At nearly every demonstration in Portland--whether the topic is war, President Bush, or labor unions--police brutality is a constant subtext. Marches and protests are, at least in some part, defined by the friction between protesters and police. The number of activists arrested or pepper sprayed is kept like a scorecard.
But last Wednesday, a group of activists gathered in the South Park Blocks and decided to make police brutality the whole point of their demonstration. For the past three years, police chief Mark Kroeker has been blamed for pushing policing tactics that bordered on military strategy. But even though he has officially resigned and is on his way to Liberia for a peacekeeping mission, activists say they don't expect a kinder and gentler police force in the near future.
"Every one of my friends has been brutalized by police," said "Pipa," one of the organizers of the potluck, open mic, and protest march. "I'm scared every day."
As the slightly ragtag group headed north on Broadway chanting, "Fuck police brutality!" they were flanked by officers on bikes and motorcycles moving against traffic. An armored jeep loaded with riot-geared cops waited at a nearby intersection. In all, there were more than 30 police officers for the 50 protesters.
"We're here to protect these people's right to freedom of speech," said officer Jeff Meyers. "[Our presence] is often misinterpreted."
But it was hard to misinterpret the irony of the arrest that took place a few minutes later: Outside Nordstrom, an unidentified young protester was handcuffed by two police officers and carried to squad car. She apparently was in the crosswalk after the walk sign had started blinking red. Meanwhile, jaywalkers carrying shopping bags were not arrested.
"This really dots the exclamation point," said an exasperated protester who chose to remain anonymous.
Yet in spite of the enthusiasm, others expressed doubt that marches like this one would change police behavior. Standing nearby, Thomas Pax, a forceful orator well known in local activist circles, said he wouldn't join the march.
"To think we're going to be able to reform the police is insane," he said. "It's not going to happen. The only way we can do that is to target the political structure itself." He added, "we need to think outside the freaking box for once."