Tuesday night saw a significant shift in the way the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has responded to consecutive, nightly protests against police brutality. On Wednesday, Portland saw a shift in the way its elected officials are talking about it, too.
First, a recap of what took place last night. The evening's demonstrations began with a group of thousands marching from Southeast Portland to downtown Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, where they merged with another gathering of several thousand Portlanders to listen to several speakers of color talk about how racist policing has impacted their lives. City officials estimate that 10,000 people turned out for this rally. By 9 pm, around a thousand of the remaining group of around 5,000 began to march away from the square towards the fenced-in perimeter around the Multnomah County Justice Center, Chapman and Lownsdale squares, and other government buildings. That's when officers warned over a mobile loudspeaker that anyone "interfering with the fence" would be "subject to use of force."
Per protester and officer accounts, several protesters chucked objects like water bottles, bats, and fireworks, over the fence at riot police standing at the other side. When confrontations with officers reached this point in past protests, officers fired "flash bang" grenades and tear gas at the front of the crowd, where the projectiles appear to be coming from. In this instance, the tear gas canisters were shot into the intersection behind the crowd, where protesters observing what was going on—but intentionally standing at what appeared to be a safe distance from the police—were gathered. This tactic effectively forced hundreds of people to run through a cloud of tear gas to escape the area, and immediately changed the tone of the evening's demonstration. The rest of the evening and early morning hours were spent with officers using copious amounts of tear gas to dismantle the protest.
Other reporters on the ground witnessed more violent responses: KGW captured video of a PPB vehicle speeding towards a group of people in the street, and Village Portland and KBOO journalist Cory Elia was physically assaulted by officers while explaining that he was a member of the press.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city's police commissioner, commented on the night's police response in an early morning press conference Wednesday.
"Last night, a small minority of demonstrators provoked conflict and endangered lives," he said. "Our officers are doing everything they can to respect and protect peaceful demonstrators. But they have another job, and that job is to make sure that lives are safe and public safety is protected. That's why we cannot tolerate violence. It's our duty to protect Portland."
This response echoed Wheeler's previous statements on how officers have reacted to the past five days of protests. But, when Portland City Commissioners were given an opportunity to comment on the police response an hour later, Portland heard a different call to action.
"I went to bed in tears watching police fire gas canisters as they were rolling down streets into random crowds of protesters," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly during Wednesday's virtual City Council meeting.
Eudaly said that when she used to participate in protests, before she was elected to City Council, she felt "powerless" against police officers who used violence and other concerning tactics against demonstrators. She thought that might change when she joined the council in 2017.
"City Commissioner is the second most powerful position in the city, and I still feel powerless against the police," said Eudaly.
"The Geneva Convention banned the use of tear gas, I think we should too," she continued. "I am absolutely horrified by what I saw last night. It is sadistic to be using tear gas in the middle of a public health crisis that is attacking people's respiratory systems. I'm really worried about the health impacts these protests might be having, but what I see out there is beautiful. It's an uprising and it's a time for reckoning and we have got to do something now."
While Eudaly called for an end to tear gas, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty demanded the City Council vote to defund three PPB programs that she said "are the most racially unequal systems that we have in the Portland Police Bureau." Hardesty said she will introduce amendments to scrap the bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) (known for disproportionally targeting Black Portlanders), the School Resource Officer (SRO) program (which places police officers on public school campuses), and PPB's contract with TriMet to serve as transit police officers (a program that's been challenged in court for being unconstitutional).
Earlier in this year's city budget discussion, Hardesty announced she would not be proposing to defund these programs—since she knew that wouldn't gather support from her fellow city commissioners—and instead agreed to work with Wheeler to hold public meetings about their efficacy. But now, with the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers igniting a national outcry against racist policing (a movement that's encouraged Minneapolis elected officials to propose disbanding its police department), Hardesty's colleagues might be more receptive to her pitch.
"I'm going to ask you colleagues to look into your soul and join me in making sure that we can send a strong message to the community that we hear them," said Hardesty. "I want you to publicly affirm that you will work with me to make sure that we can remove the fear—the fear that police officers have of Black bodies, and the fear that Black bodies have against in the police."
"We have an obligation as the leadership in the city to make sure the community knows that we are hearing them loud and clear, and we're not going to put together work groups or task forces... to delay action," she continued. "But we're going to take action because the community has told us over and over again that these are the changes that they want. And they want these changes now."
Hardesty has yet to release this budget proposal to City Council. She will need support of two other city commissioners for it to be included in the 2020-2021 budget. As of Wednesday afternoon, neither Eudaly, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, nor Wheeler have publicly supported the idea. The amendments and final budget will be discussed and voted on by City Council on June 10 at 2 pm.