This Marine Is Fighting to Save Portland From Ruin

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Marine veteran Gabe Johnson is on a mission to save Portland, Oregon, from lawlessness.

Johnson and several others founded the Coalition to Save Portland, which is standing with the Portland Police Bureau and calling on local and state leaders to end nearly five months of riots and restore order.

Johnson revisits the show to talk about how police are being treated in Portland, the safety situation in the city, and why he felt compelled to help launch the Coalition to Save Portland. 

We also read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a young Navy veteran who received some life-changing news last spring after being homeless for nearly three years.

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Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript. 

Virginia Allen: I am joined by Gabe Johnson, Marine veteran and Portland local. Gabe, welcome back to “The Daily Signal Podcast.”


Gabe Johnson: Hey, good to see you. Thank you. Thank you for having me back.

Allen: So, we had you on, gosh, I think it was about six weeks ago. On September 1st you joined us. That was just shortly after Aaron Danielson was shot in Portland.

You live only a couple blocks away from the [federal] courthouse. And the last time we spoke, you really expressed your frustration, over what you’ve been seeing month after month. You’ve just been watching the riots and the looting and how it’s been affecting your city.

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So can you give us just a status update? What, if anything, has changed in Portland over the last six weeks?

Johnson: No, nothing’s really changed in the sense of there being a resolution or even the city coming forward and stopping some of the nightly riots that we see, which is generally in different pockets of the town, but still going on on a nightly basis, some more violent than others.

Shootings are becoming more prevalent, whether they are shootings into buildings or a restaurant, which just happened over the last weekend.

We’re seeing the Oregon Heritage Museum was recently vandalized, broken into on the Indigenous day of, I want to say rising or something along those terms. But just another, to me, more taking over of people of color.

It really should have been about a really focus on their heritage and what they bring to our area and really kind of celebrating them. Well, instead, it’s turned into another reason just [to] riot and shoot.

So coming out of that, one of my friends actually sent me a video. He hasn’t made it public and there’s been a lot of news agencies here locally who have been asking him to release it.

But he lives right across the park from the Heritage Museum. And literally he’s filming two people going by and this man jumped on his balcony and told him he couldn’t film them and attempted to take his camera. And he threw it inside.

I’m asking him, “Hey man, why don’t you just let me share it for you?” But he’s afraid for his life because he travels a lot.

So the climate hasn’t changed. I think it’s gotten more violent. You’re not seeing it as much on the news, but I think they’re more emboldened just to come out and just do what they want and to attack those who oppose them or even are just innocent bystanders that want to film.

Allen: And what are the locals in Portland saying? I mean, do people that live in Portland, that call Portland home, are they OK with what’s going on?

Johnson: People are really frustrated, but people are really scared. And so fear takes over and they don’t want to say anything. We’re really trying to make it safe for people to come out and let us be their voice for them. But that message takes a lot of reinforcement. So what do they do? That’s a good question.

Allen: So tell me a little bit about what you all are doing, because you mentioned kind of being on those front lines and saying to your friend, “Hey, let me share that video,” or creating a space for people to be able to be honest and have honest conversations.

So what are the initiatives that yourself and others are taking to say, “Hey, we actually need to do something if Portland’s going to survive”?

Johnson: Right. So when I say we, I’m talking about the Coalition to Save Portland, and I will say that we just are officially registered as a PAC here in Oregon as of yesterday.

We know that change is going to take legislation. It’s going to take representation in office. And so being a grassroots foundation, we have to start from somewhere, but we’re starting at a time when we’re really needed. And so there’s a lot of open arms to engage with us because we’re very inclusive of everyone in Portland.

I will say everyone in Oregon because the problem that’s happening in Portland isn’t just going to be resolved in Portland. It’s going to take the whole state coming together and really voting for change. When I say the state, that starts at the governor.

So we’re here for the long haul. We’re not afraid.

At this point, everyone knows who I am. I’m our director. And so I have another cohort who’s standing out in the public and a business owner and she’s got a really strong voice.

