"Cincinnati, New York, Miami, Portland."
Dr. Ray Winbush names off cities he thinks are prime candidates for race riots. Winbush is the director of the Race Relations Institute in Nashville, Tennessee. Just two days before speaking with the Mercury, he had returned from Cincinnati, where he advised local police officers about changing tactics to help them relate to the African American community.
In April, an age-old powder keg of complaints about police brutality and economic repression in Cincinnati erupted in race riots. For three weeks, police battled night and day with residents furious about the shooting of an unarmed, 19-year-old black man who was running from police. Tensions remained palpable throughout the entire summer with volleys of bullets flying in all directions; between April and August, there were more than 107 shootings between Cincinnati police and African American residents. Last week, another trial began in Cincinnati; this time, a police officer was accused of strangling a 29-year-old black man to death during a routine traffic stop.
Dr. Winbush goes on to list basic indicators to look for as warning signs that race riots may break out--police shootings; weak citizen review of police; poor leadership from City Hall. "It seems like [Portland] may have all of the elements," he concludes. "A good indicator is to take a five-year period and see the number of police shootings; if you see it's on the upswing, that is a good indicator of coming civil disobedience." Like a balloon relentlessly swelling until it pops, these are the very pressures that led up to the riots in Cincinnati. During the six months between February and July in Portland, there were five police shootings of black or Latino men. In the number of shootings per 1000 residents--a common yardstick to measure crime rates--Portland ranks eighteenth in the country. More telling is the ratio of police shootings to the citywide murder rate. Portland is fourth highest in the country, a disturbing statistic that emphatically says that the incidents of police violence far exceed the necessity for such aggression.
Showdown at the Greek Cuisina
In late May, three off-duty Portland police officers were celebrating a birthday at the downtown Greek Cuisina, when they were allegedly attacked by six former Crips members. The story the District Attorney will present next week at a November 16th trial for the young black men is that one officer was jumped from behind and a bottle was smashed across the back of his head. Sucker-punched in the kidney and stabbed, Chad Gradwahl, fell to the ground. A second off-duty officer dropped under a flurry of punches.
But the real story began after the scuffle: In the following two weeks, the Portland police fought back. They stormed three North Portland homes, breaking down a front door and shooting rubber bullets through windows. According to family members, they also slammed the grandmother of one of the alleged gangbangers onto the floor before searching the home.
"They kicked in the door and handcuffed my grandmother face down on the ground before they flashed a search warrant at her and gave the names of the people they were looking for," explained Shawna Cunningham, sister of Ronald Cunningham. Three hours earlier, Ronald had been taken into custody along with two other suspects. Claiming the grandmother was harboring some of the other suspects, the police conducted a whirlwind search. They found nothing and left, leaving behind a pockmarked wall from rubber bullets fired into the house.
With three suspects in custody by early June, the police continued their attempts to flush out the remaining three. According to the girlfriend of one of the fugitives, the police stood in the doorway of her home and threatened to take away her four-year-old child.
About the same time, while looking for Darrin Hickman, police stormed his mother's home. A week after the two officers were beat up, assault vehicles and hummers blocked the otherwise quiet oak-lined street in front of Terri Hickman's inner North Portland home. Her son Derrin is a local musican and a computer graphic student at Mt. Hood Community College. She claims he was at the Greek Cuisina that night in May, but only as a passing spectator. Since the scuffle, Darrin has gone into hiding and suspended his studies.
Without prior warning, police stormed Hickman's home, ramming down her front door, shooting bullets through second-story windows and tossing smoke grenades into her living room and basement.
"They could have called; they could have knocked," insists Hickman in an interview with the Mercury. On a tidy kitchen table, she sets down the pin from one of the smoke grenades and a rubber bullet the size of a man's fist. "Who do you call when the police break into your home?" she asks.
Five months later--on a recent sunny autumn afternoon--a local contractor hangs a new front door on Hickman's home. Throughout the summer, contractors came and went, reinforcing her basement--which suffered structural damage--and re-painting her living room that suffered from smoke damage.
