Hogwarts Meets Portland

by Jacqueline Jannotta

Funny how fiction and reality often merge. Each reflects the other, no matter how much time passes between when a story was written and when a person interprets it. Such was the case last week when my family decided to re-watch the Harry Potter series from our Covid-free basement — only a few miles from where the Black Lives Matter protests were taking place in downtown Portland. Federal agents, sent uninvited by The White House, had been clashing with protestors, using force against citizens exercising their rights to assembly and free speech. This created an unsettling backdrop to The Order of the Phoenix movie, which took on a whole new meaning. 

Given the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter, the basics are familiar to most people. But to recap the fifth book and film in the famed series: the Ministry of Magic refuses to acknowledge that the Dark Lord Voldemort is rising again. They send the abusive Dolores Umbridge to Hogwarts school, forcing Harry and the other wizard students to form an “army” in order to teach themselves the Defense Against the Dark Arts. The kids become a motley crew of resistors preparing to save the world from evil, which all plays out in the later films. 

As the movie got underway on our screen, we could hear the rhythmic pulse of helicopters heading toward downtown Portland. Their blades cutting through the wind evoked the winged Thestrals that fly through the air in the film. In the real world, conflict pressed on between fed-up protesters and federal soldiers sent by an unbridled president to “keep law and order.” In the film, instead of protestors fighting for respect being shielded by a cobbled-together “Wall of Moms,” a ragtag group of wizards is boldly determined to keep Voldemort from gaining strength. The fictional characters wave their wands and cast spells in defense, while the Portland protesters possess only helmets, goggles, and masks to protect them from teargas and rubber bullets. 

Both on the screen and in present-day 3D reality, the characters navigate the same mix of fear, anger, and determination. Both worlds are messy, complicated, and filled with twists and turns. And both hold a story ultimately resolved by the courage of its protagonists.

Our world doesn’t have Gryffindors or Slytherins, and we don’t experience Death Eaters or Lord Voldemort, exactly. But like the JK Rowling series, where one faction fights for “pureblood” wizards to rule over everyone else, our country has its own war regarding race that has raged on for far too long. Just like the struggle within the Harry Potter stories to create harmony and equality between Muggles, Mudbloods, and Wizards, we in the real world undergo similar battles amongst ourselves. And while those struggles are sinfully too familiar, we live in a moment where change is in the air. 

Something is different this time. There is a willingness to sit with the discomfort and the messiness in a way I haven’t seen before.

More people are trying to understand the Black Lives Matter protests. More conversations are happening despite uncomfortable awkwardness when talking about race and privilege. In the past, I’ve noticed defensiveness, ego protection, and a lot of running and hiding by white people, whether online or offline. This time, for example, in the Wall of Moms Facebook group I had joined, there was a greater willingness between BIPOC and white people to create an alliance. And despite the organization’s messy formation, a group arose overnight that drew hundreds of women who put their bodies on the line. Many were hit with rubber bullets and tear-gassed, yet they still kept coming, undeterred, even by the threat of a deadly virus. 

There’s also a greater degree of stepping up happening. It’s aided by the tools we have to organize, to fund, to spread the word. And it’s bolstered by bravery. Even this viral video of a man holding a Black Lives Matter sign in a southern town (considered the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan) shows the unexpected person offering support amidst a steady stream of verbal abuse.   

We may not be living in a well-crafted novel, but we are following our own classic story arc. Whether we deal with inner-conflict or fight the antagonists who threaten us, more of us are rising to the occasion. And God knows we have plenty of opportunities to get our courage on as we face the racism festering at our country’s core, a current leader desperate to hold onto his power, and a pandemic that threatens our way of life. We have the opportunity and obligation to save our own version of Hogwarts.

Like the “army” of young wizards in the film, we are learning what “spells” work; we are making mistakes; we are failing and getting better at the same time. And we are sticking with it — whether it’s seen as a war between good and evil, or as I prefer to view it, the messy process of re-birth. 

When you see a movie again years later, it shines in a new way. And considering this moment in history, Harry Potter resonates loud and clear even in a world filled with only Muggles. Here in Portland, we don’t have enchanted potions or bewitching spells, yet magic still happens, as it can anywhere. The morning after we watched The Order of the Phoenix, our governor announced that the militarized DHS agents were leaving. The following night peaceful protests resumed, for the first time in weeks.

Because I like to infuse my blog posts with more than the words on the screen, I seek out thematically relevant nonprofits to support. Learn more about a wonderful Portland-centric group that empowers people to advocate for equality in Becoming People Who Build a Better Community.