In March, however, buoyed by sudden media attention and a rush of support from Portland State University students, McCrae won her fifteen minutes of fame. When City Hall voted down her appeal against the police bureau, about one hundred PSU students marched out of City Hall, leaving Mayor Katz stuttering. In an instant, McCrae had become a voice for civil rights and a much-needed poster child against police brutality in Portland.
But just as quickly, that public support evaporated. In what has emerged as a cautionary tale about local politics and civil rights, McCrae has once again been abandoned, left to deal with her pending lawsuit and complaints against the city alone.
"We all have rights," McCrae stated in a recent interview with the Mercury. "We need to exercise our rights." Flanked by framed photos of her son, daughters, and many grandchildren, McCrae sat in her living room and recounted in a slow, methodical fashion the evening that re-shaped her life.
While delivering dinners to other senior citizens in North Portland three years ago, McCrae was approached by Officer Timothy Musgrave. He claimed she had failed to signal at an intersection. Believing that she had, McCrae reached for her signal to show Musgrave that it worked.
Allegedly thinking McCrae was trying to drive away, Musgrave wrestled her out of the van, threw her to the ground and cuffed her hands behind her back. According to McCrae, the officer addressed her in a condescending tone, "Are you hurt--besides your pride?"
Originally, McCrae approached the local NAACP chapter for support, but was surprisingly rebuffed--allegedly because she was not a paying member. In an effort to find justice, she undertook a two-prong approach, simultaneously filing a formal complaint with the Portland Police Internal Investigation Audit Committee (PIIAC) and two federal civil rights lawsuits. With virtually no community support, those complaints inched forward.
Eventually, in April 2000, a jury found no wrongdoing on the part of Officer Musgrave, but awarded McCrae $8,000 in punitive damages. Later, it was determined that the jury's verdict was in error because punitive damages can only be awarded where wrongdoing is found. In a two-day retrial this past February, an all-white jury again exonerated Musgrave.
About the same time, City Council decided not to hear the PIIAC recommendation until after the trial was completed. On March 14, the City Council, by a three-to-two vote, decided to dismiss the case even after admitting that the officer had made mistakes and the police review system was greatly flawed. Mayor Vera Katz reportedly told McCrae simply and coldly, "This case needs to be put to rest."
In spite of the legal setbacks, it seemed as if public support had rallied around McCrae and that civil rights in Portland had adopted their local Rosa Parks. Several rallies were held to support McCrae and, upset that the NAACP chapter was not supporting her, a splinter group of NAACP members broke off and took up her case as a pet project.
But that good feeling was short-lived. A month later, her lawyer, David Park, dropped McCrae as a client. "I am not representing her on her appeal," explained Park. "I tried the case twice, spent hundreds of working hours and $12,000 to $15,000 on legal fees; I was not interested in trying the case again."
On her own, McCrae is pursuing an appeal of her case with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland. The case is expected to hit the judge's desk this month. And, in spite of their initial rebuff, the NAACP is considering adopting McCrae's case. After local NAACP members solicited a regional governing body to support McCrae, her case has climbed up through several layers of the organization. The request needs to reach the NAACP national offices before a team of attorneys can be approved and sent to her aid. That decision is expected in the next few weeks.