Summer 2020 Protests in Portland, Oregon: Teaching Music and Social Justice

By Aaron Beck


This essay examines the role that music played in the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Portland, Oregon. The author recounts his experiences marching and singing and describes the impact the protests had on his course, “Music and Social Justice,” which he taught for the first time in the Fall 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The essay comments on course content, describing the trajectory of this course and the juxtaposition of music and art in tracing justice movements related to equity and climate justice. The essay includes original photography and artwork completed in summer 2020.

As soon as she could, my daughter, who attends Cleveland High School in Portland, Oregon, marched with her friends across the city to protest racial injustice after the death of George Floyd. A wave of young people laid down on the bridge and became part of what some call “Black Spring.”Sheryl Estrada, “A ‘Black Spring’ of Peaceful Protests Beginning in Baltimore,” “Black Spring” situates the movement for justice in a global context. For this see, Robert D. G. Kelly, “Thug Nation: On State Violence and Disposabilty, in Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton (United Kingdom: Verso Books, 2016), 18. And so, seeing their children in the streets, mothers, fathers, caregivers, all kinds of groups marched to the Justice Center.

Figure 1: Screenshot, Facebook call for moms.

This essay examines those nights, the music, the community, and the privilege I felt as a White, able-bodied parent from a first-hand perspective, given that I joined the Wall of Moms with my gay pride flag on my back and my goggles and gas mask for when the police nightly attacked the peaceful protesters.Catalina, Gaitán, “Wall of Moms demonstrator, teenage girl sue feds alleging excessive force during Portland protests,” Oregonlive, June 23, 2021, I had marched in pride parades in NYC in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis to promote visibility and protested in downtown Portland against excessive use of force by the Portland police. This was the first time I was encouraged to bring protection for my body for a protest.

Figure 2: Preparing for the protest, July 20, 2021

I was scheduled to teach a course called “Music and Social Justice” in the fall at Lewis & Clark College, and it was important to me to protest and see first-hand what role music played in the demonstrations. The evenings, with their cool Oregon breezes, were full of music and chanting, and crowds began to number in the thousands before it fell apart due to a combination of police aggressions and infighting in the Wall of Moms, the group coming apart as fast as it became international news.Dani Blum, “The Moms are Here: ‘Wall of Moms’ groups organize nationwide,” New York Times, July 27, 2020,

The confluence of many white Moms (and Dads) brought the media and more attention to BLM protests in Portland. Organizers reminded us to be cognizant—“Don’t take selfies,” “don’t take attention away from the moms of color.” Neighbors and friends came to protests whom I have never seen before. There was a kind of “moms will take care of things” vibe.  People were super prepared, with snacks, water and bandaids.

We were instructed that, if asked to speak to the media, we should redirect the attention to group members from Don’t Shoot Portland who had been at the Justice Center fighting for equal rights long before this Moms group arrived. Committed to expressing our disgust for the murders of innocent people at the hands of our government and supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement, we stood in yellow T-shirts as the Facebook posts instructed us to do, many of us holding BLM signs or taping “BLM” on our yellow shirts. We listened to impassioned speeches; in a call-and-response fashion, when prompted with “Whose lives matter?” we responded with “Black Lives Matter” and “Say their names,” and chanted the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. 

We chanted “no justice, no peace”—the same words I chanted while marching in Portland after the election of the last president in November 2016.  At that time, I got hit in the face with a rubber bullet while peacefully protesting on the sidewalks near Pioneer Square. I made a formal complaint of excessive force to the Portland Police Department, which was quickly dismissed, even though I happened to be filming myself marching, capturing the moment the bullet hit my cheek.I have fought for human rights in my life, marching for Pride since the 1980s and doing what I can to further equal rights: For my work with same sex adoptions in Italy see, Casey Parks, “Portland couple at the center of Italian same-sex adoption,” Oregonlive, February 9, 2016, dispute I knew the history of the Portland Police department using excessive force, and that remained in my mind when I prepared to march.Jonathan Levinson, “After Portland police used force 6,000 times, federal attorneys crack down,” OPB, Don’t Shoot Portland, is a black-led organization that provides referrals for legal services. See  We protected ourselves as if we were going into combat. Moms wore gas masks, helmets, and chest protectors. Below is a drawing I made that day:

