On My Soapbox 

Guilty By Association

The trial of the African American men accused of beating two off-duty cops last summer drags on. And with it, Portland's tortured relationship with race continues to unfold.

On Monday, the case was postponed again after Judge Michael Marcus refused to allow the prosecutor to label the men as gang members. Since the officers were assaulted last summer outside the Greek Cuisina, five men have pled guilty, but Jerrin Hickman and Damon Cunningham continue to plead innocent. The prosecutor is trying to snare them by claiming they have gang ties to the guilty parties, and therefore must have been involved.

Although there is no direct evidence of gang affiliations, the District Attorney presented expert testimony on Monday. "If you walk like a duck, talk like a duck and sound like duck, you're a duck," argued one so-called "gang" expert. Rightfully, Judge Marcus admonished this disparaging and opaquely racist comment.

While interviewing Hickman's mom, she told me when her son was young, he thought about becoming a police officer. "He was their little buddy," she said. But, she explained, when he grew older, the police began routinely shaking him down and eyeing him suspiciously--essentially treating him like a gangbanger. Last August, the police conducted a massive manhunt for the alleged perpetrators; battering down doors, shooting out windows, and handcuffing one of the men's grandmothers. Scared, Hickman quit his job, suspended studies at a local college and went on the lam. Such heavy-handed policing makes it easy to see why a young black man in America would join a gang.

For two years as an attorney with the juvenile courts in California, I launched a sports program in an attempt to steer some kids away from crime. It was a rowing team for teenagers from gang-riddled East Oakland. Most of the boys who participated were good kids in bad circumstances, and they took quickly to the program.

Why? Largely because the team provided the same essential elements of a gang--a sense of belonging, loyalty, trust. Oddly, most joined gangs to find the same mentality police departments boast about--fidelity to their partners and watching each other's backs.

The common misconception is that gangs mean violence and anger--this is what the District Attorney is hoping to impugn on Hickman and Cunningham. More important is the underlying motivation for security and loyalty. Until law enforcement begins to look past superficial assumptions and begins to empathize with the mentality that pushes young men into gangs, Portland will continue to suffer because of its prejudices.

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