Michelle Fawcett in 2019
Michelle Fawcett in 2019 Doug Brown

Hall Monitor is a regular column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves.

It’s been three years since a Portland cop shot a munition into a crowd of people protesting a right-wing rally and struck Michelle Fawcett, leaving her with searing third-degree chemical burns on her arm and chest.

Fawcett, a longtime activist in her mid-50s, hasn’t been to a protest since.

“I don’t feel safe,” Fawcett told the Mercury Thursday. “[The city] took that away from me. That’s one of the hardest things about all of this.”

Fawcett’s feeling of loss goes beyond her own personal safety. In the three years since her injury, she’s watched hundreds of Portlanders encounter the same abuse at the hands of local police and right-wing extremists who continue to use Portland as a battleground. She’s watched this unrestrained violence effectively stamp out the progressive activism Portland has long been known for.

“The city has done nothing to make us feel like we can practice democracy safely,” said Fawcett.

On Wednesday, Portland City Council voted to pay Fawcett $50,000 to settle a lawsuit she filed against the city in 2019 for excessive use of force by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Public testimony before the vote centered on how little has changed in PPB’s response to protests since the 2018 demonstration that left Fawcett “permanently scarred and emotionally traumatized,” according to her lawsuit.

It provided a needed moment for reflection.

August 4, 2018 saw members of Patriot Prayer—the right-wing group based in Vancouver, Washington—crowd Tom McCall Waterfront Park, hoisting Confederate flags and swinging batons for a “Freedom March,” tangentially connected to Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson’s failed run for US Senate. Yet police on the ground paid little attention to the gaggle of visiting extremists, instead focusing on the large crowd of counter-protesters who had gathered to oppose Patriot Prayer, a group with ties to white nationalists.

That’s what drew Fawcett to the event: She had learned of the connection between Patriot Prayer and Jeremy Christian—the avowed white supremacist who killed two men in 2017 after they tried to stop him from spewing hate speech at two women of color riding the MAX. Christian had attended a march organized by Patriot Prayer just a month before the MAX slayings.

"When I heard Patriot Prayer was coming back to Portland, I knew I had to be part of the peaceful protest," Fawcett said in 2019. "I felt it was my duty to stand up against violence, bigotry, and hatred that day."

Videos and photos of the midsummer demonstration show police squaring off against the group of antifascist counter-protesters, firing rounds of munitions directly into the crowd with little warning or explanation. (Later, officers claimed that some protesters in the group had allegedly thrown rocks and bottles at them.)

Fawcett was standing far away from the PPB line, talking to a friend, when she was hit with the burning munition. Several others were hit by PPB’s weaponry, including journalists and protesters. One officer’s flash-bang grenade lodged itself in an activist’s bike helmet, splitting open his skull.

Following the event, the public raised concerns that PPB officers had acted with unfair leniency toward Patriot Prayer ralliers, in comparison to the anti-fascist crowd. Their suspicions were confirmed months later, when records obtained by the Mercury found that a PPB lieutenant had been sharing information about counter-protesters whereabouts with Patriot Prayer’s Gibson the day of the rally. Police also admitted they’d done nothing after discovering a cache of long guns in a car belonging to Patriot Prayer members on a high level of a parking garage near the protest.

Internal investigations into these perceived allegiances did little to curb the public’s unease. It’s been years, and PPB’s actions during protests still seem skewed against left-leaning activists.

The latest Portland visit by right-wing extremists—an August 22 rally organized by members of the Proud Boys—culminated in bloody fistfights and gunfire. Portland police were noticeably absent from much of these eruptions of violence, after warning the city earlier that officers wouldn’t intervene in clashes. For progressive activists, this felt like PPB was giving conservative extremists a free pass to wreak havoc on activists who spent much of 2020 protesting PPB’s work.

“It’s terrifying when police coordinate with these regional squads to assault residents of the city,” said Portlander Emory Mort, speaking to council before the Wednesday vote on Fawcett’s settlement.

While Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city’s police commissioner, admitted that the August 22 police response was “not the right strategy,” he used the opportunity to trot out excuses the public has heard before about why he’s unable to stop far-right extremists from coming to town. Specifically, he bemoaned the fact that his 2018 proposal meant to limit the time and location of protests was condemned for being unconstitutional (Psst... it was).

“I want to remind you that I did try to pass an ordinance… and the community wouldn't have it,” said Wheeler, with a jovial laugh. “The community strongly disagreed with me.”

It’s this kind of shrugging response that gives Fawcett and others who’ve watched the past years of police violence little hope that left-leaning protesters will ever feel safe demonstrating in Portland.

“It feels like there’s no one in charge here,” said Fawcett. “There’s zero accountability and zero protection. There’s plenty of options for us to explore better ways of community safety. There’s just not the concern or will to do anything.”

On Wednesday, city lawyers told City Council that the decision to settle with Fawcett was risk-averse because, if her case had gone to trial, the outcome might not have been in the city’s favor. Fawcett considered that an admission of wrongdoing.

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“As close as possible, at least,” she said. “But it’s no compensation for being shot at by an entity who was supposedly there to protect the community. It doesn't feel like we’re on any kind of path to make this any better.”

City leaders have spent the past months working with PR firms and brand analysts on how to “save” Portland’s reputation on the heels of the pandemic—suggesting that past racial justice protests and the city’s visible housing crisis have sullied Portland’s image. Yet it ignores how city leadership has allowed Portland’s long reputation as a stronghold for progressive activism in the country to fade over the past several years.

Unlike meeting Fawcett in court, it appears that it’s a risk the city is willing to take.