Figure 3: Aaron Beck, Black Lives Matter, pencil on paper, July 20, 2020

Some held flowers and leis. There was a kind of musicality from the time we met at Salmon Street mountain around 8:30 PM. Indeed, I listened to the environment as if I were listening to music. This encompassed both the “music”—drumming, chanting and singing—and the soundscape. People greeted each other warmly, though we stayed far away from each other, and you could hear the sounds of conversations spoken through smiles behind masks. This was a new sound after months of lockdown. In our music department, we had read studies about choirs as super-spreaders—especially the deaths in Skagit County, Washington after a choir practice. I came to the protest knowing some of the science, feeling a bit more leery about singing together in a big group (concerns that most Portlanders did not have about singing and chanting and COVID).L Hamner, P Dubbel P, and I Capron, et al, “High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice — Skagit County, Washington, March 2020,” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020; 69:606–610. DOI: For more on the risks of protesting during COVID see Jennifer Cobbina, Ashleigh LaCourse, Erika J. Brooke, and Soma Chaudhuri, “Protesting During a Pandemic: Narratives on Risk Taking and Motivation to Participating in the 2020 March on Washington,” Crime & Delinquency 67, no. 8 (July 2021), 1195–1220. Around 8:45 pm the leaders with megaphones directed the protesters to move to Front Street and march behind them.

There was a kind of musicality from the time we met…

Figure 4: Leaving to march up SW Salmon Street, July 24, 2020

Noticeably absent was police protection—by this I mean police escorts opening the roads for us. No one was there to stop traffic at intersections as we made our way down Salmon street west towards the Justice Center. I was surprised by the lack of police presence, because in all the prior protests I had been to in Portland, there was a police presence. As I learned, the police would arrive later, around 10:00 PM.  I usually left when they arrived, because that was when the violence typically erupted.

People banged on drums and we chanted their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubry. As a musician, I kept my ear out for the sound of loud diesel trucks or motorcycles. These sounds were threatening because they indicated the possibility of vehicles ramming into protesters. Even amid the chanting. There was no one to stop someone from running us over. One motorcycle screamed through us and smashed into a row of bicycles set up by citizens to cordon off our path. Though some bicycles were damaged, thankfully, no one was injured. 

Figure 5: Aaron Beck, Drawing of protest route for Wall of Moms. We met each evening at the Salmon Street Fountain and walked west up SW Salmon Street.

Once we reached 3rd Ave, we headed north. We could hear people who were standing on the steps of the Justice Center begin to cheer for us. They had been there for a while saying their names. Once we arrived, we linked arms and were led to the front of the crowd, which this night included thousands of people. We were led to the steps of the Justice Center, beneath the activists who welcomed us, and we chanted their names.For the work work of local Portland black and trans activists including, Demetria Hester, Mac Snif and Simona Bearcub see, It was loud. 

We were close together, all wondering, all in awe. This was a lockdown in Portland. And we sang with the organizers. Probably the most moving time for me was singing the African American gospel song “We Shall Overcome” with the lights of our phones, swaying, together, close together.The song has been the subject of a copyright case in recent years. Edward Helmore, “Civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome freed from copyright,” “ I was singing with people I did not know. It was the first time I had left my house to be in a group during the COVID pandemic. We sang it loud through our masks into the Oregon night. People played the drums. As night fell, the chanting seemed to decrescendo and I felt my fear crescendo thinking of the imminent arrival of police and federal officers. They lurked, hanging on to the sides of trucks. I had seen them on my bike ride downtown. Each night around 10:00 pm people dressed in all black began to cross the Portland bridges from east to west, and the mood changed.

