When Ted Wheeler ran for mayor, he pledged to “actively demilitarize the police force.” Instead, the almost two months since Wheeler took office have coincided with some of the strongest uses of police force in recent memory.
That was driven home again Monday, February 20, when the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) came down hard on a relatively small group of anti-Donald Trump protesters downtown. The crackdown set the stage for yet another battle with activists and civil rights groups saying their actions are protected by the First Amendment.
The PPB arrested 13 people on Monday, less than an hour after the Don’t Shoot Portland-organized “Not My President’s Day” protest began outside the federal building on the corner of SW 3rd and Madison. It was precisely a month after the PPB suppressed a downtown Inauguration Day protest with flash-bang grenades, less-lethal rounds, and tear gas aimed at nonviolent protesters standing in the street.
“Take off your riot gear, I don’t see no riot here,” yelled 31-year-old David Carlson, one of a handful of protesters still lingering in the road on Monday when riot cops stormed in.
Police had warned the group they’d be arrested for standing in the street, and subsequently shepherded demonstrators to the sidewalk. Most of them were still there when a police SUV with about a dozen riot gear-clad police hanging from the side pulled up behind Carlson. Several cops pounced on him, throwing him to the ground, putting their knees on his back as he was face-down in the street.
“I asked the police if I was just going to get a ticket and let go,” Carlson told the Mercury after his release from jail Monday evening. “He said ‘No, because this keeps happening.’”
More officers tackled, dragged, zip-tied, and arrested others on the side of the street and on the sidewalk.
Margaret “Peggy” Zebroski, 66, who’d been in the street but was on the sidewalk when riot cops came in, had her nose bloodied and wrist injured when police tackled her. She tells the Mercury she was arrested while trying to shield a 72-year-old friend of hers (“an old lady with a bum knee”) from the swarming officers.
“The cops were hurting her!” she said. “I went from where I was and grabbed her and said ‘Beverly, Beverly, Beverly’—they let go of her and immediately threw me in the street.”
Shortly after the first sweep, the armor-clad police swept through the crowd again, arresting more demonstrators.
One man—who later told police his name was Quanice Hayes, the 17-year-old killed by a Portland police officer on February 9—was taken to the ground by cops and pepper sprayed in the face while his arms were pinned behind his back. He had been standing one step off the curb.
A few blocks away, officers shoved 33-year-old Rebecca Smith White down on the sidewalk and then shot “pepper balls” at her as the group marched from the federal building.
Meanwhile, a separate demonstration and march, the PPB was quick to point out, received a permit—which a number of activists have likened to an “extortion fee” for constitutionally protected protests. That march proceeded without incident.
“We would much prefer things were different,” PPB spokesperson Sgt. Pete Simpson told the Oregonian. “But we’re sort of forced to be there now because of the aggressive nature of the ‘We’re going to show up, we’re going to block streets, we’re going to shut the city down’ attitude.”
But the notably forceful response to Monday’s small protest seems likely to exacerbate notions that PPB has been brutish in its dealings with protests.
“Today, Portland Police Bureau policy led to violence against peaceful protesters including young kids and retired public employees,” the ACLU of Oregon said in a statement on Monday addressed to Wheeler, the city’s police commissioner. The civil rights group has called recent heavy-handed PPB crackdowns on protests “wrong and illegal” and is advocating changes to the bureau’s crowd control policy to be in line with the constitution.
“Most of these people were gathered on public property on the sidewalk when they were shoved down and arrested,” the ACLU continued. “On. The. Sidewalk. It was shameful.”
The organization has demanded that the PPB “end the violence against protesters. Stop the unnecessary use of crowd control weapons. Stop sending officers in riot gear to peaceful protests. Stop arresting organizers.”
Wheeler appears to be listening. In a Tuesday statement, the mayor said he’d asked police brass to “help create a more positive space for expression and tactics that de-escalate tension.”
The issue of permits is a major hang-up for local activists who don’t want to pay money for what they say are constitutionally protected demonstrations, including being on the streets.
Portland’s Resistance leader Gregory McKelvey, who was not at Monday’s protests but has led a number of actions that have drawn riot cops, filed a facetious permit request with the city on Monday for a march from downtown to Wheeler’s Southwest Portland home.
“Repeatedly, we are told that if we request a permit we will not be subjected to gas, pepper spray, and incredible amounts of violence,” the permit application says. “Thus, we are requesting a permit in the hopes that this will prevent innocent, peaceful people from being beaten in the streets.”*** All photographs by Doug Brown