The paradox of Portland, Oregon, shows why the fight to change police culture takes more than liberal values and good intentions
Forty-eight hours later, the only mark of the “riot” at the Portland Police union headquarters is a small hole in one of the gold-tinted windows, plugged with putty.
The police killing of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25th unleashed a torrent of anger against police departments across the nation. But in this Pacific Northwest city, with a shameful history of racism and police killings of black residents, the reaction has been intense and sustained. Protesters have marched by the thousands across bridges. They have toppled statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington — who enslaved more than 700 humans between them. And they have marched on police strongholds every night since the end of May. With no remorse or sense of irony, the Portland Police Bureau has met this last group of demonstrators denouncing police brutality with yet more brutality.
In the national imagination, Portland reigns as a lampoonable bastion of progressivism, naked bike rides, and handlebar mustaches. But there is nothing Portlandia about the PPB. Police here routinely embrace the violent crowd-control tactics that President Trump commanded to clear Lafayette Park — indiscriminately attacking protesters with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, and other “less lethal” munitions. The bureau has been hit with two temporary restraining orders from federal judges: one rebuking the PPB for likely violations of protesters’ rights to free speech and against excessive force; the other ordering the PPB to stop arresting journalists and legal observers for documenting police clashes with protesters.
On the evening of June 30th, demonstrators marched on the city’s police-union headquarters, a tan stucco building in a sprawling stretch of north Portland, just down the street from Pipes “R” Us, a smoke shop that advertises with a knockoff Geoffrey the Giraffe taking a rip off of a giant bong. Marchers advancing on the union hall were met by Portland Police in riot gear, backed by state troopers, who formed a phalanx around the building.
After provocations from the rowdy crowd gave the police a pretext — the bureau later posted a picture of a can of Razz-Cranberry La Croix and a rock of similar size that it claimed had been lobbed by protesters, whom it also said launched “commercial grade” fireworks — the police declared the scene a riot, and attacked. The urban assault was chaotic. Police tackled a video journalist who was live-streaming the event, and launched tear gas into the crowd, which engulfed not only targeted agitators but also passing motorists and apartments lining the busy street.
The use of force would bring condemnation from state officials — who had just passed legislation banning police use of tear gas, except in the case of a riot. The speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, blasted the PPB’s riot declaration as “an abuse of the statute” and its actions as “unlawful.” Gov. Kate Brown called on the PPB to de-escalate, warning that its use of force “will do nothing to solve the underlying concerns of racial justice and police accountability raised by the protests.”
Yet by the time the tear gas cleared the next morning, the City Council proceeded as if nothing had happened, and did the union’s bidding: It approved a yearlong extension of the police contract — exempting cops from a citywide salary freeze.
The plague of police violence against America’s black and minority communities does not fit with the familiar red-versus-blue divides of our national politics. The most violent policing often takes place in our most progressive cities. This paradox is acute in Portland — but it is alive in metros across America, from Denver to Minneapolis to New York City, where ostensibly liberal mayors allow police departments to operate as a nearly autonomous branch of government, as if beyond their control.
The conflict between progressive communities and reactionary cops is rooted in America’s darkest history, and deeply entrenched, says Phillip Atiba Goff, CEO of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Municipal policing in America arose in the service of slave owners, catching runaways, and after the Civil War the same police brutally enforced segregation under Jim Crow. Outside the Deep South, early police were deputized “to manage what political leaders considered to be unruly immigrant populations,” says Tracey Meares, a Yale law professor who served on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
This legacy has never been repudiated, Goff insists: “At no point in time in our history did we say, ‘You know what? That was fucked up! We should not do it that way. We should imagine a different system.’ ” Modern policing has evolved on an ad hoc basis, often following political intuition and gut theories about deterring crime. “There was no enabling legislation,” Meares says, and precious little data to prove that policing strategies work. “Think about the extent to which we tolerate this agency, in which everyone carries a gun,” she says, but that gets a pass to operate as “an evidence-free zone.”
