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Compulsory earthquake warnings are racist, Portland NAACP says

Compulsory earthquake warnings are racist, Portland NAACP says
Protesters in Portland, Oregon have rallied against a city policy demanding that owners of brick houses post warnings of potential collapse in case of an earthquake. Civil rights activists say the order targets black people.

Dozens of activists led by Portland's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took to the streets on Saturday to protest against the city policy that came into effect this week.

The policy, adopted in October, orders owners of old brick buildings to put up a sign that reads: "This is an unreinforced masonry building. Unreinforced masonry buildings may be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake."

City officials say the policy is aimed at raising awareness about the structures' vulnerability to earthquakes, with experts pointing out that Portland is a high-risk area and may see a potent earthquake in the next 50 years. Some 1,600 aging buildings are estimated to fall under the new policy.

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However, Portland's black rights activists argue that the policy would drive the remnants of the city's black population, concentrated in the north and northeast of the city, out. Since investors and banks would likely be discouraged by "black marks," the current owners of the buildings would be ultimately force to sell them to developers, who then would remodel the buildings, hiking up the cost of living in the neighborhoods, the NAACP believes.

The new policy "exacerbates a long history of systemic and structural betrayals of trust and policies of displacement, demolition, and dispossession predicated on classism, racism, and white supremacy," it said in a statement on Thursday.

The requirement also drew anger from renters and Portland's music industry, with the group representing the owners of music parlors saying that some 30 venues might have to be shut down due to the policy.

The city authorities have brushed off the concerns, with Alex Cousins, a spokesman for the city's Bureau of Development Services, saying that there is nothing in the policy that "attaches an encumbrance or lien."

Speaking at the rally, Rev. E.D. Mondaine, president of Portland NAACP, pointed to the city's ignominious record of discriminating against its black population, arguing that the policy championed by its authorities is essentially history repeating itself.

"We will no longer allow the same tactics. We will no longer allow these things to remove us from our community. We want action," Mondaine said.

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The policy will be implemented in stages. Most of the buildings are supposed to post quake warnings by March 1, while churches and other non-profit organizations are due to comply by 2020. In addition to that, the warnings have to be distributed to the residents of the buildings.

"It speaks to our houses of worship and everything about the black presence in the north-northeast area," Mondaine said.

Gentrification displaced some 10,000, mainly people of color with low incomes, from historically black neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000, with the "urban renewals" continuing into the first decade of the 21st century.

Before that, decades of redlining policies by banks discouraged home ownership in north and northeast Portland.

The city has been often described as the "whitest city of America," with African-American populations accounting for only 6.3 percent of the total, according to the 2010 census numbers.

To rectify the ills of the past, Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc. (PCRI) and the Portland Housing Bureau have been implementing a specifically designed N/NE Preference Policy, informally known as the "right of return," which gives preference to housing applications from displaced former residents of the area or to their descendants.

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