Law, Order and Civil Liberties? 

Activists Ponder Cops' New Role As Protector of Civil Rights

For political activists, the walk from Pioneer Square to City Hall is a well-worn path often used to voice their disgruntlement. But Friday evening, the fifty protestors carrying "Peace" and "No More War" signs delivered a different message: This time they were cheering on the Police Chief and Mayor for their decision to stand firm against the federal government and not question Middle Eastern men as part of the FBI's dragnet for terrorists.

"For a lot of us, it's strange," said Will Seaman, an organizer for Portland Peaceful Response, a coalition that hosts weekly vigils against U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. "When someone you've had an antagonistic relationship with does something you agree with, you want to encourage that behavior and build on it." Seaman hastens to point out police have been cordial about PPR's weekly vigils.

For many activists around town, the mentality of Chief Mark Kroeker and the Police Bureau have been consistently irksome, and now, seeing the police bureau as the almighty protector of civil rights adds an unexpected twist to the plot.

Until the announcement that Portland police would not comply with the federal government's requests to question 200 local Middle Eastern men, the police had been at odds with local activists. Two summers ago, police in riot gear roughed up and pepper-sprayed activists at several downtown protests. More recently, the determination to continue the Joint Terrorism Task Force--a collaborative effort between FBI agents and local officers--spooked many activists who fear that the group is being used to spy on their organizations.

But Seaman believes those debates, as well as community criticism of the police force, may have led directly to the decision not to question the Middle Eastern men.

"We should be encouraged because organizing [against the police] has been effective. The police thought twice before joining [the effort] against privacy and civil rights."

While the decision shocked local activists and civil libertarians around the country, it has angered many more. In a nation where, according to ABC/Washington Post polls, the vast majority of Americans favor wiretaps and secret tribunals for prosecuting suspects, such dissent against the federal government is unpopular. In fact, the Mercury has received dozens of e-mails labeling Chief Kroeker a "traitor" and the city of Portland "un-American."

"All this emotional language--'I'm aghast,' 'this is un-American'--that has nothing to do with the law," says Alan Graf, a local attorney with the National Lawyers Guild. Graf points out that the decision is based on sound interpretation of state law and civil liberties. In 1996, the City of Portland lost a civil lawsuit by an activist who sued for such harassment. "To terrorize the Bill of Rights, that's un-American," adds Graf.

"We should applaud, but that doesn't mean that we should relax," continues Graf. "There are plenty of people ready to sell the Bill of Rights down the river; we should constantly be vigilant."

(Several observers have voiced suspicion that the use of the state law to thwart the FBI's efforts may actually be a Machiavellian scheme to overturn that very law. Oregon law affords more privacy and privileges against police intrusion than federal standards. According to that theory, by showing how much the state law frustrates policing efforts, state legislators could try to overturn it during the upcoming session.)

Chief Kroeker's defiance has sparked a powder keg of dissent along I-5: Corvallis, Eugene, and Salem police departments have followed Portland's lead, refusing to help the FBI with its dragnet.

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