happened with Cameron, I was emphatically told “No!”.

It was shortly thereafter that I became the target of Margot’s rage. I continued to question her role in the issues with Cameron, as well as the other organizers she continued to have conflict with, and the lack of a platform for organizers to express dissent with Margot and the actions of the PTU Organizing Committee in backing her. I left PTU publicly shortly after all of these events took place and do not consider it a safe space for anyone.

I deeply apologize for not coming forward sooner about these concerns. I was complicit in the harm of many people I respect by doing nothing to speak out in their defense. The impact on Cameron and other activists of color is far beyond what I can expect this meager apology to do to heal their pain, but I hope that this will open up the dialogue for public accountability for PTU so that abuse does not continue.

— Lynn Hager

First off, I want to apologize for the harm I caused through my participation in PTU and for not being open about why I left until now. Just like me and the rest of America, PTU was infused with white supremacy. I experienced a number of things that drove this home, none more so than the “This Land Is Your Land” incident. The song had been discussed, its offensive nature explained, and yet it was still sung. The song does not pertain to struggle, union pride, or anything else we were celebrating that weekend; it was written for the Bonneville Power Administration, not exactly a radical organization. As for why the song was sung, intent is completely beside the point. Harm was done. The impact continues to resonate.

When pressed by our allies to do internal anti-racism work because of this and other incidents, we left this responsibility to others to instead focus on our own goals. We held a couple of trainings, during which the trainer made it clear that “PTU is not the place for middle class white people to learn about their racism” and “there is already an organization doing that work, they are called SURJ”. This was part of a pattern I noticed as I experienced a range of hostile reactions to my efforts to discuss racism within the group, starting at the retreat, which continued online and during the trainings. I was accused of being divisive for suggesting that we discuss white supremacy culture, and during one of the trainings I was indirectly accused by a core organizer of misogyny for my insistence that the group has issues with internal racism that would not be solved by a couple of trainings.

The structure of and especially the decision making processes in PTU made it easy for privileged white folks like me to develop as organizers, but didn’t afford the same opportunity to everyone else. As I reflected on my involvement, I realized that leaving was the best action I could take. To top it off, when I attempted to post a message in our Facebook group announcing my departure, I found the settings had changed without notice to require an administrator to approve any new posts. In lieu of a semi-private announcement, I instead posted publicly, but to my continuing regret did not really explain much. The truth is, I want to hold myself accountable when someone says I have caused them harm, and I expect those around me to do the same. The culture of PTU prevents this accountability, and the examples of this are so innumerable as to not need naming.

— Ben Pollak


Living in the whitest major city in the country, I’ve worked with many racially homogenous groups — and enjoyed it. These experiences have not been perfect, but I know that no human is perfect. I originally had no intention of going public with my racist experiences with PTU. I have issues with call out culture, with questions such as — “will this call out provide a path for redemption, or only result in exclusion?” and importantly, “is this the right battle to pick?”

Unfortunately, trying to work from within failed in this situation. Part of that is because of how impenetrable white privilege is in PTU. I’m tired of seeing a group of privileged white activists build their social capital on the backs of people of color. And many others will be harmed if PTU’s racial harassment isn’t addressed soon. If I were to diagnose PTU with five major issues of racism, it would be these:

A collage of images from the #RentersSOS kickoff rally organized by Community Alliance of Tenants in 2015.

1. Centering Whiteness

On December 7, 2016, alternative weekly the Willamette Week posted a biopic about Margot Black which said, “Margot Black, 38, is not a lawyer. She is, however, a founder of a renters’ rights group, Portland Tenants United. She is bundle of contradictions — a fighter who is quick to laugh, friendly and outgoing but also blunt. And she has been remarkably effective at making renters a political force for the first time in recent Portland history.”

That final talking point by Willamette Week is one that is often touted as well by the organization, despite long term organizations in existence such as Community Alliance of Tenants, a local nonprofit with a notable representation of women of color on staff and served as the catalyst to recent tenant organizing with the successful Renters State of Emergency campaign in September 2015. Other organizations, such as Living Cully and OPAL, have been successfully organizing renters of color, with much less recognition compared to their white counterparts. As a group of able-bodied white Portlanders, PTU has received a significant amount of publicity and social power for an issue that most seriously impacts people of color and people with disabilities. They have publicly pulled their support from tenant campaigns led by people of color, while expecting for all activists to give unequivocal support to their own tactics.