Her son is the only suspect remaining at-large. According to Hickman, he and another man, Dante Porter, had planned to turn themselves in on the opening day of the trial, but last week Porter was captured in Washington.
"I could have him downtown in minutes," Hickman says about her son. "But I have a problem taking him to the Justice Center; it has not been a good experience." She pauses before adding, "I have no confidence in [the police]."
Send in the Preachers!
A recently released study by the Gallup Poll found that six out of 10 African Americans in the U.S. are "dissatisfied" with race relations, as well as their treatment by white people and the government. This figure has worsened over the past few years. At the same time, almost two-thirds of whites reported they are personally satisfied with the ways blacks are being treated--a discrepancy that speaks volumes about the still existing rift between blacks and whites in America.
According to race-relations experts, this sense of dissatisfaction and dislocation emphasizes a suspicion lingering from pre-Civil Rights days that the black community has been locked out of state and city institutions. In the past thirty years, political structures around the country have been integrated to a certain degree, as black mayors and council members have entered City Halls, and police departments have brought in minority officers. But instead of diffusing tensions, this limited integration has simply complicated and multiplied frustrations. No longer is racial tension simply an overt conflict against all-white institutions like City Hall and police departments; it is far more diffuse and subtle.
On June 25, a month after the brawl at the Greek Cuisina, the police bureau ushered several high-profile African American pastors and politicians into a meeting at Bethel Lutheran Church near the upscale Broadway shopping district. The point of the meeting was to locate the three African American men from the fight at the Greek Cuisina. Many of the pastors--namely, Rev. Ronald Williams--serve on various City Hall-appointed task forces, like the Over-Incarceration Panel and the Blue Ribbon Panel. They, along with the police chief, commenced two years ago to study racial profiling in Portland. Yet, in spite of their top-brass credentials, several of the fugitives' family members pointed out that these pastors have no street credibility with wide swathes of the black community; none of the clergy even knew the families.
More disturbing, none of the family members were initially invited to the meeting. It was not until a member of the local NAACP overheard the meeting was being planned that he demanded the fugitives' family members be invited.
"These traditional ways of identifying black leaders and thinking that they'll calm down the masses is outdated," points out Skip Osborne, an animated forty-ish African American man who is currently completing his studies in divinity.
In the early '60s, he explains, the civil rights movement was a more cohesive national movement involving less individualized issues. When marches or racial tension intensified in cities like Birmingham or Memphis, local and state politicians often would request that religious leaders, like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., serve as mediators. But issues no longer involve straightforward frustration with segregation; now, they are about specific incidents and issues particular to a certain locale. Calling in high-powered civil rights leaders--or, in this incident, local clergy--who are not familiar with the individuals involved, fails to address the conflict as a fight between specific people. "There's a paternalism to it," concludes Osborne.
"It is a convenient method because they can say they've done something," adds Osborne. "But really, it is only the appearance of communication and effort."
"If a problem went down bad in the white community," concludes Osborne, "they [city officials] wouldn't go to the churches."
The city's meetings with African American pastors ended with no progress.
Falling on Deaf Ears
Over the past decade, City Hall has made several efforts to rein in the police bureau and to provide ordinary citizens a chance to complain about perceived police abuses. As part of a national trend, after four police officers were exonerated for beating Rodney King in Los Angeles, Portland overhauled its police review commission in 1994. In the form of a civilian review board, the Police Internal Investigations Auditing Committee (PIIAC) was established to remedy cronyism in the bureau and serve as a neutral forum to battle perceptions of racism.
But a growing chorus of critics--many from the city's minority communities--believe that, at best, these efforts are feigned gestures of compassion. Three years ago, police officers shut down a party hosted by an African American man named Daniel Binns, a former drug dealer turned basketball coach and businessman. At the time, the officers claimed the party was gang-related and, most likely, would result in violence. The incident capped stewing concerns that police were picking on and stereotyping blacks in Portland--especially young African American males. Dozens of citizens tried to voice their concerns about what they viewed as harassment, but the Northeast Precinct shut its doors and refused to accept the filing of any complaints. The following day, scores of angry citizens marched directly to the home of then-police chief Charlie Moose.