As a consequence, American policing continues to prioritize the safety and comfort of white people and property owners, often with acts of official violence. Most politicians in charge of police are “deeply, profoundly ignorant” about the legacy they’ve inherited, Goff argues, making even progressive politicians feckless reformers. “It’s just not the case that intention and ideology are likely to produce the kinds of outcomes and solutions that we might want.”
True reform depends on moving resources out of “law and order” — which primarily serves to enforce the existing social order — and investing in programs and services that increase public well-being and safety, Goff insists. There are structural obstacles: In many cities, union contracts limit the ability to reorient police resources (or even provide meaningful oversight). Fear of change also creates a conceptual barrier. “People think that you need a police force oriented around the threat of the use of force in order to address violent neighborhoods,” Meares says, when research has, in fact, “proven for years that that’s not correct.”
Oregon’s history shares more in common with the Deep South than is commonly understood. The state was admitted to the union on the eve of the Civil War as a white-separatist state. Its constitution banned slavery — and black people, declaring that “No free Negro, or Mulatto … shall come, reside, or be within this state,” and ordering their “removal, by public officers.” Made moot by the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, this racist language was not amended until 1926. And by then Oregon had emerged as a hotbed of Klan activity, using racial terror to keep all but a few thousand blacks out of the state.
Only during World War II, when black laborers arrived by the thousands to work in Portland’s shipyards, did Oregon’s color barrier begin to break down. Even today, however, Portland is known as the whitest big city in America. Three-quarters of the population is white; only six percent of residents are black. The black community — historically redlined into a single neighborhood near downtown — is now buffeted by gentrification and displacement, as white millennials seeking the “dream of the Nineties” have transformed Mississippi Avenue into a stretch of boutiques, brewpubs, and farm-to-table restaurants.
Portland Police have long intimidated, harassed, and killed black residents without facing legal consequence. Marine veteran Lloyd “Tony” Stevenson’s gravestone in Willamette National Cemetery says “Vietnam,” but Stevenson was killed on the streets of Portland in a 1985 altercation with police who ended his life with a “sleeper” chokehold. In shades of the Eric Garner homicide a generation later, Stevenson’s killing sparked national outrage, but Portland Police responded to the controversy with arrogant, racist defiance: selling T-shirts out of a precinct parking lot that read “Don’t Choke ’Em, Smoke ’Em.”
In recent years, the police here have also shot and killed many unarmed black people. In 2003, 21-year-old Kendra James was gunned down during a traffic stop; in 2010, 25-year-old Aaron Campbell was killed by a sharpshooter during a welfare check; in 2017, police shot 17-year-old Quanice Hayes with an AR-15 while he was on his knees during an arrest. None of these cases were prosecuted. “There’s no appearance of justice when it comes to the death of a black person at the hands of the police,” says City Council member Jo Ann Hardesty, who formerly served as a president of the local NAACP.
The Portland Police Bureau has been under supervision by the U.S. Department of Justice for much of the past decade for “a pattern or practice of excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment,” against people with mental illness, many of them black. Andre Gladen, a legally blind 36-year-old with schizophrenia, prompted a 911 call by lying on a stranger’s porch last year. Cops who were called to remove him instead killed him after, they say, he grabbed an officer’s knife. The PPB has achieved “substantial compliance” with the DOJ agreement, but Hardesty notes bitterly: “We’re killing more people today with mental-health issues by the Portland Police than we did before the DOJ came to town.”
Teressa Raiford is the founder of Don’t Shoot PDX, a nonprofit that works to counter police violence. She was 10 years old in 1981 when Portland cops infamously dropped a pair of dead opossums in front of her grandparents’ soul-food restaurant. “That was a challenge against our humanity,” Raiford recalls. “That let me know really early that people considered us as not really citizens or people.”
