"I didn't want to talk because there are a lot of police officers here."
The young man was standing along with 100 or so other black teenagers under the arched ceiling at Irvington Church. About 20 police officers, dressed in full blues, were sprinkled throughout the crowd. For the past few months, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods has been hosting bimonthly meetings. The forums are designed to address a recent spate of gang-related violence. Last Thursday was the largest meeting so far, with a packed house that included Mayor Vera Katz, police officers, social workers, and the teens themselves. The young man went on to explain that he has never committed a crime and is an upstanding student--but even so, he has been shaken down and handcuffed several times by officers.
Although the meeting was billed as an opportunity for teens to speak out and for the elected officials to listen, the forum did not begin in that tone. For 20 minutes, Katz, council member Jim Francesconi and Assistant Police Chief Stan Grubbs provided a running soundtrack of predictable sound bites.
"You are our hope and our promise--the future leaders of this community," announced Katz. "Tell us what we need to do to make sure your future is bright and full of promise."
But when the elected officials finally sat down, a truly raw and earnest discussion began. (Katz eventually slipped out quietly a full hour before the forum concluded.) At first, many of the teens were hesitant, but over the next hour the questions, confessions, and straight-talking advice built momentum. Ex-felons talked about the difficulty finding jobs. Others talked about self-respect.
But the central question the teens wanted resolved was why police treated them like criminals until proven otherwise. Angel Foster, a mild-mannered employee at Youth Opportunities, remembered an evening when police were combing North Portland for a black man carrying a gun. She was walking home with her boyfriend when the police handcuffed them. "They stopped us for just being citizens," she remarked.
Finally, one man stood up and asked the most direct question of the day: "I want to know why you--the police--profile me," he said.
Standing in the middle of the crowd, an unidentified young white officer tried to answer the question. But his answer only provided disturbing insight to the working mentality of officers in North and Northeast Portland.
The officer declared that the number one way young black men want to make money is "this rap music trend." He then rhetorically asked about "the second way" black men made money. Many in the room assumed he was about to say, "drug dealing," and he was interrupted by about 20 youth who objected and offered alternate answers, like businessmen, teachers and even police officers.
"I'm not talking about Lake Oswego here," the officer retorted. "If it's 10:30 at night and three people are standing on Albina and Kill [referring to Killingsworth--a street corner notorious for drug dealing], it's the officers' duty to question those people."
From there, the discussion veered away into a new subject: not giving the police an excuse to suspect you. But eventually an 18-year-old stood up and re-addressed the officer on an alternative way for young black people to make money. He said that he is a 3.5 GPA student with offers from six colleges. He is also an ex-felon.
"What if I want to be a police officer and make as much money as you?" he asked, staring coolly at the officer. The officer did not respond.
The next forum is scheduled for Friday, March 26 at Dishman Community Center, 77 NE Knott, 10:30 am.