June 7, 2020
We went out of the county for a Friday night date. The next county over is in Phase 1, which means you can have drink in the radius others doing the same. It was an odd break from COVID and the daily anti-racism demonstrations reminding us how racist America is in 2020. So it seemed like an obvious date night activity to head back into downtown Portland to see how “Little Beirut” was gearing up for the weekend.
The short version of the story is we found ourselves among a few thousand protestors outside the Justice Center, which had become a focal point of the protests against police brutality in the Rose City. The parks in front of the Justice Center are circled by City Hall, federal and county courthouses, and were the scene of a prolonged occupation during the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.
As I’m fond of explaining to the media, protests are complex phenomena with numerous types of participants, from earnest aggrieved citizens to hooligans, from career activists to agent provocateurs. And that’s just one side of the fence. So we wandered around black-clad white protestors with Black Live Matters signs and African-American teenagers, chanting “Fuck Trump!” The police, in their stormtrooper riot gear, seemed to hold the line on the other side of the fence, occasionally dodging a water bottle hurled from the crowd. We took pictures and made note of clever signs.
Then the whole thing went sideways. Concussive flash-bangs and tear gas hit the crowd. I wanted to film it but was unprepared for how the tear gas would choke me. I was blind and fell behind Andrea as we ran from the park. Fortunately, some seasoned protesters poured milk into my eyes so I could see my way out. After some marching around, some of the protest leaders (well, they had megaphones) encouraged protesters to head east, away from the hot zone where clashes with police seemed inevitable. Our car was in the other direction, so we headed back towards the Justice Center, and found a spot in front of City Hall to watch the show.
Tear gas was banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention in 1925 but it seems to still be A-OK in Portland 95 years later. We wanted to witness this moment in history and see which way it went, even if it was in a haze of fog. I thought about friends who were cops and friends who were antifa locked in this moment of change.
Just after midnight, the police made their move on the protestors, driving us through the rose bushes at City Hall and over a wall. About two blocks away, on the corner of 5th and Madison, we stopped to watch truck-fulls of militarized police deploy to launch noxious CS gas into the streets of Portlandia. I was filming and an officer, who might have been a county sheriff, pointed me out to another officer, and then he launched a gas grenade at me, my reward for flashing a peace sign. I was filming the whole time so the recording got both Andrea and I on the ground, gasping for breath. (Video below.) Fortunately, two anarchist angels were there to rescue us. From that point I just wanted to go to the babysitter and pick up our daughter.
After a very long shower (and a desire to burn our clothes), I laid awake wondering how this thing ends. Tonight will be the tenth night of consecutive protests in Portland, with surely more tear gas. Solidarity marches have been happening all over the world. There was an anti-racism march over my beloved Charles Bridge in Prague yesterday, and in Bristol, England, protesters pulled down a statue of a 17th century slave owner and dumped him in the bay. It feels like 2020, is going to make 1968 look like 1954. We are at a tipping point. But tipping to where? 1968 gave us President Richard Nixon.
The “Defund the Police!” chant is half right. We must defund the militarized police and fund an alternative model of policing. We need police. There will always be rapists and murderers who need to be caught (by detectives with dry senses of humor). But we also need social workers to address the root causes of crime before there are crime victims. There are models from around the world. British Bobbies still don’t carry guns, but can get them if they need them. The police department in Camden, New Jersey rebuilt its entire department and not only saw a 95% drop in excessive force complaints but saw a steep decline in murders. It can be done. It is being done.
The current policing model isn’t broken. It was built wrong. Detroit, Los Angelos, Ferguson, Minneapolis, have all told us the same thing. You can tweak the system and get slight changes in outcomes, but its the system that’s the problem. You can wave the banner of “community policing,” but if it’s the same armed officer harassing the “usual suspects,” nothing has changed. Our current form of policing is rooted in medieval notions of control. The root of the term “sheriff” is in the English shire reeve from a thousand years ago. Maybe it’s time to give it the old heave ho, like those folks in Bristol did to that statue yesterday.
Yeah, we need to talk about racism in America. We really need to talk about it. But we also need to talk about remaking how we police ourselves.
Best headline ever:
PORTLAND CRIMINOLOGY PROFESSOR REFLECTS ON USE OF TEAR GAS AFTER BEING GASSED WHILE OBSERVING PROTEST