Eighty percent of PPB officers are white, and the vast majority live outside the city of Portland, in the region’s even whiter, far more conservative suburbs and exurbs. The bureau continues to be linked to white supremacy. In 2010, a Portland cop was disciplined for having erected plaques celebrating Nazi-era German soldiers in a public park. (He kept his job.) In 2019, a PPB officer was caught sending chummy texts to Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, advising his right-wing agitators how to avoid arrest. (A police review did not discipline the officer.) “They’re actually working with the Proud Boys,” says Raiford.
To Raiford, who finished third in the May primary for mayor, there’s no mystery why Portland cops crack down violently on protests targeting the bureau itself. “It is a power struggle to maintain whiteness and white supremacy that dictates the policy here,” she argues. “You still wonder why you’re getting your ass whooped at Black Lives Matter protests? Because you’re standing up for black people in Whitelandia!”
Portland has a vigorous history of protest. In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush denigrated the city as “Little Beirut” for the reception he received here. The city is home to many activists who identify as anarchists and anti-fascists, whose protest tactics can include criminal mischief, like damaging property or lighting dumpster fires.
In the days after George Floyd’s killing, agitators targeted the Multnomah County Justice Center, a high-rise jail and courtroom complex downtown. They tagged walls with graffiti, smashed street-facing windows, and even lit small fires inside the building. Their spray-painted agenda — “DEFUND THE POLICE STATE” — might have seemed fringe just weeks ago. But the cultural earthquake of Floyd’s killing has shifted the Overton window, putting such demands at the center of the national political debate.
The Justice Center, now barricaded with plywood, remains the epicenter of nightly battles between protesters and police. In ritualized fashion, predominantly peaceful protesters gather to decry police violence. When someone in the crowd goes too far — throwing a water bottle, pointing lasers at cops — the police order the crowd to disperse, before charging protesters.
PPB tactics earned the force a sharp rebuke and partial restraining order on the use of tear gas and other less-than-lethal munitions from a federal District Court. Responding on June 9th to a suit brought by Don’t Shoot PDX, Judge Marco Hernández cited “evidence that officers have violated the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters.” The judge faulted the PPB for failing to discriminate between criminals and peaceful demonstrators, citing a protester who was “subjected to rubber bullets, tear gas, and a flash-bang at close range as he was calmly walking … trying to comply with officers’ orders.”
Portland Police have also attacked journalists documenting the protests. Beth Nakamura, a photographer for The Oregonian, was roughed up by a baton-wielding riot cop. “Before I was struck, I more than once held up my badge and one of my cameras,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I was saying ‘Press, press.’ ” The cop responded, “I don’t give a fuck.” The PPB’s public information officer, Lt. Tina Jones, tells Rolling Stone that police wearing riot helmets cannot be expected to differentiate between protesters and the press. She also released a video warning reporters to obey police commands, making an odd slip of the tongue: “The unlawful orders apply to everyone, without exception.”
The man presiding over this brutal mess is Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as police commissioner. A sixth-generation Oregonian and scion of a timber fortune, Wheeler is a credential collector: an Eagle Scout with degrees from Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard — and even a summit of Everest — on his CV. He previously held statewide office as treasurer, and once seemed on a glide path to the governorship. Protesters now denounce him as “Tear Gas Ted,” and he’s facing shaky re-election prospects against a little-known urban planner, Sarah Iannarone.
Wheeler, 57, campaigned as a progressive and is culturally woke. The mayor’s Twitter handle lists Wheeler’s gender pronouns (“He/Him/His”). In June, he offered city employees a week of bereavement leave to mourn victims of police violence, and lamented that his “privilege as a white man” had shielded him from “uncomfortable truths about our history.” Wheeler begins a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone with a précis about how “policing was built upon a white-supremacist model,” and acknowledges that, despite reforms, “the hangover from that institutional racism still very much exists in Portland.”
