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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Searching for Cesar Chavez in Portland, pt 3, "Observations and reflections on the City Council hearing"

By Sean Cruz

Prior to hearing the invited and public testimony on the proposed ordnance renaming 39th Avenue, the Council heard comments from City staff members and various parties with their fingerprints on the “process”, and voted on accepting the report of the Planning Commission (which did no actual planning and no research on its own).

There was a consistent thread through these “process” comments that suggested the inevitability of renaming a street—just about any street—was a foregone conclusion…it was a matter of honing down three streets chosen at random to determine the actual “winner”.

Highlights from this portion of the agenda included:

A panel of mutually-congratulatory white folks describing their contributions to the “process” of selecting a street to sacrifice on the Altar of Empty Gestures….

Among them a project manager, blissfully unaware of how badly managed this project has been, enthusiastically offered up a slide show of empty patches of asphalt along 39th Avenue…you had to be there….

A consultant hired to mediate who appears to have spent far more time on assembling her self-congratulatory remarks than on any actual mediation….

A Historian Panel that lacked a single real historian, focused on the history of Portland street naming and renaming, completely overlooked the history of the man being “honored”….

A Planning Commission that did no actual planning throughout the entire process, presented a report to City Council that summed Cesar Chavez up in a single word: “Latino.”

Note to the Planning Commission: “Latino” refers to people whose Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking ancestors began arriving in the Americas in the 16th century, murdering and enslaving its inhabitants throughout the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and across two continents, including the area that is now known as the American Southwest. It is not a pretty story…you should try reading a book now and then….

2nd Note to the Planning Commission: There is a presumption that renaming 39th Avenue will increase pedestrian and vehicular traffic along the street, but having conducted no traffic impact study (see project manager comment above), no one in the neighborhoods knows what to expect or how issues of safety, noise and air quality will be mitigated….

The months-long work of City staff, conducted completely within a Portland bubble, the clueless project manager, the Historian Panel Without Historians, the mediator who did not mediate and the Planning Commission that did not plan, produced two documents for the Council’s consideration, but not a single photograph of Cesar Chavez or farmworkers was in evidence…even the Committee Once Bent on Renaming Interstate failed to bring a photograph of Cesar Chavez to the hearing….

What could possibly be wrong with a process and an outcome like this?

The City’s process has stirred up a storm of anger directed at immigrants and farmworkers in general, and against Mexican and Mexican American people in particular, and yet the Office of Human Relations and the Human Rights Commission has let it all flow unchallenged and unanswered….

For Oregon farmworkers, perhaps the most important City staff failure was the absence of any input or activity from the Office of Human Relations or the Human Rights Commission to counter the racist rhetoric, and the fact that this Portland obsession drained the life out of any hope for meaningful reforms that would improve their living and working conditions within the next two years.

While the Director of the Office of Human Relations, Maria Lisa Johnson, was seen skulking in the Council Chamber recesses and in and out of various Commissioners’ offices prior to and during the hearing, she had nothing to say about the bigoted and racist comments the street-renaming obsession has generated.

The fact that she has been in the bag for renaming a street, beginning with Interstate Avenue, from the beginning, and was as quick as anyone else to accuse opponents of renaming Interstate as bigots, prior to her appointment to “lead” the City’s Office of Human Relations, points directly to the problem with this office.

If nothing else, you have to credit the City’s street-renaming “process” with being consistent: consistently ad hoc, consistently contrived, consistently faulty and consistently driven by City Hall insiders, insiders who are completely consistent in their desires to remain anonymous, at least until the street-renaming parade takes place along 39th Avenue….

More comments on the Council hearing coming soon, in Searching for Cesar Chavez in Portland, pt 4….

Sean Cruz writes BlogoliticalSean at

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