I called Emmett Wheatfall two weeks ago to talk about a poem, and right away he started preaching. And every night, every walk, every dark life, every lost moment, I hear that voice.
“What we need now are aggregators, not agitators,” says Wheatfall, as summer protests roam neighborhoods across the city.
“The reprimand is recorded. We understood. Now what do you want?
Wheatfall is black and 63 years old. He’s got a little church in northeast Portland, Remember the hope. He has five books of poetry, the last wrapped around a line by James Baldwin, “As clean as a bone. “His message to the Black Lives Matter movement is exactly that.
“You galvanized young white people. You have older white people checking their privileges. You have organizations and companies looking at their diversity value statements. You have the Commissioner of the NFL saying, “I wish I could go back and rethink the way we responded to (quarterback Colin) Kaepernick.”
“Oh my God. It’s a new spring.
“What do you want now?”
We sit on the shaded deck of his house a block or two from Northeast Sandy. His voice shakes the trees. “I get loud and lively because I’m passionate here,” says Wheatfall.
Animated by the moment. Passionate about the opportunity that will soon be lost due to broken windows, senseless fires and misfits who haven’t done their homework.
When these protests began, sparked off by the death of George Floyd, says Wheatfall, they had the look and fearful possibility of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
He was both moved and inspired because he believed that what began in this Birmingham prison and on that Selma Bridge ultimately led to affirmative action, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Kamala Harris, a woman of color, on the Democratic ticket.
Seats at the lunch counter and at the front of the bus. Integrated schools. Registered voters. The end of racial discrimination in the workplace.
They also had the personal character and historical memory, says Wheatfall, to stay focused and non-violent. They did not waste their currency on fireworks. They let the terrified white supremacist guardians burn the Liberty buses and lose the dogs.
In the absence of such leadership and discipline in Portland, Wheatfall fears the power of this movement will wane, even as more black men are gunned down on the streets.
“This is the resurrection of a social justice movement that has the potential to impact society for years to come,” said Wheatfall. “And right now, many leaders in this watershed moment have not done their homework. We have people with good intentions who haven’t taken the time to learn how to do it effectively.
“The city council and the mayor are failed leaders. 90 days ago people almost went broke downtown, and now they are spilling out into the community to set things on fire. It is failed leadership, and you have to embrace it. That brilliant moment, that bugle call to save black lives and stop police brutality, is lost. “
Wheatfall moved to Oregon in 1974 when his father, who served in both Korea and Vietnam, arrived to advise the Oregon National Guard on behalf of the military. He retired from Clackamas County last October, but did not slow down a blow in the direction of his fraternity or the publication of his poems.
“Poetry gave me more space than my clergy work,” says Wheatfall. “I can be a black American and, through poetry, imagine myself as an Irish boy loving an Irish girl. I can go before the war and write about slavery. I don’t rap; I’m too old for that. I write about love, hope and faith. I write about justice.
He doesn’t believe in “funding” the Portland police, but he is eager for this fraternity to eliminate officers who do not want to serve as peacekeepers. He knows that social justice takes time and takes a lot of work, but he’s ready for the agitators to step down and the aggregators to step up, rallying people of differing opinions.
“That’s what great leaders do,” says Wheatfall.
“Everything is good for a nice change… but it is not carried out effectively. You have a lot of people who have never led a social justice movement acting out of passion, rather than watching how the elders did it. Even Dr King went to India to learn about (Mahatma) Gandhi.
“Right now, those who throw stones and light fires, none of their names will be remembered. But when people’s attention is redirected to violence and chaos, they recoil.
“Do not miss this opportunity.”