Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage

The Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage was an activist event in October 2020, held on Indigenous People's Day. Activists toppled statues of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Rooseevelt, and vandalized the Oregon Historical Society. Wikipedia

"Oregon History" mural in downtown Portland. Carol Highsmith photo from Wikimedia Commons

This is an event that was widely criticized in the press and among many people who have generally otherwise been supportive of Black Lives Matter and related protests. Many regard Lincoln and Roosevelt as heroes, and admire the Historical Society's recent efforts to illuminate racism in Oregon history, e.g. the complex but brutal history of redlining.

A "talk page" commentary on the Oregon History mural? Ian Frantz photo from Wikimedia Commons

I found myself between groups of friends on both sides of this issue. I was fairly familiar with the position that Roosevelt, Lincoln, and OHS are praiseworthy, so I paid more attention to their detractors, and tried to dampen my own instinctive reactions, as I tried to make sense of the event. I noticed that some people criticizing the actions described them as "violence," which in my view is a particularly damaging form of misinformation. I strongly believe that things that do not imminently harm living beings should not be construed as "violence," and that efforts to do so are usually in service to craven political goals.

I had the most success in this effort by exploring Twitter. I didn't keep good notes on the tweets I found, which I regret. But I found stories about horrible actions by the former presidents, which do not fit neatly into the hero narratives many of us have grown up with as canon. But it was the part about the OHS that I found the most enlightening.

Deep in a Twitter thread, I found a claim that the motivating factor for the damage to the OHS was a multi-story colonial mural, which bears the unfortunate title "Oregon History ."

According to the tweet, the offense of this mural was enough to justify actions against the OHS, and no anti-racist work the organization did was especially credible or compelling in the face of such an offensive mural. (These are my words, and are sort of a mashup of what I remember reading with the thoughts and conversations it inspired.)

This statement really struck me. As I considered it, I realized that for anybody who doesn't dig through academic journals and museum exhibits, this multi-story mural is literally an overshadowing monster. I imagined what it would be like if I were indigenous myself, what it would be like to walk around downtown, and have to pass under a massive, gaslighting monument to the oppression of my ancestors. I've long realized that imagery like this -- all too common in Oregon -- is offensive, but for the first time the idea struck a deep chord for me.

From that perspective, I reread the history of that mural (see the short Wikipedia article linked above). It read completely differently than before. What a tired excuse, that the building no longer belongs to the OHS! They sold it only 6 years ago, and at that time, they specifically attached a condition that the owners had to preserve and restore the mural after renovations to the building!

The moral authority that the OHS wields, for good or ill, in a situation like this is enormous and unique. For the OHS to play it off as though it bears no responsibility for this offense is ludicrous and insulting.

This was really an epiphany for me, and I'm embarrassed I wasn't able to see this point of view more clearly before. But even so, the chorus of voices criticizing the Day of Rage actions only grew. The OHS, politicians of various local governments, and even a Native American Oregon legislator voiced their disapproval. Local tribal leaders weighed in as well. In other circles, I had friends who were quick to point out that the indigenous community is not a monolith, and that the elders speaking out publicly were not representative of the younger Native Americans who planned the actions.

A second epiphany was that the name "Day of Rage" was probably appropriate, in that it was taken to heart; I came to believe that the people planning and participating in the action may have been more intent on expressing their own rage, than on any strategic orientation toward social change. Now, this is a statement that is often made with strong judgment attached, and I want to distance myself from that part. I don't want to begrudge any individual or any group its expression of a deeply justified emotion, in a way that was in no way life-threatening. Would I have chosen these targets and these tactics? Probably not. But much more importantly: Am I personally impacted by the offense of a mural like this? No. So, it's largely a question of standing. It's important to respect the people who are more directly impacted.

I'll try to generalize, distill, summarize these ideas on a page called Telling the Stories of Leaderless Movements.