On a Sunday evening in June of 2016, queer Portlander Jen was assaulted outside of a bar in downtown Portland.
“I was picked up and thrown to the ground… by a man who then jumped in his SUV and sped off while his girlfriend shouted ‘FAGGOT!’ at me from the passenger window,” Jen, who asked that we not use her last name, said in an email to the Mercury. “I had come to the defense of my fiancée, a trans woman, who they'd been mocking. There were as many people downtown that night as you'd expect on an early summer weekend, and not one of them did or said a fucking thing. …I have never felt more humiliated or useless in my life, or more alone in the middle of dozens of people.”
Jen ended up with a concussion, black eye, and detached retina from the attack.
She posted about her experience on social media and received an outpouring of support from the Portland queer community. She was also told by many people that she ought to report her attack, either to police or to the media, and was approached by a few journalists eager to share her story.
She declined the interviews. She didn’t report the assault.
Jen said her feeling at the time was that “no matter who I talk to about this, they will turn it into some kind of spectacle that will make me out to be the one responsible for something (anything) instead of the one literally pulled off her feet and chucked to the piss-covered sidewalk.”
Over the last two weeks, the Portland LGBTQ community has been shaken by social media reports of anti-queer violence happening around the city. As the Mercury reported last week, survivors are declining to talk to the media about these recent alleged assaults, and so far only one has been reported to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
At a listening session hosted by the Q Center at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) on Sunday evening, many LGBTQ community members expressed a deep mistrust of the police. Their concerns, and the stories of people like Jen, paint a picture of why it has been difficult for journalists to document the attacks, and why most of them have not been reported to PPB.
Q Center executive director Cameron Whitten kicked off Sunday’s listening session, attended by over 500 people, with a question and answer session. One question from an attendee: Was he or anyone at the Q Center in contact with PPB about the reported assaults?
“We have not reached out to the Portland Police Bureau,” Whitten answered. Attendees clapped and cheered at his response.
Whitten went on to say that a PPB officer had tried to arrange a coffee meeting with him, which he was considering, but that he’d told the officer upfront: “The community doesn’t trust you.”
The relationship between LGBTQ people and police officers in the US has a long and fraught history, stretching back to pre-Stonewall Riot days, when officers would raid queer bars and enforce anti-gay and anti-trans laws.
More recently in Portland, texts released between PPB and Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson have stoked beliefs that many marginalized groups in Portland already held: the police doesn’t exist to protect them. They exist to protect their attackers.
During an open mic portion of the Sunday listening session, several LGBTQ people expressed this sentiment. One person said that in June of 2018, they emailed Mayor Ted Wheeler and PPB about rumors of potential alt-right violence during Portland’s Pride weekend. They didn’t receive any response.
That person said they also exchanged messages with Lt. Jeff Niiya, the PPB officer who had a protective relationship with Gibson, about alt-right hate groups having a presence at Pride. Niiya was unsympathetic to their concerns.
“We know the police do not stand with us,” the person said through a sign language interpreter.
It’s worth noting that in the one incident reported to PPB in recent weeks, the police report cast doubt on the survivor’s story of assault, saying she was intoxicated and could have tripped and fallen.
Dee, a trans woman who attended the Q Center event, had better luck when she reported an experience to the police. In December of 2018, Dee, who also asked to be identified solely by her first name, was attacked when crossing a street in Beaverton.
Dee’s employer does not allow her to use the women’s restroom at her workplace, so she was walking to a nearby coffee shop to use their facilities. She told the Mercury that a driver noticed her crossing the street, and intentionally sped up and ran over her foot, which resulted in minor injuries.
“He’s looking at his cellphone, and then he looks up, and that look of hatred just comes across his face,” Dee said. “He glares at me, he slams on the gas, and I have to run out of his way. He clipped my foot.”
The driver followed Dee into the strip mall where the coffee shop is located, and Dee confronted him when he got out of his car, asking why he’d hit her.
“He starts yelling at me, ‘This is America, F-you, this is America,’” Dee said. The man also arranged his hand into the shape of a pistol and pointed it at her. When he went to retrieve something from his car, Dee retreated to the coffee shop, where she called 911 to report the incident and the driver’s license plate.
“They didn’t come and help, but they at least listened to me,” Dee said about the 911 call.
The Beaverton Police Department followed up with her later and said that while they wouldn't be treating the incident as a hate crime, they had arrested the man for previous charges after receiving his license plate number from Dee.
Dee said that after hearing about other queer people’s experience with the police, she considers herself lucky. After coming out as trans last summer, she started attending local queer meetups, where the issue of anti-queer violence often came up.
“Everyone I talked to had an experience like mine,” she said. “At least one. …I understand why they don’t want to talk to police.”
Because they don’t feel they can trust the police, the Portland LGBTQ community is taking it on themselves to protect each other. The volunteer-run SafeRidePDX offers free rides to queer people who call them at 503-455-7077. The Q Center gives free self-defense classes, and activists will host a day-long safety seminar at PICA on Saturday, March 2.
The Q Center also gave out fliers at the door listing other local safety resources.
Jen didn’t attend the listening session, but she reached out to the Mercury to share her story after reading our previous reporting on the alleged attacks. She finally felt ready to say something about it.
“I know my assault was nearly three years ago now,” she said, “but maybe people need to know that's how long it can take to feel safe enough to report.”