The Portland City Attorney apologized Tuesday to the Department of Justice for not turning over riot-police training materials that included a right-wing meme about bashing “dirty” hippies. “In retrospect, I agree that we should have provided the material to DOJ sooner,” wrote city attorney Robert Taylor in a letter dated Jan. 25. “I take responsibility and apologize.”
The mea culpa comes days after the feds formally rebuked the Portland Police Bureau for covering up its use of a Proud Boys meme in training materials. A slide from a crowd-control PowerPoint developed for Portland police featured the “Prayer of the Alt Knight” — a meme showing a riot cop bashing a long-haired citizen, with an overlay of text that reads, in part: “Woe be unto you, dirty hippy… I shall send among you, My humble servants with hat, and with bat; That they may christen your heads with hickory, And anoint your faces with pepper spray.”
(The meme is linked to the “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights,” identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the “tactical defense arm” of the Proud Boys, the violent, far-right “Western chauvinist” group.)
The slide made headlines when it was released by Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office — despite the city attempting to bury the news by releasing it on the Friday afternoon before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
For the bureau’s critics, the slide gave lie to longstanding claims by PPB officials to have “zero opinion about the ideology or politics or speech” of protesters. In recent years, Portland has emerged as a rift zone, where the nation’s ideological divisions erupt violently in the streets. But rather than acting the part of neutral peace-keepers between right- and the left-wing factions, PPB officers often appear to welcome extremists like the Proud Boys as informal allies.
Lawyers for the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department blasted the city — both for the offensive content of the training, and for hiding the PowerPoint from Uncle Sam. “The City should have reported these [riot] training materials when they were developed, as required,” insists a letter sent to the city attorney and police chief last week. The materials were delivered to the feds on Jan. 14.
The Portland police have been under federal supervision for nearly a decade. The Justice Department found in 2012 that Portland police had engaged “in a pattern or practice of using excessive force” — in particular against those with mental illness. The bureau’s violent policing of Portland’s racial-justice protests, involving more than 6,000 uses of force in 2020 alone, caused PPB to fall out of compliance with its reform agreement with DOJ last year. Federal overseers have called out the bureau for an unconstitutional reliance on violence and a leadership that broadly sees “all force as justified.”
The Justice Department makes clear that problems with the PPB training extend beyond a single slide, and that the full, 110-slide deck features “training slides that have varying degrees of offensive content, incorrect guidance, and false or misleading information.” It adds that the government would have made “substantial edits” or rejected the training materials outright had it been made aware of them.
The DOJ lawyers add that “the existence of these [riot] training materials might have materially impacted our assessments of the City’s compliance” with federal oversight, because the training of crowd-control officers was “central to our 2021 annual compliance report” as well as to ongoing mediation.
The DOJ letter acidly denounces the city’s decision to keep the materials under wraps. “Some PPB and City employees knew or should have known about these materials for years,” it insists. “The City Attorney’s Office has reportedly known about them since at least September 2021.” In his apologetic response, City Attorney Taylor writes that he had planned to turn over the training slides as part of the city’s annual disclosures to the Justice Department later this month.
In Portland’s odd system of government, the mayor doubles as the police commissioner. Wheeler has said he was “disgusted” by the inclusion of the hippie-bashing slide. But his office said that the document had not been released to “protect the integrity” of an internal police investigation that started last September when the slide surfaced — as part of litigation against the Portland Police Bureau for alleged widespread brutality against protesters. (Despite having months to investigate, the police say they have no clear leads on who added the Proud Boy meme to the police training.)
“A Complete Lack Of Accountability”
The mayor’s office said it only made the slide public to get out in front of a legal filing in that brutality case, which has now been submitted to federal court. The motion in suit filed by the activist group Don’t Shoot Portland seeks class-action status “to hold PPB responsible for its violent and unlawful conduct against an estimated tens of thousands” of Black Lives Matter protesters.
The suit accuses PPB of unconstitutionally punishing entire crowds for the law-breaking actions of a few individuals, and of viewpoint discrimination against protesters who demanded police accountability. Citing the 6,000 uses of force as well as nearly 300 deployments of tear gas in the summer and fall of 2020, the lawsuit decries a politically motivated police “campaign of violence” against demonstrators.
“Ample evidence suggests that the PPB’s response to left-wing protests against white supremacy and police violence was motivated by the PPB’s strong disagreement with the message of those protests,” the motion alleges. “PPB’s violent response to those demonstrating against white supremacy and police brutality,” it adds, “is starkly contrasted by its… more favorable treatment of right-wing, neo-fascist, white supremacist demonstrators.”
The motion insists that Portland cops were “motivated by the goal of silencing advocates for police reform,” and it alleges that police tactics were so excessive that they would “chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in the [constitutionally] protected activity” of street protest. The document rebukes Portland police officers for repeatedly turning the streets of downtown into “a war zone with only one active army – the PPB – chasing fleeing civilians.”
Taking aim at PPB leadership as well as riot cops, the litigation decries “a complete lack of accountability” for officers who engaged in violence. A deposition of a PPB commander accompanying the lawsuit reveals that — across more than a dozen nights of protest from May through September 2020 — not a single officer was disciplined for excessive use of force.
The lawsuit also highlights two uses of force that a federal judge ruled violated a restraining order to protect protesters, resulting in federal contempt findings against PPB. But neither case resulted in discipline by the bureau.
An exchange in the deposition of the police commander speaks volumes to PPB’s view of itself as beyond reproach:
Lawyer: Does the City have concerns about making findings that are in direct contradiction to a federal court judge?
PPB Commander: No.
Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, is one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case. He denounces PPB for “failures of training, failures of policy, and failures of accountability.” Most outrageous, he insists, PPB has engaged in unconstitutional collective punishment of crowds of protesters — with tear gas, bull rushes, baton strikes, etc — when many had done nothing to justify that violence.
The fourth amendment standard for use of force, Chavez insists, is highly specific, requiring probable cause for each act of police violence and “each person they use force against.” Chavez elaborates that PPB, itself, has admitted to a practice of collective punishment: “We saw this time and time again in their own reporting,” Chavez says, paraphrasing the reports: “‘The crowd was hostile’; ‘The crowd was anti-police’; ‘The crowd was chanting ACAB’” (an acronym meaning all cops are bastards). Time and again, PPB officers were making the case “that an entire crowd now had generated the amount of legal justification to use force against them,” Chavez says. “And that’s just not how the Constitution is enforced.”
Chavez hastens to add that the aim of the class-action lawsuit is not to recover monetary damages, rather for the court to hand down “an enforceable order” against police violence. Chavez hopes that would curb PPB’s brutality going forward but also “validate the experience of tens of thousands of people who were injured in the street. They were told ‘PPB is following the law’ — when we know they know they weren’t.”
Read the class-action filing below: