Epileptic, Jack had a seizure one afternoon in downtown Portland. When he emerged from its throws, he was confused and tried to steady himself on a nearby tree. A few horseback cops rode alongside him and began yelling at him. Still dazed, he began to wander away. He didn't get far before a squad car squealed to a stop directly in his path, two cops rushed out, threw him in the back, and accused him of drug use.
Jack spent the next twenty-four hours in a downtown jail before being released with no apologies. Standing in front of an audience of 120 or so, Jack looked up at the end of his story. "It's sad," he said, "that in the city, you're afraid of the cops more than anything else."
In an effort to pull together community support and solidarity, last Wednesday the Police Accountability Campaign (PAC-2002) hosted a "Speak Out"; a forum with the humble expectations of giving normal, everyday citizens a brief opportunity to tell their stories of police abuse to a sympathetic audience. It was the fourth in a series of such events, but the first time that PAC-2002 has successfully drawn in a large number of youth.
"It was hard bringing in kids," said Greg Cluster, "these are people who already feel alienated by society." Working with SE Youth Works, a local organization that works with at-risk youth, the organizers were able to reach out to about 100 youths they knew personally and who trusted them. Cluster called the evening's event the "essence of grassroots."
The goal for PAC-2002 is to put a voter initiative on next summer's ballot which, if successful, would take the current police oversight committee away from City Hall and hand it over to ordinary citizens. Many believe that increasingly loud complaints about police misconduct have been falling on deaf ears at City Hall. Critics say that Mayor Katz, who oversees the police force, more often than not sides with the police instead of complaining citizens.
Over the past year, concern over police brutality in Portland has been spreading like spilled oil, outward from activist groups and into the homes of everyday teens, students, and day-wage workers. Much publicity has been given to the heavy-handed policing at protests around town, but most speakers this evening complained about brutal and unprovoked arrests in their front yards, living rooms or just a few blocks from their homes.
One African-American woman talked about being wrestled to the ground while carrying groceries home in one arm and her one-year-old daughter in her other. The police, she claimed, maced her several times, wrenched her baby away and threw her in the back of a squad car. Another speaker, a bashful Latino man, told (through an interpreter) about being shoved to the ground and handcuffed by police. He was in his front yard hooking up his new car stereo.
Compared to last summer when riot police fought with protesters at the May Day march and several other events, at this summer's protests, police presence has been largely civil. In spite of taunting by black-clad activists at recent protests over GATT and the G8 Summit, police have stood their ground, but haven't advanced with clubs swinging--a dramatic improvement, according to many activists.
Yet, given the stories expressed at this evening's Speak Out, this image of a kinder and gentler police force masks a deeper problem. If these claims are true, the police have not conformed to public demands for civility and instead have simply shifted their abuse to a different venue--one closer to residents' homes and further from the eye of the public and media.
Ironically, as Portland continues to gather kudos for its livability, the dark underside of the city's reputation has also been growing: Portland's police force is becoming known as one of the most violent and maligned in the nation. Since April, there have been five police shootings of unarmed minorities in as many months. According to a recent ranking in the Washington Post, in the last year, Portland has climbed to eighteenth nationally in police shootings per 1000 residents. Moreover, the ratio of police shootings to citywide murder rate is the fourth highest in the country.
To qualify for next summer's ballot, PAC-2002 needs to collect 27,000 valid signatures by January. Currently, they are about 5,000 short of this goal.