A year ago, the sentiment that PIIAC errs in favor of the police came to the forefront when an appeal by Dora McCrae, a 71-year-old African American grandmother, was denied.
Three years earlier McCrae had been dragged from her van by a police officer, knocked unconscious by a chokehold, and locked in cuffs. At the time, McCrae had been delivering meals to homebound elders. The officer, Timothy Musgrave, claimed she was trying to flee the scene after he accused her of not using a turn signal.
Over the course of two years, a complaint filed by McCrae against the police department inched through bureaucratic channels. City Council, which sits as the appeal board for police complaints, refused to budge until PIIAC resolved the complaint and the lawsuit that McCrae filed ran its course. After two frustrating years, Mayor Vera Katz allegedly told McCrae in a dismissive tone, "It is time to put this to rest."
In March, with a 3-2 vote, City Council refused to hear McCrae's appeal against the Internal Affairs report that said Musgrave did nothing wrong. Mayor Katz cast the tie-breaking vote. (Currently, the NAACP national chapter is considering pursuing a federal lawsuit against the City of Portland.)
The Price of Heroism
Just before midnight on July 11, a teenager armed with a semi-automatic weapon burst into the Fast Trip along Northeast MLK Blvd and began threatening patrons. After a short scuffle, Bruce Browne, a 40-year-old African American man from Vancouver who was buying cigarettes, disarmed the teen.
Several minutes later, when a police officer arrived, he allegedly yelled at Browne to lay down the weapon. The officer, Kenneth Duilio claims that Browne pointed the weapon at him. In response, the officer shot at the would-be hero six times from close range. Only two bullets hit the man; one in the thigh and another in the shoulder.
Two weeks after the shooting, rumors began to spread through the black community. A Portland Tribune article reported the man was not armed--that he had dropped the gun--by the time Officer Duilio, had arrived. Another more incendiary story began to circulate through the community: Family members of the young men awaiting trial correctly heard that Officer Duilio was the third officer who had been on-hand at the street fight at the Greek Cuisina several weeks earlier. Acidic speculation percolated that the officer--allegedly involved in an off-duty fight with six black men, and now shooting an unarmed black man--may be racist.
"If you have those types of prejudices off-duty, I can't see how you don't have them on-duty," said one community leader, who has been offering his home as a meeting location for the fugitives' family members.
Assessing the volatility of race relations in Portland, the community leader went on to say, "I see a situation that could explode anytime." He pauses before ominously adding, "The fact that he [Browne] didn't die probably saved the day; if he had been killed, that could have been it."
Who's on Trial Anyway?
"The most disliked words for the black community are: 'A Grand Jury says that it was justifiable homicide,'" notes Darnell Millner, a long-time black studies professor at Portland State University. Such exonerating verdicts have precipitated almost every recent race riot in America, from the widespread looting in South Central Los Angeles in 1992 to the more recent attack on Seattle's mayor. In Seattle this July, after the shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer was deemed justifiable, an enraged man smashed a bullhorn across the nose of Mayor Paul Schell. The blow broke several bones in the mayor's face.
Several witnesses claimed the three off-duty officers assaulted outside the Greek Cuisina were staggering drunk, wandering through the streets asking, "Who wants some?"
Yet the officers who claim to have been beaten outside the Greek Cuisina are not on trial; by finding the young men guilty for felony assault and riot charges, this can't help but send a message to the black community. A guilty verdict will validate slamming six young black men with felony charges for a barroom brawl, and give approval to the trench warfare that the police used in apprehending these young men.
It is not the first trial or police action in Portland where race relations have been the subtext. In early autumn, the police bureau released data from the past six months that officers stop African Americans for routine traffic stops at a rate three times greater than white drivers. Yet each time there is a reminder about racial tensions or discrimination in Portland, says Prof. Millner, it is treated as if it is a surprising aberration.
"The attitude is let's forget about it," says Millner. "Each individual incident arises and is resolved, but it's usually not satisfactory for any of the parties. But it doesn't go away. There it is, swelling just beneath the surface. And you don't know what will spark it."