Police Reform Progress 2021
The movement that kicked local police reform efforts into gear last May is far from over. For many activists who invested months into organizing in 2020, the past year’s wins aren’t satisfactory.
“We’re not even remotely close to where we should be,” said Darren Golden, a former member of the activist organization Rose City Justice, which led many of the early summer marches. “But that’s expected. I think a lot of people believe that it is easy to change the system of policing, and you can just tear it down. It’s not that easy—that investment takes time. If you remove a support system and don’t support the system you removed, it’s going to fall. And the people that are hurt most are the ones that need the most help.”
Golden now works as a lobbyist for the Real Police Accountability PAC, the committee advocating for Senate Bill 621 to enable Portland’s new police oversight board.
“It’s important we acknowledge the wins,” Golden said. “We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we would be without last year’s movement. That gives me hope.”
For many, the movement continues in frequent marches and rallies, either centered on a current event (e.g., opposition to US immigration detention laws or support of Palestine) or the familiar criticism of law enforcement. The makeup of those protests is significantly different from the thousands who crowded Portland’s streets last May: The vast majority of attendees are dressed in identity-obscuring black clothing (or, “black bloc”) and present a more direct demand to abolish the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) entirely. This autonomous group of activists doesn’t hesitate to set fire to dumpsters, smash shop windows, or graffiti boarded up businesses during their demonstrations. It’s these actions that have alienated them from some local progressives and Black Lives Matter activists who marched through Portland in 2020.
“We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we would be without last year’s movement. That gives me hope.” -Darren Golden, Real Police Accountability PAC
On the year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, a memorial march in downtown Portland fostered a fistfight between activists who disagreed on protest tactics. “When you break shit, you’re putting Black lives at risk,” said one Black protester over a megaphone, who attempted to stop black-clad demonstrators from breaking a window. “And if you aren’t out here for Black lives, then you should be asking why you’re out here.”
As the on-the-ground activism continues to evolve, other activist organizations have refocused their efforts on specific causes. Imagine Black (formally PAALF), the nonprofit that partnered with Unite Oregon to request $50 million in cuts to PPB in June, has spent the past six months advocating for candidates in school board elections across the Portland metro region that are “committed to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and never taking a dollar from the police,” according to Imagine Black spokesperson Ella Ray.
“We are proud to tangibly support Black leaders in education whose primary goals are to ensure Black youth and families are represented and protected,” wrote Ray in an email to the Mercury.
The city’s commitment to police accountability will be tested at least once more in City Hall in 2021, with the outcome of the city’s contract negotiations with the Portland Police Association (PPA), PPB’s rank-and-file union. Initiated in January, the all-virtual collective bargaining sessions have centered squarely on the community’s distrust in its police force. Attorneys representing the city have suggested eliminating a ban on elected officials “embarrassing” PPA members, requiring racial bias training for all officers seeking a promotion, and cracking down on PPB overtime, an expense that has ballooned with the past year’s protests.
PPA, meanwhile, has put forward a proposal masquerading as accountability: The union wants to require that all officers be equipped with body cameras—as long as officers who use deadly force against a member of the public can view those videos before being questioned about the incident by an investigator. This catch is why some city commissioners previously rejected body cam requirements for PPB officers, despite most major US police departments touting the tool as a police accountability mainstay.
The tense union negotiations have centered on the new police oversight board, despite its future largely being tied up in the Oregon Senate.
“What we know is that movements like this speed up policy changes and speed up public education on what’s possible.” -Jasmine Casanova-Dean, Unite Oregon
The two parties have just under two weeks left to finalize negotiations, according to state labor law. But, with many substantive pieces of the contract still unaddressed, it’s unlikely they’ll meet the June 12 deadline. If that’s the case, the city and PPA will be forced into private mediation with the Employment Relations Board. If the two don’t come to an agreement in closed-door negotiations, a state-selected arbitrator will be plucked to make a final decision.
As with the city budget, which will be finalized on June 17, members of the public consider the PPA contract an opportunity for elected officials to demonstrate the commitment to police reform they’ve given lip service to for the past year.
“I think City Council is doing their best to listen to the community, at least on topics that fall within their own agenda,” said Jasmine Casanova-Dean, Black Lives Matter organizer for Unite Oregon, which has been advocating for stronger reforms within the PPA contract. “But after this past year, it’s time we see them take action.”
Casanova-Dean expects the summer of 2021 to bring continued protests, as long as the city sees continued demands for change.
“I think those protests helped move the needle [last year], and there is still a lot to rally around now,” she said. “What we know is that movements like this speed up policy changes and speed up public education on what’s possible. It’s with education—in the streets, online, between community members—that we can get rid of the fear around defunding the police... and make it a reality.”