After the singing and the chanting, the crowd moved back south down 3rd Avenue, and the Wall of Moms linked arms and stood in front of the fences to defend the protesters from the police who were in the building ready to pounce, ready to start shooting their munitions. We shared a strong bond that the protesters are all someone’s child. Some Moms were there with their children. The chanting continued—the mood got tense. I jumped on my bicycle and left around 10:15 pm. I was spared the barrage of teargas and canisters, rubber bullets, that hit the protesters. The sonic landscape would be equally terrifying: a mix of booms from rubber bullets, shouts to move back, cries when a protester was injured and continued recorded announcements on the loud speakers that this was not a lawful gathering. Music on the radios continued, interrupted by the sounds of firecrackers. We would be back the next evening, and the music would continue. All the protests have a soundtrack, live-chanting their names, singing together. At the beginning, it sounds like people beating drums and dancing and chanting; at the end, it is people fleeing for their safety. The radios played, and the drums kept beating in the background. 

This was how I experienced music and social justice in Portland, Oregon, in July 2020. I included these experiences and my work in LGBTQIA+ justice in my new syllabus for “Music and Social Justice” in the fall of 2020. How did it contribute to my teaching Music and Social Justice? Below is the description of my class in Fall 2020:

Syllabus Description: This course will explore the intersection of music and social justice. Drawing on historical and contemporary examples of performers engaged in struggles for social change, we will examine how and why creative actors participate in political life. In addition to surveying the role of the performing arts in social movements, including Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ equality, environmental justice, and national liberation, we will discuss music-centered case studies, each one foregrounding specific aesthetic practices, repertories, and media, as well as artistic alliances and frictions. We will also learn practical musicianship skills, musical terms and creativity.

The idea was to create what is known as a “music appreciation” class based on the premise of social justice, rather than “the great masters.” A “great masters” class usually focuses on the repertory rather than the culture and class in which the music was produced, while also typically telling the story of music composition for elite European White circles. I divided the course into these sections, each of which was two to three weeks long (or 4 to 5 class periods):

  • Theoretical and Historical Background
  • American Civil Rights Movement in song and art
  • LGBTQIA+ rights and music and art
  • Climate justice and music 
  • The music of national liberation movements

I framed the course around BLM, beginning and ending with readings about music and BLM. We studied many images, especially public art such as murals.

Figure 6: Mural portrait of George Floyd by Eme Street Art in Mauerpark (Berlin, Germany). This mural situates BLM as global movement, as evidenced earlier by the use of the words “Black Spring”

I attach the syllabus here:

Here is an example of what the students examined on the from the first day of class:

Aug 31 Introduction to the course: course content and expectations:

  1. Stacey Abrams interview 44:25, fostering classroom community
  2. Black Lives Matter manifesto. Read BLM “What we believe” together. Note on shared google doc what we hear.
  3. Kevin Moye, “Racism Denial: A Lesson in Gaslighting”
  4. Protests in Portland, Summer 2020, Dr. Markisha Smith, Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, 9:00 – 13:00
  5. “From Lil Baby to T-Pain: 10 New Black Lives Matter Protest Songs That You Have to Hear”
  6. Introduction to a virtual keyboard
  7. John Lewis, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation”

Students were required to learn the songs we studied, either to sing them or try to pick them out on their virtual keyboards. Among them were Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.” Students responded to readings and listening in journals that they submitted to me four times during the semester. Their final project was the production of an original music video on what they wanted to express about social justice. I think that if I had been given this topic, I would have taken lots of photos about Portland and the protests and set them to a Tracy Chapman song! We studied Ru Paul and the liberation of the body of gender binary restrictions. Like the early queer marches in New York, when we marched for our lives and we were visible to save lives, the Portland protests brought many queer people out as we were together again marching for our lives. The Wall of Moms crumbled and we continue to fight to bring justice to all. 

The impact on my teaching was profound in that my experience protesting in July 2020 felt somber. On one hand it was important to see people protesting who had never been to a protest before, yet, here we were knowing the ache and loss of moms suffering. My teaching music is one way I contribute to the long march towards justice. I think that my students felt my authenticity and my devotion and I hope were inspired to fight for more reforms. Each student composed a new song on the subject of social justice and an original video to accompany it. They shared their work on the last day of class. The music videos capture the power that a sonic and visual response can have on themselves in making the video, and on others by seeing them.  

About the Author:

Aaron Beck is Professor of Music at Lewis & Clark College. He has published widely on the subject of Italian medieval music, art and literature. His artwork has been published in literary journals, including Stone Canoe and Beyond Words. He studied painting in Bologna.