2. Tokenization.

Portland Tenants United has engaged many activists of color during its existence. However, no person of color been represented within the highest decision making levels within PTU. PTU has used this dynamic to tout themselves as an inclusive, racially diverse organization, even though their core leadership and structure is clearly white. They pat themselves on the back for their marginal inclusion of people of color, and vehemently deny their tokenization of activists of color.

3. Overt Racial Hostility.

The list of racial incidents caused by white PTU is long and traumatizing. PTU members of color have been stalked at events by white PTU members because “they looked like a criminal.” Activists of color have been subjected to numerous racial stereotypes, including being violent and angry. Activists of color have had their culture and identity mocked to their face, and so on. Some victims knew I was writing this Medium article, and asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from PTU.

4. Performative Allyship.

PTU membership has claimed to be champions of anti-racism, and yet their chain of behaviors have seriously harmed or excluded people of color. PTU has exploited their appearance as an anti-racist, radical organization to gain social capital, and has used that capital to undermine leaders of color when it benefits their own agenda. For activists of color who disagree or have spoken out against the group, PTU has attacked their legitimacy and/or trivialized their contributions to tenants advocacy.

5. Gaslighting.

This characteristic is PTU’s most dangerous. Gaslighting is defined as “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Anyone who voices disagreement with their tactics is likely to be accused of working for the landlord lobby. Not only is PTU prone to deny allegations, they use the experiences of their victims as fodder against themselves. Their gaslighting has struck a chord of fear with a number of people who believe speaking up will result in retaliation. It is clear PTU is more interested in maintaining their social capital than owning their racial bias.

Portland Tenants United adopted a guiding document, called the 8 Points of Unity. Ask yourself this, “what would happen if PTU’s points of unity applied to the treatment of people of color?” Their inability to recognize the harm they’ve caused is hypocritical at the least, and emblematic of toxic white privilege at the most.

Now that the grievances have been aired, I ask you to consider what’s most important: accountability. Last November, activist and organizer Amanda Aguilar Shank wrote a Medium article to describe her own harassment experience, and had this to say about accountability:

“Accountability includes naming the behavior and impact of our actions, an apology, and specific steps towards reconciliation or restitution.”


EXPECTATIONS

I have provided a list of expectations for PTU and affiliated organizations that will help steer all parties towards accountability and reconciliation. These steps will not be easy, but they are very, very necessary.

  • After reading this article, Portland Tenants United should avoid firing off a defensive response. They should take the time to reflect on the mistakes they’ve made, and compose a thoughtful response to the people they’ve harmed.
  • By the end of the month, Portland Tenants United should prepare and post a public apology for all of its racial hostilities to Portland activists of color over the past year. This public apology should include a detailed recognition of all major harassment incidents, being careful to respect the privacy of their victims.
  • Portland Tenants United should engage in deep anti-racism training and build an accountability plan to address their internalized racial bias. This work must come with guidance from a person of color who lives in Portland, and has positive, trusting relationships with the people of color who have been directly harmed by their members. It is imperative that this person be compensated for their work.
  • Portland Tenants United should request and organize mediated conversations with the people of color who have been harmed by them, and should identify other restorative justice practices if any of the victims decline.
  • Margot Black should immediately step down from PTU leadership, cease her participation with the Organizing Committee and not resume any leadership role within PTU until these previous steps have been fulfilled.
  • For people and organizations who either fund or work in coalition with Portland Tenants United, I urge you to withhold your support of this organization until these above steps have been agreed to.

I wrote this article with a focus on what matters most: fighting for housing and opportunity for everyone. This vision of an equitable future will not be possible if it does not include the leadership from people on the front lines, who experience the brunt of oppression and bigotry. I end this story with a quote from one of my Facebook posts from earlier this year:

“…White Portlanders, you do NOT get to determine how “woke” you are.

You do NOT get to determine how much work you’ve put in for racial justice.

If a person of color has issues with your white supremacy, it is your job to LISTEN, not to center the conversation on your hurt feelings.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen Get Out, how many black authors you’ve read, or how many dollars you’ve donated to Black Lives Matter.

Portland is an unsafe place for many people of color. The abundance of well meaning white SJWs is as much of the problem as the handful of full blown white nationalists.

Stop making excuses. Fix it.”

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