Greg Stump
Portland--and Oregon, for that matter, has officially become the pea under John Ashcroft's mattress. Two weeks ago, the morally conservative Attorney General attempted to shut down Oregon's assisted suicide law by authorizing federal agents to fine physicians who prescribe life-ending drugs. But everyone from Governor Kitzhaber to grassroots activists cried foul; a restraining order that upholds the Death With Dignity Act will remain in effect for up to five months in Oregon, until a decision by federal Judge Owens.

That rift between the federal government and Oregon's homegrown sensibility widened even further last week, when the Portland Police Bureau refused to cooperate with the FBI. A memo issued from the Attorney General's office requested help from local police with regards to questioning 5000 Middle Eastern men around the country; 200 names on this list reside in Portland. The memo requested that Portland police question these men about their reasons for being in America, as well as their political sympathies. Police were also asked to obtain "all telephone numbers used by the individuals and his family or close associates."

But in a stunning announcement issued last Tuesday, acting police chief Andrew Kirkland stated that Portland police officers would not help with the dragnet. In what is being called the first refusal by a governmental agency to help with the federal government's desperate and far-reaching search for suspected terrorists, Kirkland's decision was cheered by civil libertarians. (Police Chief Mark Kroeker was on vacation at the time of the decision.) Then, in an abrupt reversal of fortune for civil liberties, late Monday the city attorney announced that the police may cooperate without violating state law. In response to Portland's original objections, a new list of questions was drafted. (At press time, it was unclear who prompted this compromise. Mayor Katz failed to respond to requests for information, but earlier press releases had indicated that her office was willing to seek a compromise with the FBI and allow the interrogation of Middle Eastern men).

The revised list of questions deleted the more odious affronts to privacy--like requests for phone records. Even so, Kirkland's stance against the FBI--as brief as it was--was the first indication since September 11 that the tide may begin to shift against the unchecked attitude of patriotism and nationalism. Portland's announcement prompted several other police chiefs around the country--from Seattle to Ann Arbor, Michigan--to give faint signals that they may follow suit.

Kirkland's decision garnered national media coverage, with stories in The New York Times and interviews on CNN. When providing rationale for his decision, Kirkland relied on a crutch of state law. He stated that the request from the Attorney General's office overreached what is permissible by Oregon law--namely, that the federal government was asking for specific information like phone numbers, visa information, and political sentiments from individuals not suspected of any crimes.

Kirkland seemed to indicate the decision may be based on something even more promising than state law: A sense of decency and fairness. By late Wednesday, the police bureau was no longer taking interviews, but in comments given earlier, Kirkland, who is African American, spelled out how his own background affected his decision.

"I grew up in Detroit and I hated the police with a passion," Kirkland explained to The New York Times. "They were always stopping and bothering me. I figured the only way the police are going to win over the community is to stop this kind of activity, which is like racial profiling."

The announcement shocked activists around town, who were still reeling from a late September decision by City Hall to re-authorize the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a hand-in-glove collaboration between local police and FBI agents. Questioning individuals for the sake of uncovering possible terrorist cells would have seemed in accordance with the spirit of the Task Force, but Kirkland's decision seems to have corralled both the jurisdiction and operation of this organization.

The decision also promises a sincerity by the Portland police to curb racial profiling. In late August, a six-month study regarding traffic stops in Portland showed that officers pull over African Americans at a rate nearly three times non-Hispanic whites.