Local civil rights organizations met Friday morning to decry city leadership's response to the mass shooting on February 19, which targeted Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist activists.
"We are urging law enforcement to call out white supremacy, we are urging [leadership] to be courageous," said Shaina Pomerantz, director of the Portland nonprofit Race Talks. "This is hard work and takes a lot of courage."
During a virtual press conference, Pomerantz and others accused the city of spreading disinformation shortly after the shooting took place, which emboldened right-wing groups and misled the community.
At around 8 pm February 19, a man named Ben Smith who lived in an apartment complex near Normandale Park in Northeast Portland angrily approached a group of unarmed people who had gathered at the park to support a demonstration against police killings. Smith allegedly shot five people, killing one. Smith only stopped shooting when another individual allegedly shot him in the hip.
The initial narrative from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), whose officers arrived on the scene after the shooting concluded, was that the incident was a "confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters." Right-wing activists online immediately spread this statement, jumping to the conclusion that left-wing protesters had attacked a man on his property. This statement was also shared by local and national media outlets.The true dynamics of the shooting weren't made public until witnesses and victims spoke with the press.
Neither PPB or the police commissioner Mayor Ted Wheeler, have retracted that narrative, let alone apologized for the misinformation it spread. Asked why PPB identified Smith as a "homeowner" during a Tuesday press conference, PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said he "didn't know."
On Friday, civil rights leaders called for an investigation into how PPB communicates information after a high-interest crime takes place.
"It's important that we as a city... that we need to do an investigation in how we communicate this information to the press," said Teressa Raiford, director of Don't Shoot Portland. "It’s hard to reclaim your credibility as an organization when there seems to be a bias in the reporting and the way that the victims are portrayed. [The city] needs to focus on criminal investigations, not rhetoric that divides communities."
While many in City Hall say there's interest in re-assessing how information is spread after a serious criminal act, there has been no public acknowledgement of a need to change this process.
Raiford said that her organization has received countless phone calls and emails since the shooting from people in Portland's activist community sharing fears of retaliation from right-wing agitators who still believe PPB's narrative about the incident.
PPB has also accused people who witnessed the shooting of refusing to speak to officers. Sandy Chung, director of ACLU of Oregon, said that only shows a deficiency in law enforcement's ability to do their job.
"When you look at some of the initial press releases released by Portland Police Bureau, it has false information in it that portrays what happened on Saturday in a way that didn't occur," said Chung. "And in which it also seems to blame community members for not coming forward. If the purpose of Portland police was truly to invite the community and make sure they have the trust of the community to do an investigation, they should not have released a [statement] like that."
Bobbin Singh, director of Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), went further to place blame on Portland city government as a whole.
"It's important for city leadership to really reflect on the false demonization of protesters, Black Lives Matter movement individuals, and communities of color over the years and how that has led to these conditions," Singh said.
Asked how the city could repair the lost trust with activist communities, Singh suggested that Wheeler resign and that PPB leadership be "dismantled and replaced."
"There's nothing over the years that has suggested they can confront these challenges," said Singh. "[They're] an impediment at this point... to help the community heal and restore itself."