— Taylor Griggs contributed to this story.
Showing a remarkable mix of courage, anger, and hope, nearly 200 people stood in the lanes of SE 26th on both sides of Powell Blvd Wednesday afternoon during rush-hour. They formed a human-protected bike lane as part of a protest organized by Bike Loud PDX, The Street Trust, and Oregon Walks meant to keep pressure on the Oregon Department of Transportation to make the intersection safer and to remember the deadly collision that cut Sarah Pliner’s life short just nine days ago.
Wearing bright green vests and shirts, these volunteers brought humanity to a car-centric streetscape and held the space for 30 minutes mostly in silence. Their mere presence made more noise than yelling ever could.
Outgoing Oregon Walks Executive Director and incoming Metro Councilor Ashton Simpson stood just feet from where Pliner’s body came to rest. When the signal on the southeast corner of the intersection turned red, he moved in front of car drivers, stared directly through their windshield and held a large sign that read, “Human Bike Box.”
Estelle Morley came to the protest with her friends Jean and Dave Gray. Morley was critically injured after being hit by a drunk driver while she was biking in Portland last summer. She said coming to this event was nerve-wracking considering what she’s been through, but she wants to see change on our streets.
“There’s not enough urgency,” Morley said, as she stood in the street using a cane for balance.
Dave Gray said the experience of waiting to see if Morley would survive the crash was horrifying. He thinks Portland has become a more dangerous place to ride a bike in recent years.
“It’s supposedly a very good bike city,” he told me. “But I think road rage has become a lot worse during the pandemic.”
One attendee, Meg Niemi, was wearing an eye-grabbing shirt that read ‘my kid got hit by a car on Powell Blvd.’ In August, her 15-year-old son was hit while biking on SE 45th and Powell and suffered life-threatening injuries. He is recovering and just went back to school. Niemi said they’re lucky he survived, and hopes Pliner’s tragic death will result in something tangible.
“It’s so unfortunate that there’s been this death. But I think we’re at a moment where some change could happen.”
The trauma of Pliner’s death has reverberated throughout the community. One group of people immediately impacted were those who witnessed the crash, which included hundreds of Cleveland High School students on their lunch break, employees of the nearby Burgerville and people who live in the surrounding neighborhood.
Jacob Scaia lives on 26th Ave right next to the scene of the crash. He was one of the first people on the scene when Pliner was killed. “Every time an 18-wheeler or a bicyclist comes down here and I see them, I relive it,” Scaia told me. “If I hear a loud noise, I’ll jump off the couch and look out the window.”
Scaia has some ideas for what ODOT could do to make this intersection safer, especially considering its proximity to Cleveland High School. “Remove trucks from 26th Ave,” Scaia said. He also suggested turning the block of 26th in front of Powell into a carfree zone.
At one point during the protest the driver of a large, 53-foot semi-truck pulling a trailer — almost identical to the one that killed Pliner — rumbled north on 26th past the long line of protestors. Heads turned and tracked its movement as it made the same type of sweeping right turn onto Powell Blvd that we think led to last Tuesday’s tragedy It was a sobering reminder of the dangers still present at this intersection. (Note: Watch the truck take the turn in the video above.)
Another reminder of what we’re up against came in the form of a few people who yelled mean things out of their car windows or threateningly revved their car engines as they passed. But given the mood of many these days and the in-your-face nature of the protest, I was actually relieved there weren’t more, and more serious, altercations.
That might have something to do with the sheer number of people that turned out. There’s always strength in numbers. Those at the protest felt it, and those in their cars did too.
Now comes the part of waiting to see if those numbers translate into real, substantive change. This is the third protest we’ve covered at this intersection since 2015. If our leaders’ actions speak louder than their words, it should be our last.
Full gallery below:
— If you want to stay engaged and help make a difference, attend the Community Forum at Cleveland High School next Thursday, October 20th. The Street Trust is also hosting a community information session on October 19th where they’ll help you with the policy and political background you need to prep for the forum.