Kendra James has been added to a tragic roll call: Jose Santos Mejia Poot, Dora McCree, Bruce Browne--a list of minority residents who have been mistreated or killed by Portland police officers. A 21-year old black woman, James was shot nearly a month ago after she reportedly tried to drive away from police after they pulled her over for a routine traffic stop.
On Saturday, the largest civil rights march in more than five years commemorated her life and called for police accountability. The day began at Alberta Park in NE Portland with rousing speeches calling for more inquiries into the shooting and for drastic overhauls to police procedures. The 1200-person rally then began a two-mile march, snaking past the NE Police Precinct and toward the site of the shooting. As the march proceeded, the crowd doubled in size.
For decades, African-American residents have complained about unfair police treatment and unnecessary use of deadly force. Yet in spite of these perennial demands--and subsequent promises from Mayor Katz and police chief Mark Kroeker--it seems as if everything has remained quite the same.
Three years ago, for example, Katz proudly commenced a "blue ribbon" panel to study complaints about racial profiling. After several months investigating data, the panel confirmed that blacks are stopped at twice the rate as whites. Katz vowed to investigate further and make necessary changes. The James' shooting, however, has again raised a chorus of complaints that police treat minorities differently than whites.
James was shot on May 5 after she and her boyfriend were stopped for running a stop light. James' boyfriend had already been pulled from the car and James reportedly tried to drive away. A rookie officer, Scott McCollister, shot her once in the back from close range. She died within an hour.
The shooting has fueled the community's perception that police have hair-triggers when it comes to black residents. Two summers ago, for example, Browne, a 40-year old black man, was shot by a police officer after Browne disarmed a would-be robber at the Fast Trip along MLK Blvd. When an officer arrived, responding to a 9-1-1 call, he saw Browne approaching him and shot at him six times (hitting him twice). Browne had already disarmed the teenage would-be robber and laid down the assailant's gun.
One officer involved with the James' shooting has reportedly admitted he thought James was "faking" after she was shot. The officer gave this as the reason why they failed to give her immediate medical attention.
The shooting has also exposed disturbing policies within the police department. McCollister and his partner were reportedly allowed to meet together after the shooting and have dinner. In an effort to prevent officers from collaborating on their stories, most cities prohibit any sort of conferencing after a shooting. Portland also remains one of the few cities where officers may fire at a vehicle departing a crime scene if the officers know the driver's identity.
Perhaps most troubling, the responding officer seemed woefully inept. First, McCollister admitted trying to subdue James with a taser gun, but failed to penetrate her jacket. He then tried to pepper spray her, but reportedly fumbled with the canister. In his statement to the Grand Jury, he then admitted that he fired his gun as he fell backwards. At the time, his foot was inside the car--a rookie mistake.
"This is the straw that broke the camel's back," said Roy Tate, one of the rally's organizers from Albina Ministerial Alliance. It was a phrase repeated by several speakers.
Wisely, though, no one at Saturday's event gave much credence to Mayor Katz and her recent promises for community healing. Police watchdog groups were angered this winter when Katz allowed medals of valor to be awarded to the two officers who fatally shot Mejia-Poot, a Mexican national who was being held at a psychiatric ward.
In response to the James shooting, Katz has vowed to host a public forum where residents can vent their concerns, but she has yet to even set a date. Regardless, it's far too late for lip service. A 21-year-old woman is needlessly dead. It's time for immediate and very public and open legislative changes. Residents need to be assured that City Hall will do everything possible to avoid future shootings. To do any less is an outrageous insult and playing with fire.
Two summers ago, Cincinnati weathered four days of intense race riots, during which more than 100 residents and officers were shot. Those riots broke out after a 29-year-old black man was shot when he tried to flee a routine traffic stop. In interviews after the riots, several participants explained they responded in this way because they believed City Hall would listen to nothing but violence.
It's difficult to imagine that Portland would explode in a similar fashion. The mood at Saturday's march was angry, but not hostile. The rally concluded with a rousing rendition of "We Shall Overcome." Community leaders called for residents to express their anger through democratic means.
"We are standing in the district with the lowest number of registered voters in the state," admonished state senator Avel Gordly. "If you want to honor Kendra James, register and vote; don't trample the rights your ancestors fought so hard to achieve."
On Wednesday, June 4, community leaders will take a caravan to Salem to address the state legislature about police accountability. Anyone interested should meet at 1552 N. Killingsworth at 9 am.