THE OBVIOUS LACK of tear gas and smoke and flames in downtown Portland on Monday, November 24—hell, the decided lack of protesters period, aside from maybe 150 or so diehards who marched through mostly empty streets—said volumes about Portland's ongoing response to the outcry in Ferguson, Missouri.
In Portland, many of the mainstream activist groups enjoy an open (and abidingly frank) line to Portland City Hall—and vice versa.
And thanks to a deft bit of outreach and negotiation, city leaders leveraged that relationship to put off the inchoate rage that afflicted other cities in the immediate aftermath of a grand jury's failure to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Michael Brown.
Ministers and other advocates worked with officials to schedule a "nonviolent" rally for the day after the announcement. Moreover, Portlanders, as deeply upset as many of them were, mostly agreed to go along with the program.
That says some things about where we live.
One of those things, cynically, is that Portland has a relatively small African American population—one that's been scattered from inner neighborhoods to the city's eastern reaches beyond. The passion that blazed in Ferguson and Chicago and Oakland might not ever be felt as personally here.
But another thing is that we're a lot better off than some of the other cities that boiled over. Yes, Portland cops struggle with racially disparate stops and searches. But we're ahead of much of the country.
For more than 20 years, accountability advocates have been shaping and bending the discussion around police issues in Portland—using tragedies like the deaths of James Chasse Jr. and Aaron Campbell and Kendra James to shock us into paying attention.
Local media, including the Oregonian's right-leaning editorial board, have been trained to mostly talk about deadly force and racial prejudice in the right way. Past city leaders, prompted by ministers in the black community, invited the US Department of Justice to town to help goose along changes.
Portland's retiring police chief, Mike Reese, tried firing the cop who killed Campbell (even if an arbitrator slapped him down). The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office indicted the cop, Dane Reister, who nearly killed a man in crisis when he mistakenly loaded a live round into his bright-orange beanbag shotgun.
The police bureau has actively trained its supervisors to admit and own their biases.
We even have a mayor, Charlie Hales, who made police reform a central tenet of his campaign.
And yet even that's not enough—a point proven by the marchers who didn't wait for the official rally to put their feelings on display.
Over the weekend, activists policing the police discovered three cops on Facebook with profile pictures showing an "I Am Darren Wilson" bracelet wrapped around a Portland police badge. Maybe worse, as commenters noted, several other cops saw the picture and happily clicked "like."
Sure, that's just a fraction of the nearly 1,000 cops paid to keep the peace in Portland. But those are just the cops who were unthinking enough to publicly share a sympathy most know to keep private.
Reese moved quickly to launch investigations and order the photos removed. Hales backed him up. Both of those facts bode well.
But it's hard to think that sends any real message to the rank and file. These are the same officials who wiped away discipline for Mark Kruger, the cop who'd been punished for putting up a Nazi Germany shrine in a city park. And most cops know it.
Which means maybe we're not as far along as we think. And maybe those protesters who came out Monday, without waiting for city hall's blessing, weren't jousting so pointlessly after all.