Reflections on police violence, PDX edition

On June 12th, an employee of the Portland Police Bureau shot one of my friends in the leg at point-blank range with a rubber bullet. She was offering her services as a medic to the protestors assembled outside the Justice Center that night, so when the police ordered the crowd to disperse she hung back, anticipating a hail of injuries that would require treatment. By her account, the police issued two verbal warnings to vacate the area before deploying flash bangs and rubber bullets.

A word about rubber bullets: they are a form of “less-lethal ammunition,” weapons designed to incapacitate rather than kill their target through blunt-force trauma.

A word about blunt-force trauma: it can absolutely kill you.

Regarding the use of rubber bullets as a crowd-control measure, the United Nations advises that they “should generally only be used in direct fire with the aim of striking the lower abdomen or legs of a violent individual and only with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.” My friend was clearly marked as a medic and her hands were raised. One wonders what imminent threat she posed to armed police officers outfitted in riot gear.

She and enough other demonstrators were injured that they were forced to retreat away from the Justice Center. After being shot, my friend continued to aid other injured people before going to the ER herself. There the staff assessed her and referred her to a sports medicine doctor for a suspected torn fibularis longus. To an able-bodied person this injury would be a painful inconvenience; to my friend, who lives with a disabling chronic pain condition, it has been severely debilitating. As of this writing, she has graduated from using crutches to walking with a cane.

Further violence erupted after a peaceful demonstration at Revolution Hall on Juneteenth, when PPB fired non-lethal rounds at the heads of protesters assembled outside the Justice Center. At least one person sustained a serious head injury. My friend relayed, “One of the medics reported seeing a scalp wound so severe it peeled back all the skin. She saw skull.” While these assaults represent an escalating pattern of brutality enacted by PPB against the citizens of Portland, they are not a new phenomenon, nor are they a defensible response to the actions of unruly protestors. Rather, they are just a few examples of the Portland Police Bureau’s long and well-documented history of white supremacist enablement and wholesale violence.

In 2017, PPB flanked members of the alt-right group Patriot Prayer during the “March for Free Speech” through the Montavilla neighborhood, later shuttling them home aboard TriMet buses. In 2019, a public records request uncovered friendly text messages between Lt. Jeff Niiya and known white supremacist agitator Joey Gibson that included advice on how to avoid arrest. At the time Niiya was head of the team that patrolled protests, raising concerns about ongoing collusion between PPB and the alt-right. The day before white supremacist Jeremy Christian fatally stabbed two men aboard a MAX train and critically injured a third, he assaulted Demetria Hester with a Gatorade bottle. Portland police officers took a statement from Hester who identified Christian as her assailant, but they failed to arrest him. Portland Copwatch maintains a running tally of individuals shot to death by members of the Portland Police Bureau, including seventeen-year-old Quanice Hayes who was shot three times while surrendering to officer Andrew Hearst. (Note the number of names on this list that also feature designations such as “houseless,” “mentally ill,” and “developmentally disabled.”)

To Portland’s Black community, most of this is not new information. But to white Portlanders, it’s information many find difficult to reconcile with how we’re taught to view the police: as heroes who selflessly sacrifice their personal safety for the greater good – our greater good.

Depending on how closely you’ve been following the protests in downtown Portland – and, more importantly, where you’ve been getting your information – you’ve likely seen one of two characterizations: If Facebook is your primary news source, and particularly if you take what you read in any Oregon Live comments section at face value, the protests start out peaceful but are continually derailed by the actions of a few anarchists/agitators/”antifas,” forcing the police to intervene for the sake of public safety. In this version of events, extra emphasis is placed on looting, vandalism, and defacement of property, and the obvious need for PPB to protect our city.

Twitter tells a different story that by now has developed into a predictable nightly pattern: the Portland Police Bureau sends a few tweets advising their followers that they want the protests to remain peaceful and cautioning everyone to obey the law. Then, almost invariably, within a few hours they declare the assembly unlawful and the crowd is dispersed with some combination of flash bangs, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other measures ordinarily reserved for actual riots. The difference is that Twitter also gives you the protestors’ side of the story: the one in which the police instruct everyone to leave but close off every available exit path; shove, bludgeon, and pepper spray journalists with press ID; or shoot an unarmed medic with her hands raised at point-blank range.

These are not the practices of an institution concerned with community care. This is the behavior of bullies whose profession both encourages them to abuse their authority and insulates them from the consequences of those abuses via the “blue wall of silence.”

Portlanders who’ve witnessed PPB’s repeated acts of violence firsthand have demanded action, calling for the police bureau to be defunded or even dissolved. And though Mayor Ted Wheeler has called the numerous assaults on journalists “extremely concerning,” his response to public criticism of his police force has mostly consisted of feel-good platitudes about seeing and hearing his constituents and recognizing the need for change. He acknowledges his privilege. He knows he must do better. But curiously, all this self-awareness has yet to spur him to invoke his authority as police commissioner and call off his dogs.

On June 17th, the Portland City Council passed a bill that would defund the Portland Police Bureau by $15 million and eliminate 84 positions. This is a promising start, but still insufficient to curb PPB’s most egregious offenses, which only continue to escalate. Most recently, officers deployed riot control agents including tear gas to break up a peaceful march through North Portland last night and arrested three journalists who were chronicling the brutality.

So what can we do?

– Get on Twitter. Portland activists and journalists alike are reporting from onsite on a nightly basis, and their accounts of events often directly contradict the official story as told by PPB. If you haven’t done so already, start examining both sides of the issue, paying special attention to the inconsistencies in the narrative. A few accounts worth following can be found in the footnotes to this post.

Write to our elected officials. Pressure them to sponsor legislation that would reorganize our municipal budget, reallocating funds that disproportionately support policing into other services: community care, mental health support, public transportation, education, harm reduction, parks and recreation, etc.

– Show up and be counted if you are physically able to do so. That means put on a mask, leave your apartment, and find a protest to join. Last month, a number of young activists camped outside Ted Wheeler’s condo overnight in an effort to form a Portland autonomous zone. Their numbers weren’t strong enough to hold the line, and the encampment was eventually broken up by PPB. This didn’t have to happen. We can outnumber the police.

A final thought: My friend is a white woman. I mention this not to imply that white people and Black people face equal risk of being murdered by the police. We don’t, and the numbers aren’t up for debate. Rather, I share this information in the hope that it might galvanize white people who are still sitting on the fence to hop off and face facts. If you’re telling yourself that police brutality is somebody’s problem but not yours, understand that your whiteness will not protect you from a cop with an ax to grind. Your nonviolence will not protect you. The law will not protect you. This is everyone’s fight, and it can only be won through solidarity.

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