May Day in Portland
May Day in Portland Doug Brown

Civil rights groups are again criticizing Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) for heavy-handed policing at protests. This time around, in a joint letter to Wheeler, the ACLU of Oregon, National Lawyers Guild, and Lawyers for Good Government are calling out the PPB for escalating tensions during last Monday's May Day march, which later turned into what police said was a riot.

To freshen up, read the Mercury's May Day coverage here:
Our live blog of it.
Photos and videos of the police cracking down.
Our news story two days later, with more video.

The PPB cancelled the permit to the May Day march after a few things were tossed towards officers by some anarchists. Squads of riot gear-clad officers trailed close behind and then ordered everybody off the streets and sidewalks. The civil rights groups believe this led to the more widespread vandalism and said the the cancelled permit "may be a violation of the First Amendment." Police set off flash-bang grenades and arrested more than 25 people.


"We are deeply concerned about PPB's response to the permitted march on May Day," the letter says. "Based on the eyewitness accounts from legal observers, organizers of the march, and members of the public that have reached out to our organizations, the response was confusing, swift, and, by all accounts, escalated a predominantly peaceful march. Instead of preventing violence, PPB's response precipitated it, turning a peaceful march into a dangerous and chaotic situation."

In a laundry list of criticisms, which you can read in full below, here's the meat of the argument:

In summary, PPB created tension at the rally, long before the march began, then police in riot gear stormed the city instead of dealing with the isolated incidents of property destruction. The police declared the entire assembly unlawful within an hour after the march began, purportedly because of a few objects thrown at the back of the march. This was a disproportionate and dangerous response. The vast majority of protesters were left confused as to whether they could continue peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, or whether they had to leave and where to go. Only a few minutes later, while people with impaired mobility and children were still making their way out, the police rushed the crowd, creating chaos and panic. Both legal observer and media accounts confirm that property destruction and fires occurred after the police declared the gathering illegal and began attacking the demonstrators.

To be clear, we are neither advocating for nor justifying acts of property destruction. If people engage in criminal behavior, the police may arrest them. However, the criminal behavior of a few does not give police the right to attack and restrict the First Amendment rights of everyone else.

On May Day, PPB created a more violent, more dangerous situation for everyone in downtown Portland because of their aggressive, militaristic response. Many people, including families who had participated in the May Day march and innocent passersby, were scared and some were injured in the chaos created by the broad use of concussion grenades, while others reported use of munition rounds that were both concussive and contained additional chemical irritants. These indiscriminate, violent tactics are exactly what our organization hopes to curb with the new crowd control directive. Protests are not going away anytime in the near future. As a policy matter, we are concerned that aggressive tactics curtail civil rights and discourage peaceful protesters from attending demonstrations, while intensifying the distrust and anger towards police by others.

UPDATE: Here's a comment from Mayor Wheeler's spokesperson, Michael Cox, on the May Day events:

It is unfortunate that a day dedicated to honoring the contributions of workers and immigrants was co-opted by people whose objective was violence and property damage, and it's disappointing that this pattern of events has become the norm. As a community we must continue to respect the right to free assembly while rejecting violence and vandalism.

Read the full letter from the ACLU of Oregon, the National Lawyers Guild, and Lawyers for Good Governments here: