Hell No on A  

by Samuel James 

When I think about fascism I think of militarism. I think about leaders acting as owners. I think of the suspension of rights and the destruction of democracy. I think of groups of people being forced from their homes and barred from living in certain areas. I especially think of Orwellian language.

When I first heard the phrase “rental housing provider,” I couldn’t believe it. Portland Mayor Kate Snyder had written an op-ed for the Press Herald using the phrase, and I can’t remember the last time I was so disgusted. The layers of audacity and insidiousness in that one phrase genuinely stunned me. At first I just kind of laughed at how deliberately she was trying not to say “landlord.” But soon the mix of totalitarian-style propaganda and uber-corporate speak straight up nauseated me. 

The problem is probably that “-lord” part. According to the dictionary, a lord is “a person who has authority, control or power over others; a master, chief or ruler. a person who exercises authority from property rights.” Master. Yikes. But that’s what it is, and hiding an exploitive authority behind the benevolence of provider is just about the most sickening thing I can think of. It’s a shameless and obvious lie, but the real coup de grace is that trying to popularize that phrase is an attempt to manipulate us into telling ourselves their lie. It’s frightening to see on a local level.   

Oftentimes we miss that national or even global movements aren’t so much that as just a mass of local movements. That mistake can keep us from defending ourselves. For example, when we frame the rise of white supremacy around the world as a global issue, we imply that it is some sort of inevitable natural pattern too big and inescapable to do anything about where we live. The truth is the opposite. There is no mass organization of white supremacists attempting a global takeover and no need for one, as white supremacist culture is something that’s been deliberately installed into local systems the world over.

Portland is one of those localities. Now, according to Wikipedia, “Democracy is a form of government in which the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation, or to choose government officials to do so.” Portland does not have this. As I’ve covered here and in my podcast, 99 Years, Portland is under the city manager form of government, an anti-democratic white supremacist design created for the purpose of subjugating Black people. White supremacists in the Chamber of Commerce, the Press Herald and the KKK conspired to install the form of government in Portland nearly 100 years ago. The results are a segregated city with disproportionate Black poverty far worse than the rest of the state and country on average. 

The unelected city manager runs the city, the city staff answers to the city manager, and the city council and mayor — your “democratically elected officials” — function largely as lobbyists of the city manager and staff. Sometimes councilors are successful in their lobbying attempts, sometimes not, but regardless, they in no way wield the authority of the people inherent to the definition of democracy. The entire system is built to do the opposite. 

The only form of democracy the city has is the referendum process, which is why there are always so many on the ballot. This is also why the mayor is trying to make that process more difficult by raising signature requirements and demanding bad faith fiscal notes on any future referenda. 

Also, because the referendum process is democratic and money counts as free speech, bad actors show up there, too. For example, Question A on the upcoming June 13 Portland city ballot was created to give landlords permission to rent gouge. The group behind the referendum is the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine. If you’re wondering what the hell that is, the “About” page on their website describes them in three sentences. 

Promoting advocacy, education, and better business for rental housing providers, property managers, and industry partners in our communities across southern [sic] Maine. The [RHA] is a local non-profit organization of rental housing providers from across the industry. We are composed of a range of diverse industry experts and dedicated members committed to providing high-quality rental housing throughout Southern Maine.”

Did you catch the bit about providing rental housing as rental housing providers? Oh, good. Just checking. The group is made up of the same wealthy and power-hungry local landowners and fascists who’ve been pricing working people out of the city for decades. 

But, hey! At least there’s no militarism, right? I mean, unless you count the Portland Police Department’s armored truck, mine-resistant vehicle, military-grade weaponry and $15 million annual budget. 

Anyway, vote No on A!

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller. He is also a contributor to the bestselling How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling, from The Moth. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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