It didn’t take long before Thursday’s public hearing on a proposed city ordinance, meant to address violence between groups of protesters in Portland, shifted to a discussion on police conduct.
“We urge the council to reject this ordinance and understand that the community has been shocked and injured by the actions of the Portland Police Bureau at these protests,” said Beth Wooten, who testified before council on behalf of the Portland National Lawyers Guild.
The ordinance, penned by Mayor Ted Wheeler, attempts to limit the number of violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing protesters by restricting the location, duration, and size of protests that are expected to turn violent based on that group’s history.
The proposal says that judgement call, which can be based on a person or group’s social media presence, is solely up to the acting police commissioner. Wheeler currently holds that role. There is no process included in the ordinance that would allow demonstrators to appeal this decision before it impacts their protest.
”We are a city known for protest. It is our obligation to stand up against hate.”
Wooten’s opposition to the ordinance was echoed by civil rights lawyers, longtime local activists, and elected city officials during Thursday’s 3-hour-long meeting.
“There have been many instances of the safety of our community being endangered by police response to protest,” said Kimberly McCullough, legislative director of the ACLU of Oregon.
“If we’re serious about addressing the safety of communities, we need to talk about the use of crowd control weapons, what sort of de-escalation techniques we’re using, and what kind of training law enforcement have to actually respond to protests in a peaceful manner," she said.
Several of the city’s recent protests have left more attendees injured by police use of force than from interactions with counter-protesters.
Speakers’ concerns weren’t limited to how Wheeler’s proposed ordinance ignored police conduct at protests. Others argued that Wheeler’s new rules will support the goals of right-wing extremist groups, fuel hate speech, discourage peaceful protests, and generally limit Portlanders’ First Amendment rights.
“As I see a rise of white nationalists in this city, for the first time in my life I am fearful when a pickup truck with an American flag rolls up near me. I am looking for exits,” said city commissioner-elect Jo Ann Hardesty. ”We are a city known for protest. It is our obligation to stand up against hate.”
Hardesty said if this type of ordinance existed in the 1960s, it could have restricted the powerful protests of African Americans challenging institutionalized racism.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly used a hypothetical scenario to illustrate the ordinances potential limitations to free speech.
“A right wing extremist group is coming to our city to hold a rally. I’m organizing a counter-protest,” Eudaly said. “I’ve never engaged in violent protest, but a group that the city has decided has engaged in violent protest attaches themselves to my event. So would my ability to hold my counter protest [be impacted] by this ordinance?”
Deputy City Attorney Robert Taylor said that yes, if those protesters with a violent history joined in, it would.
Eudaly used her time to press the Portland Police Bureau's top brass—including Chief Danielle Outlaw and Deputy Chief Bob Day—on questions regarding their perceived preferential treatment of right-wing extremist groups, like Vancouver's Patriot Prayer, at recent Portland protests. These perceptions were outlined in a city report by the Independent Police Review (IPR) office earlier this year.
“Why aren’t these right-wing extremist groups being treated like gangs?”
Eudaly asked why PPB appeared to only ask left-wing protesters to disperse during a protest after it turned violent.
“We could not agree or disagree with that statement, because I can’t speak to every action that occurred,” Day replied.
Eudaly pressed on: “Why aren’t these right-wing extremist groups being treated like gangs?”
“Well, investigations are based upon behaviors,” Day responded. “I can tell you we are looking at behaviors of all groups, regardless of their behavior.”
Eudaly submitted a list of nearly 50 specific, related questions to PPB for the bureau to answer in writing. She said their responses would be made public.
Most of Thursday’s testimony before council centered on one overarching question: Why do we need this ordinance?
“We are hard pressed to see how this will actually prevent violence from occurring or reduce use of law enforcement resources and police,” said the ACLU’s McCullough.
She listed a number of tools the police bureau can already legally use to restrict violence at protests, like restraining orders against violent protesters or probation rules that could restrict people convicted of assault from attending a protest.
“When people commit acts of violence, there are already ways to hold them accountable,” McCullough said. “And those accountability measures actually can prevent future violence.”
These tools, she noted, do not place sweeping restrictions on Portlanders' ability to practice free speech.
Wheeler unveiled the ordinance on Oct. 15, days after several national media outlets ran stories criticizing his ability to control violent protests. He did not allow city commissioners to give feedback on the controversial ordinance before making it public.
In an interview earlier this week, Wheeler told the Mercury the proposed rules were a response to an uptick in violent protests in Portland. Wheeler did not offer data to support this claim
“I don't have a scientific study, but I think if you did a quick Google search you'll see that just over the course of the last six months the number and frequency of violent interactions on our street has increased substantially,” Wheeler said, and then referenced a recent CBS segment that aired footage of a violent protests.
Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, who also testified Thursday, said that protests have demanded outsized police resources, costing the bureau nearly $3 million in overtime costs since 2016 and keeping officers from responding to crimes in other parts of town.
Only a few people testified in support of the ordinance, including Democratic state Representative Janelle Bynum. Bynum said she had concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal, but was worried large protests would continue to unfairly divert police resources away from the East Portland district she represents.
Representatives from the Portland Business Alliance and Travel Oregon said the recent headline-grabbing protests have concerned local businesses and had an impact on tourism.
“We are hard pressed to see how this will actually prevent violence from occurring or reduce use of law enforcement resources and police.”
The ACLU of Oregon is one of several groups who’ve suggested they’ll file a lawsuit against the city if the ordinance is passed as-is. McCullough asked council why costly litigation is worth the ordinance’s passage, especially when these groups are willing to work with the city to flesh out a more constitutional solution.
“There are a lot of things our community needs our time and resources for. Instead of diverting those resources into legal battles, we should be working together to create tangible changes that will truly help protect our communities,” she said. “I think it’s better for us all to be partners. I think we can work collaboratively to try to figure out something that doesn’t end us up in court, fighting each other there.”
Asked by Commissioner Nick Fish if there were any tweaks the council could make to the current proposal to avoid legal hangups, McCullough put it bluntly: “I don’t think this ordinance can be fixed.”
Fish is the only city commissioner who hasn’t taken a clear stance on Wheeler’s ordinance, and will be the swing vote that determines its fate.
“This is precisely what Joey Gibson wants."
Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Eudaly have said they plan to vote against the proposal, while Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Saltzman want to see it succeed. Judging by his questions pitched to McCullough and Taylor Thursday, it’s still not clear where Fish’s vote will fall.
Wheeler has scheduled the ordinance for a second reading and vote before council next Wednesday. But, if he doesn’t have Fish’s vote, Wheeler could still pull it from the agenda.
Wooten, with the National Lawyer's Guild, ended her testimony Thursday with a warning: This isn't going to stop groups like Patriot Prayer, led by conservative rabble-rouser Joey Gibson, from finding a way to protest in Portland. This ordinance is only proof, she said, that Portland can bend to the fear-mongering perpetuated by these fringe organizations.
“This is precisely what Joey Gibson wants," Wooten said. "Patriot Prayer wants the city to scramble every and any time he makes a peep on social media.”