So the more and more people that join us, the more and more, it’s kind of like a safe haven for business owners and the like just to say, “Hey, enough’s enough.” But it has to start with someone. So here we are.

Allen: Yeah. Gabe, I love your boldness, the fact that you’re saying, “No, this starts with me and I can make a difference and I can bring about change.”

In your mind, how important is Portland? I mean, if the situation in Portland doesn’t get under control, what does that mean for the rest of America?

Johnson: I think that over the next couple of weeks … people really should take a look at Portland and see what’s happening. There could be a major power shift. I don’t want to talk about either party, what that might look like, but there could be a power shift.

I think things can get a lot uglier in the sense that we’re going to see [the] possibility of a lot of Portland police officers choosing to take their profession to other cities around the Portland metro area or other states. It’s really that bad.

And I don’t think we need to re-imagine our way of life. And that’s what’s really being challenged here. And I think if it changes here, then you’re going to start see a little bit of change in other cities that are like-minded.

So this really is an effort to save the soul of our city. And I often tell people that we’re not going to stop. We’re going to fight and we’re in this for the long haul. And it really took a lot of soul-searching to really say this is what I’m going to do. I didn’t have any idea that this is what I’d be doing six months ago, but it’s that important. It’s that important.

Allen: I know one of the initiatives that you all have been very focused on is supporting the police.

The last time we spoke, yourself and some others who are involved with the Coalition to Save Portland were raising money through a fundraiser selling T-shirts from Nine Line Apparel and you were taking those funds and you were going to give them to the police chaplains in Portland. And I know recently you just delivered those funds to them.

Can you tell me just a little bit about what their reaction was and what that was like to be saying with, not just words, but with actions, “Portland police, we support you.”?

Johnson: Yeah. I think we’ve talked about it before. It really comes from knowing that those guys are on the front lines of all this day in and day out and just really wanted to do something to assist them, but assist them in a way of taking care of their mental health.

I think that since the chaplains, they’re out there constantly making sure that these guys are OK, whether they’re in station or out on patrol or whatnot, that was who was most deserving of any type of fundraising efforts.

So we raised $2,500, which I wish it could have been more, but they were really, really glad to see, I think, that there’s people in Portland that actually still care. So more so the money is just the genuine gratitude of, “Gosh, you care. And thank you so much.” There was a lot of smiles, a few tears. It was really heartfelt.

From that, we just met over there on Monday with the Portland Community Engagement Division. And so they’re made up of five officers that are very engaged out in the community.

One of the things that kind of really touched me, kind of really hit home with me was a story that was, and I’ll just call him Officer K, because he doesn’t want his name out there because he’s already getting death threats just for being a police officer, and this is a black officer.

And so we’re talking about the inner North and Northeast Portland, which used to be the home for the black community here in Portland, because now, really, there are silos of blacks. There’s no community.

And so if you were from here and I were to say, “Hey, do you know where Alberta Street is,” of course everybody knows Alberta Street. And everybody knows the staple of restaurants that used to be there and stores and whatnot.

Alberta [had] been gentrified back in the ’90s. And so you’ve had a shift of this community. It’s not a black community, it’s a white community.

So this officer was driving to his grandparents’ house, who happen to still be on Alberta. And he’s like, “Hey, you wouldn’t imagine the things that I have to endure day after day after day driving through Northeast Portland.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he’s like, “Yeah, Alberta.” And I’m like, “OK, well, Alberta’s a white neighborhood.” Right? And so I’m thinking it’s a lot of I would say more liberal people live on the Alberta.

And so he’s like, “Well, last week I’m driving down the street and people are making monkey sounds and making monkey advances and telling me that, ‘Hey, you don’t belong here. You need to leave this neighborhood.’”

And I’m thinking to myself a lot of these people are still the people that are out that are protesting about racial injustice, racial equality. When is it OK to be racist to a black police officer?

Because he’s a police officer, it’s like you can just do anything you want, you can say anything that you want. These are people, right? These are our people that have to live in the community, that have to serve in the community, but yet they’re getting death threats for doing their job. And that’s not right.

