Viewed a certain way, the riot cops who mobilized around Portland City Hall on Wednesday, October 12, had been pre-ordained for weeks.
Their clash with activists was set in motion before Don’t Shoot Portland protestors camped outside of the building to protest looming passage of a new contract with Portland‘s largest police union; before #bridgecrane became a universal symbol for the officials‘ refusal to listen; and even before protestors and local organizations railed against the contract for hours during a public hearing September 28.
An argument can be made, in fact, that the riot police had been on their way to last week’s hectic—at times violent—confrontation nearly a month before, on September 13.
That’s the day Mayor Charlie Hales snatched an unlikely victory: After months of closed-door bargaining and failed attempts at swaying his colleagues, he’d finally secured council ascent to sign onto the new police contract.
I wrote about it in this very column, wondering aloud whether it was the “last big win” of Hales’ dwindling mayoral tenure.
And it is a win in the mayor’s mind. Again and again, he’s argued that the increases in police staffing brought on by the pay bumps in the contract will salve gashes in Portland’s public safety system, and allow cops to better form meaningful relationships with the communities they patrol.
But what we’re left with, a week after council formally ratified the contract, is the opposite. Community relations feel as raw as any in the last two years.
Don’t Shoot Portland is demanding Hales’ resignation—even camping out in front of his house for a night to press the point—and wants to recall Commissioner Nick Fish because of his support of the contract.
More than that, activists have a new incident to reference when arguing (as they often do) that Portland cops are bullies. They can point to countless photos of protestors hacking up phlegm as they try to shake off pepper spray; or videos showing activists being flung off City Hall steps by burly officers; or to coverage of the skirmish by national outlets like the Los Angeles Times.
Last week’s confrontation was prominent enough that Constantin Severe, director of the city’s Independent Police Review, says his office has fielded complaints about cops’ conduct from other states.
Which isn’t to say that perspective is completely correct. There were bad actors in last Wednesday’s protest, as there are in most crowds. The clash was not the one-sided affair some have sought to paint.
But it also was probably avoidable, if Hales could have set aside that political victory for a moment to really address a public that is desperately calling for more accountability for its cops.
Instead, the mayor put together an FAQ document, inserted a clarifying amendment that didn’t change all that much, and closed off testimony, claiming this was the best deal the city was likely to get.
Maybe he’s right, and perhaps in time the contract will show itself to be the “win” Hales has celebrated.
It’s just that right now, the outcome looks like anything but.