Counterprotesters show up to condemn 'It's OK to be white' banner in Congress Square
Feb. 17—WARNING — Video contains explicit language
A crowd of counterprotesters descended on Congress Square Friday to speak out against a small group displaying an "It's OK to be white" banner at one of Portland's busiest intersections.
About 40 people spread out at the four corners of the intersection of High and Congress streets around lunchtime Friday, holding signs that read, "Stupid racist sign" and "Black lives matter," and well outnumbering the handful of people rallying behind the banner.
Portland resident Richard Ward has displayed that banner "a couple times" in Congress Square Park, drawing sharp backlash this month after a picture was circulated on social media and a city councilor said she was threatened for speaking out against it.
"It's infuriating," said one counterprotester, who asked to be identified by only his first name, Charlie, saying he is worried about retaliation from Ward and his supporters.
"It feels great to be out here though in much greater numbers and standing in solidarity against them. ... It's really disheartening to see this kind of rhetoric on display," Charlie said.
Ward, an activist who ran unsuccessfully for City Council last fall, said the banner is a way of "taking a stand against people making nasty remarks towards white people and anti-white sentiment."
"If this was an 'It's OK to be Black' sign, people would say it's great," Ward said. "If this said, 'It's OK to be Muslim' it would be great. But it's like, 'How dare a white person hold a sign that says it's OK for a white person to exist.'"
The Anti-Defamation League includes "It's okay to be white" in its hate symbols database as a phrase popularized in 2017 through a trolling campaign by members of the online forum 4chan that has been promoted by white supremacists.
"White people, particularly in the U.S., have never faced the backlash for their mere existence that has been the experience of Black people, people of color and indigenous people," said Shay Stewart-Bouley, a Peaks Island resident who serves as executive director of Community Change Inc., a racial justice and anti-racism organization.
"What a sign like that fails to understand is cisgendered white men are still probably the most privileged people on the planet. No one questions their right to exist."
Dressed in a red, white, and blue suit, Nick Blanchard, an Augusta resident who was involved in opposing mask mandates in schools during the height of COVID-19 pandemic, stood by the banner with a megaphone Friday, shouting "all lives matter."
Blanchard doesn't see a problem with the banner and believes that Ward was "dragged through the media."
Blanchard said he grew up in the South and was "one of the only white people around."
"I had the exact same struggles as they did," Blanchard said. "This is not a Black/white issue. This is a class issue. It's not about being white. It's not about being Black. White people suffer just as much as Black people in the same communities."
Stewart-Bouley said the sign and slogan fail to understand the privilege that comes with being white and the systemic disparities that still impact the daily lives of people of color, including disparities in health care and economics.
"I'm not saying there aren't white people who are poor or struggling or have issues," Stewart-Bouley said. "We all have struggles. ... But there needs to be a larger perspective."
The crowd started out small Friday morning but by 12:30 p.m. had spread to all four corners of the square. Counterprotesters far outnumbered Ward and Blanchard, who appeared to only have two supporters with them.
A spokesperson for the Portland Police Department said they were aware of the protest and there were "no issues" to report with violence or arrests.
The counterprotesters stood in front of the "It's OK to be white" banner, blocking it with their own signs, and shouted over Blanchard's megaphone.
"Black lives matter. White supremacy kills," the counterprotesters chanted in response.
"It's not OK for these people to use really dog-whistle rhetoric to try and trick normal people who do believe in equality," said one counterprotester who asked to be identified as Z because she worried about backlash toward her family.
"They're using old white supremacist nonsense to try and muddy the water," Z said. "This is the whitest state in America. Being white has always been OK. We're trying to make the people of color and people who don't have equal rights also feel like they matter and it's OK to be them."