Allen: Wow. Yeah. … How can we expect an individual that’s literally putting their life on the line to want to continue to do that day after day when all that they’re hearing from their community is verbal abuse and they’re not feeling valued or appreciated?

Johnson: Yeah. What you’re seeing right now is a real crying out for help and support, a genuine crying out from the Portland Police Department, because they know what could possibly be coming.

And I think no police on the streets, or a very limited amount of police on the streets, is going to greatly affect the livability of Portland, and generally there.

I’ve never seen such a outpour of, “Come join us, come network with us, let us connect you to other people in the city” than you’re seeing … from the Portland Police Department because it’s just not coming from City Hall.

Allen: Was there any animosity that you were aware of toward the police before May when all the rioting and looting really started?

Johnson: I think in this country, people are raised to fear police. And it’s something that I thought about with my own kids.

I taught them that police are the ones that you need to actually run to and not run away from and how they interact because I think it’s very important to know how to navigate situations and knowing that, “Hey, these people are in a high-stress environment all the time.” So when you interact with them, just give them a little bit of extra kindness because generally that will bring them back down.

But you really do have to know how to interact with people. A firefighter comes running out of a building that’s on fire, he’s not going to be calm when he interacts with you. Right? He’s going be running right past you.

That’s how these guys are. They’re going from call to call to call. So I think there’s a little bit of responsibility just to know how to navigate whatever situation that you’re in. So I don’t know if I answered your question, but we have some responsibilities also.

Allen: Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s such a big deal, Gabe, that you’ve even sat down and had those conversations with your kids to explain when they put that uniform on and carry that badge, there’s a position that they’re put in that is highly stressful and we should be aware of that as citizens and run to them, like you say, in situations.

So how is the Coalition to Save Portland, how are you all planning to continue to really stand with the police in Portland?

Johnson: I would say not only with the police, but really stand with everyone who can impact the livability of our city.

The reason we’re really focusing on the police department out of the gate is because you can’t do anything with lawlessness on your street, right?

We all have to have a sense of security to even bring back commerce to the downtown area, because the downtown still is suffering from a lack of return to normal, what can be normal in this time.

Other parts of the city are starting to bounce back, but the soul of Portland is still dead. And that comes with public safety.

So public safety first and foremost has to be addressed. And once we do that, or as we’re doing that, and as we feel that we’re making a difference, then we can actually start focusing on some of the social issues.

But until the rioting, the shooting, people getting beat in the street, until that stops, how do we move forward?

Allen: Yeah. Your apartment building is only two or three blocks away from the courthouse. So when you walk outside, do you feel safe?

Johnson: I feel safe, I’m fortunate, through my life experience, through my ability. But my neighbors don’t feel safe. My friends don’t feel safe. I’ve gotten a little bit of hardened over the last couple months. …

Over the weekend, I’m walking to Buffalo Wild Wings with my daughter and her boyfriend. And I happened to have a “Stand for Justice” T-shirt on. And we walked past some of the Black Lives Matter protesters down there. And of course, then they start yelling at us. “Hey, are you guys Proud Boys?” And then I turn around and they’re like, “Oh, it’s you.” So they let us walk on. It shouldn’t be that way. …

My best friend, he hasn’t been downtown in four months. He’s just like, “Hey, Gabe. Come to my house. I’m not coming downtown.” And I’m like, “You’ve lived here your whole life.” Yeah. People still don’t feel safe.

Allen: Do you have hope for your city that things can change and that you all, like your mission to save Portland, that that is something that can happen and that your city can be saved?

Johnson: We’re not going to stop until it changes. And so that’s something that, again, it took a lot of soul-searching, not only on my part, but our founding members to really say, “We know that this is a multiyear effort.”

And so we’re just getting started, but we’re building steam. And until we can bring about change here in Portland, again, through legislation, elected office, then we won’t stop.

Allen: Gabe, really appreciate you joining us once again on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” And thank you for standing up for freedom in your city. Really appreciate it.

Johnson: Hey, thank you for having me on again.

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