An Open Letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on the Chronic Trauma of Racism

Dear Mayor Wheeler, 

My name is Bridget Geraghty.  I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Portland specializing in trauma therapy.  My husband, Jeremy Barnicle, is the Executive Director of Ecotrust.  We have two children – ten year old twins – born here in Oregon.  They love the rain and our trees and our city’s purported kindness.  We are White. 

In 2017 I sat across the table from you at a Transition Projects fundraiser with former Police Chief Michael Marshman to my right – two White men holding a lot of power over the people of this city.  Hearing you chat at the table, talking about the problems of homelessness, I feel like I saw your humanity up close that night.  Today, as a trauma therapist, looking at the public health crisis of racism, I ask you to consider what that humanity within you will lead you to do about it. 

You have a very difficult job on your hands.  In response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless irreplaceable people, your constituents are marching in the streets.  White people are marching behind the leadership of Black people, every night, demanding justice.  The leaders lead with transparency and accountability and their sharp focus is on human rights. They are saying ‘We will not stop marching until we get relief from the chronic trauma of racism.’  You should believe them. 

They mean it.

I am White.  To be White is to be conscripted as a foot soldier for White America’s racist rules from birth.  I am listening and learning who I’ve been. I’m learning to put down my weapons. So many of the things I’m about to say to you, have been revealed to me by Black leaders who are bravely telling us the truth of what’s going on.    So I will continue to march with Black leaders – in a pandemic –  for as long as it takes.  Because the pandemic of American racism is 401 years old and we all need it to stop. 

I hope you are listening – really, privately listening –  to Black people who are not already part of the Black power structure in Portland.  Racism’s rules  tell us that one Black person must speak for all Black people.  That rule doesn’t apply to White people so it’s wrong.  So please, check your racism. With all due respect to your dedicated colleagues, if a Black colleague agrees with you it means one person has agreed with you.   You cannot stop listening. The listening is just beginning.   

Your current plans for responding to the needs of the Black community are far too small.  They may make you feel better but they are a slap in the faces of all the families who are dying from racist policing, racist workplaces, racist allocations of funds.  Let’s be clear.  Too many White people are guiding those decisions.  

The leaders I have been listening to have convinced me that nothing short of an overhaul is necessary.  All cannabis taxes divested from police – no more rewards for the war on drugs they carried out to fill the prisons.  Fifty million dollars taken from the police budget and poured into services to dismantle the effects of racism in the Black community.  Cancel the police union contract.  USE YOUR VOICE to advocate for the things you can’t just unilaterally decide to do.  White privilege is yours, man.  More than most.  You have so much power just by opening your mouth.  

Fifteen years ago I worked as a therapist with mostly Black boys, at Pioneer School, PPS alternative school.  Those kids were referred to as ‘behaviorally challenged.’  Do you know what that place really was?  A place where teachers sent the boys who were bursting with the pain – the gracefully restrained anger – of their disrespected community.  I cried at home every night and I will forever see their beautiful faces in my mind.  I am sick to my core to think how many of them may be doing unpaid labor in a prison right now while white men continue to hold most of the cards.  

Your police fill those prisons.  They steal those boys off the street.  For petty and small alleged crimes that Measure 11 supports.  I can never unsee a 13 year-old boy client of mine brought into court in orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.  By contrast, my friend Demetria Hester told me yesterday how White Nationalist murderer Jeremy Christian was not even ordered shackled by the white judge during his trial.  Then he lunged at Hester in the courtroom.  Do we need more to see how sick this system is?  How White people act like even Black children are inherently dangerous?  How White people let dangerous White people roam free?  How White America believes Black people are sub-human with no supporting evidence except our racist thoughts? 

As a White man, you can no longer make race an intellectual exercise and pass from this earth someday with your conscience intact.  How many mothers have been denied the chance to be with their babies in their last moments?  How many children – children –  have had to be with only White men who hate them as they take their last breaths?  Hate them.  And they do.  Because they fear them. And White men don’t get to acknowledge fear.  

That is the White man’s sickness.  Never show – never feel – fear.  Please, acknowledge your fear.  We are all afraid.  We are afraid that we have supported a system that has lied and lied and lied.  It has denied us the magic of loving Black people.  Black lives are beautiful.  Black bodies are valuable.  Black bodies house Black minds and they are brilliant.  When Black people eat, we all eat. What about believing the Black community about what it needs?   We stand a chance of moving forward out of love instead of fear and perhaps healing some of racism’s pain.  

We’ve given the White police, the White Nationalists scaring people with their guns, the White Suburban cocktail party racists with their worries about crime – all of our attention.  We’ve tried it their way.  Isn’t it time we gave credence to the needs of Black taxpayers?  The ones who pay and pay and then have to spend their money back into White-owned businesses so they never stand a chance at equity?  We say,  “Wait.”  In God’s name I ask you, Wait?  For what?  More murder?  More suffering? 

If it is true that Black people deserve exactly what White people have, then look hard at what you have.  And every day do radical things to make Black lives as comfortable as White lives.  Because anything less is you saying Black people deserve this.  That is the racism inside every White mind in America.  Look at it within you.  

Mayor Wheeler, there are no good cops in a racist system.  The best ones operate in a workplace infected with the virus of hate.  

Mayor Wheeler, are there any good mayors in a racist system?  Perhaps the only way you free your soul, Sir, is to upend the system.  I believe it is the only thing history will judge you kindly for having done.  

I will pray for your open heart and mind, 

Bridget Geraghty, LCSW