Restoring toppled monuments would symbolize restoring Portland's civic pride

Restoring toppled monuments would symbolize restoring Portland's civic pride
© Getty Images

With more than 100 days of nightly riots following George Floyd’s death, boarded storefronts, rising crime and a downtown carpeted with encampments of what the woke now call the “unhoused,” the reputation of Portland, Ore., has taken a serious blow. Once known for its spectacular natural surroundings, its restaurants, coffee shops and microbreweries, the nearby wine country and the quaint weirdness portrayed in the hit TV series “Portlandia,” the city is struggling to regain its status as one of America’s most desirable places.

Throughout the turmoil that has characterized the past 18 months, Portland’s city government repeatedly has failed to fulfill its core responsibility of maintaining public order. Like too many leaders in the city’s other civic and private institutions, the Portland City Council has cowered in fear of the charges of racism that follow most efforts to restore order and protect private and public property. The council now has an opportunity to counter the lawlessness, if merely symbolically, by mandating the restoration of historic monuments toppled by a mob.

Over the course of the protests, statues of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were defaced and torn from their foundations. The Lincoln and Roosevelt statues, along with a monument to Oregon pioneer families titled “The Promised Land,” stood for most of a century in Portland’s South Park Blocks, for which the city recently developed a new plan. The future of these monuments, and a statue of a former publisher of The Oregonian newspaper toppled in another city park, rests with the City Council.

ADVERTISEMENT

As reported in the Portland Tribune, the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) — a private nonprofit that the city’s website describes as its “primary agent for delivering arts and culture services … and managing the City’s public art program” — recommended against restoring toppled monuments of three presidents (Washington was located on private property not under public authority), the pioneer family and the Oregonian publisher. Quoted in the Tribune, a spokesperson for the RACC stated that “the plan recommends that these statues be replaced with artwork representing a more diverse culture and history. … [The Arts Council] believe[s] this recommendation is consistent with … the city’s desire to center racial equity in their policymaking and to be an anti-racist city.”

The RACC has a $13 million annual budget and a staff of 25. Seventy-six percent of its funding comes from the City of Portland, with an additional 12 percent from other public sources. In reaching its recommendation, the 15-member unelected board of directors sought no public comment, notwithstanding that nearly 40 percent of the city’s contribution derives from a $35 annual “arts tax” on every adult resident of Portland. In response to objections to its lack of public input, the Arts Council’s spokesperson said there had been no public process when the monuments were erected a century ago. While it is unlikely that the monuments were placed in a city park without some process, assumptions about allegedly undemocratic practices of the past are not a convincing justification for present-day indifference to public opinion.

Portland’s City Council will decide whether to accept the Arts Council’s recommendation, claimed by RACC to be required by its deaccession policy amended in 2021 to condemn “artwork … significantly at odds with values of antiracism, equity, inclusion.” Although the council’s track record suggests that it will rubber-stamp the RACC’s recommendation, a letter to Commissioner Carmen Rubio from a coalition of Portland citizens should give them pause. The letter signed by Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, Pink Martini band leader Thomas Lauderdale and several other civic-minded Portland leaders reportedly warns that failure to restore the monuments without an open and public process will encourage more of the vandalism that has plagued the city.  

The City Council should be listening. Endorsing the results of lawless behavior will only diminish the prospects for achieving the larger goal of reclaiming the city. As the practitioners of broken-windows policing demonstrated in Los Angeles, New York and other cities, tolerating vandalism and petty crime, even in the name of redressing historic wrongs, leaves little prospect for rebuilding civic pride and prosperity.

Restoring the toppled monuments to the park where they stood for nearly a century would be more than mere symbolism. It would be a statement that lawless behavior, no matter what the perpetrators’ cause, will not be tolerated. A failure to restore the monuments would be an acceptance of mob rule, as would be the City Council’s embrace of the unelected RACC board’s recommendation to endorse what the mob has done.  

James L. Huffman is a professor of law and the former dean of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHu41086899.