It took getting gassed by the police to get it about policing

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.

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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

 

Do We Have to Burn Down America to Save It? Rethinking Rioting

May 31, 2020

Vuitton

As rioters ravaged Portland Friday night at 2 am, a local news anchor lamented how sad it was that the Louis Vuitton store was being looted. I thought Luis Vuitton Incorporated would survive, unlike the man named George Floyd.

There was a time when the lure of an exciting riot would have drawn me to the street. The belief that social justice could be advanced by screaming at authority would have inflamed my voice. Then I learned how deeply social evils, like racism, were woven into our society and how broadly complex anything approaching a solution would be.

Let’s start with the obvious, the murder of George Floyd on May 25th was a racial lynching by police. It took Minnesota authorities four days to arrest one murderer, Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee on the neck of Floyd for nearly nine minutes, including three minutes in which Floyd was unconscious. The fact that in took law enforcement four days to arrest this murderer must have surprised a lot of black people that it was so hard to get arrested in Minneapolis. The other three officers that participated in Floyd’s murder, well, we’ll see, I guess. And arrest does not equal conviction; the track record favors the murderers in these types of cases.

But we’re supposed to have faith in the system. After generations of George Floyds, I’m not 100% sure why.

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I’ve written so much about this issue and I want to write something now, but I’m glued to the TV watching another night of America convulsing as it tries to marshal that antibodies to fight the pandemic of racism that’s ravaged its body since its birth. I’m trying to explain this to my five-year-old and trying to find evidence that anything will be different this time. My thoughts are disjointed. Do I support the rioters? Do I invite a cop out for beer and race talk? Do I make a bid on Ebay on a looted Louis Vuitton bag, a souvenir of the great uprising of 2020?

So here are some random thoughts as America burns. Again.

  • America was founded by rioters and looters (read about the Stamp Act of 1765), when they are white and want freedom they are called “patriots.” When they are black and want freedom, they are called “thugs.”
  • This not about George Floyd or “honoring his memory.” This about the thousands and thousands and thousands of George Floyds and the inability of black people to have a right to just be alive in America.
  • White people act shocked when black people let them know they are sick of this shit.
  • The “coded” language the president is well understood by people of color even if his base pretends that “MAGA loves the black people.”
  • I had a brief fantasy that the protestors in Lafayette Park stormed the White House and dragged Donald Tump out by his ankles, but then I realized he was probably hiding in a vault, crapping in his diaper.
  • There should be no doubt that Trump is a white supremacist, no goddamn doubt. But racism is woven into complex systems, including the police.
  • The economic strain of this pandemic has added to suffering of those who are marginalized day after day, and are understandably at their breaking point.
  • The history of police officers who are arrested for murder rarely leads to police officers who are convicted of murder (less than a third of cases). The history of riots often lead to tangible results, including Watts (1965), DC (1968), LA (1992), and Ferguson (2014).
  • If you feel like your city doesn’t care about you, why would you care about your city?
  • It seems like a lot of privileged violent white protestors, who call themselves “allies,” think they are “smashing the system,” while simultaneously bringing the heat down on the peaceful black protesters they think they are defending.
  • I worry about how right-wing extremists might exploit this moment or even be working as agent provocateurs to push their racist agenda.
  • There are so many police officers that were disgusted by actions of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow Minneapolis officers. I wonder if any are currently engaged in the police assaults on protestors I am witnessing on TV right now.
  • As hard as this is to explain to my 5-year-old, I can’t imagine how hard it is for black parents who must prepare their children for life in a white supremacist country that refuses to do the work to change things.
  • It would be nice to hear local reporters and anchors express as much concern for the historical trauma of black people as they do for Chase Bank and the Apple Store.
  • Someone said lawsuits filed against abusive police departments should collect their awards from police pension funds. That might get their attention!

I’ve spent a career a partnering with law enforcement to work on issues like hate crimes and domestic terrorism. I’ve worked on trainings for law enforcement and helped to develop policies that help police understand the trauma experienced by crime victims. I went from “cops are pigs” to “police reform” as I matured and understood the social work aspects of law enforcement and the healthy communities well-intentioned peace officers can help create.

But now I’m not sure that’s enough.

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While we still have departments that allow various choke holds, and don’t immediately arrest officers who are accused of the murder of unarmed civilians, and defend a macho police subculture, it seems like Eric Garner, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and all the others will just be names on an ever-growing list that only magnifies the trauma of black America. The murder of black civilians by police has not significantly decreased since Ferguson even with the important changes that have been made. Maybe it’s the very structure of policing in America that’s the problem. Maybe we should start figuring out how other countries keep the peace and chase the crooks. Maybe we should burn the old system down. Out of the ashes…

I really don’t have the answer. I just know it’s up to white people to do the work to end racism.