As a candidate in 2016, Wheeler railed against the “cultural disconnect between the Portland Police and the public,” and insisted “only strong leadership can change that.” But in office, Wheeler did not take the fight to the PPB; over his first three years he increased the police budget from $215 million to $242 million, even as the city cut funding for parks and rec centers. (Wheeler attributes the increases to funding nontraditional public-safety initiatives.)
Since the outrage over George Floyd’s death erupted, Wheeler has changed course, somewhat, embracing reforms championed by Hardesty. The City Council voted in June to cut the PPB budget by $15 million, ending police patrols at public schools and on mass transit, and disbanding its notoriously racist gang unit. The city will also invest $5 million in an unarmed response team to attend to people in mental-health crises. These reforms are a far cry from the Minneapolis government’s goal to disband its police department, but Hardesty prefers to build on smaller victories rather than risk reversal in court. “If we were taking [the Minneapolis] approach in Portland,” she says, “I would anticipate the union would sue immediately.”
Wheeler has long pledged to bring transparency and accountability to the PPB. But as the nightly clash between protesters and police has devolved into what Gov. Brown denounced as a “senseless cycle of violence,” the mayor has been unable, or unwilling, to provide either.
Neither the police nor the mayor’s office would reveal if any officers have been subject to disciplinary action during the protests. The bureau ignored an interview request for Chief Chuck Lovell, a black career PPB officer, who assumed command in June. Wheeler admits to Rolling Stone he has let police cover their name badges at the protests — out of concern that officers were being doxxed. He is unable to say whether doxxing is a crime; the PPB also ignored this question.
In our interview, Wheeler voices uneasiness at the bureau’s crowd-control tactics. “I would not cop to saying that I support those or if they’ve been OK with me,” he says. But he points to one demonstration in particular, where protesters allegedly set a dumpster on fire at the door of a police precinct, and insists, “There are times when the Police Bureau has a duty to protect lives and safety.” In legal filings, the city defends the PPB’s use of crowd-control munitions as a “constitutional” and “reasonable” response to “widespread criminal activity and violence” that has left officers with “head injuries, burns, and cuts.”
At times, Wheeler talks tough: “I am at the top of the chain of command,” he insists, and if an officer disobeys his directives, “they’re putting their badge on the line.” Yet police appear to be flouting Wheeler’s orders without consequence. The mayor directed the department to stop the routine use of tear gas, but the gassings continued until — and even after — Judge Hernández issued a partial restraining order. (The PPB has denied frivolously declaring riots as an excuse to use tear gas.)
When police started beating journalists, Wheeler sent a stern memo to cops, insisting the media should not be targeted. “I have pledged to journalists that we will protect their First Amendment rights,” Wheeler says. “We absolutely should be held to that standard.” Yet that very night — at the “riot” at the union headquarters — police arrested three journalists, charging them with felonies. “City leadership doesn’t have any authority or sway with people who are on the streets policing these protests,” says Juan Chavez, a lawyer representing protesters in the Don’t Shoot PDX lawsuit. He likens the PPB to “a rogue fourth branch of our local government.”
Chief Lovell has defended police actions at the union hall, saying they prevented the building from being set ablaze, which “could have led to residences being burned with families inside.” Police union chief Daryl Turner has attempted to cast the protesters as a mob, writing that they “have hijacked the racial-equity platform of peaceful protests for their own chaotic agendas; they simply want to destroy our city.”
Hardesty sees things differently. On July 1st, she wrote a scathing open letter to Lovell and Wheeler, decrying the PPB’s “outlandish” actions, insisting that “community members exercising their freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are not the enemy.” Hardesty closed with a warning: “I cannot stress enough the trust eroded between the community and police.” That erosion of trust finds voice in the words of Gregory McKelvey, a Black Lives Matter activist, who is also running the campaign of Wheeler’s 2020 mayoral rival. “If Donald Trump were the mayor of Portland,” McKelvey asks, “how much different would our response to protest look?”
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