No More Mr. Nice Cop! Police State Holds Fast in Portland
If the Police Department of Portland, Oregon, is any example, there’s no more Mr. Nice Guy attitude toward Occupy protesters.
After the forced eviction almost exactly a year ago, Occupy Portland moved from tents to computer screens, organizing demonstrations and celebrations on social media. There have been a number of smaller actions, but it’s been a few months since Portland has seen a fair-sized demonstration — that is, until the Portland Action Lab called for a “Solidarity Against Austerity” rally in Northeast Portland on Saturday, Nov. 3.
“Austerity” is a word that hasn’t attracted much attention in this country, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, after the election, we’ll be hearing as much about austerity as the folks in Europe already have. After all, the Republicans’ one big argument is that all government budgets must be cut, and most elected Democrats seem petrified to utter a contrary word on the subject. Meanwhile, as Wall Street and the banks make record profits, more and more Americans face financial catastrophe and ain’t nobody trying to bail us out.
So Portland Action Lab, the activist offshoot of Occupy Portland, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the austerity measures that are likely to come in the near future. They put out the word for a rally on Nov. 3, and nearly a thousand people heeded the call.
It was a balmy fall day, with yellow leaves raining lazily from the giant maples and mud congealing underfoot in Holladay Park as union members, high school and college students, teachers, families and fellow travelers gathered between a light rail stop and a shopping mall.
I rode in with the Portland Bike Swarm, hard-core Occupy veterans who ride in support of such actions, and we arrived from the north and south and circled the park – where we couldn’t help but notice the heavy police presence all around, well in advance of the event. Motorcycle cops ringed the area, while a phalanx of cops on bicycles stood vigil nearby and mounted police clip-clopped along the northern edge. We flashed them the peace with smiles, and a few smiled and waved back.
An energetic rally began with the announcement that two banners had been confiscated because they were “under investigation,” which meant, I suppose, that the banners might be terrorists.
We must rid our country of this banner menace, or they will surely destroy our Way Of Life.
When the march began, demonstrators wound slowly around the mall and snaked through the traffic of Saturday shoppers. Cops on bikes pedaled furiously to the Wells Fargo Bank and formed a grim wall, clearly determined to make sure protesters couldn’t get anywhere near the precious money inside. The marchers moved on, preparing to turn north at the next intersection, but police had formed a blue barricade there as well.
That’s where it happened. A group, composed mostly of students protesting education cuts, carried their banner forward into the intersection and one overeager officer pulled out the pepper spray and administered a generous, liberal dose directly into the faces of everyone in the vicinity.
And then he did it again.
I watched people I know, people I admire, become instantly incapacitated and fall to their knees in pain. Their crime, apparently, was wanting to turn north and out of the mall traffic, when the police had already decided we were supposed to proceed eastward instead.
The Police Bureau said later, in their defense, that the march was unpermitted, and that organizers did not respond to their correspondence prior to the event. The organizers answered that they have no record of the bureau’s attempts to communicate, and they’ve asked the bureau to show evidence of such attempts.
The Portland Action Lab has filed a complaint against the police bureau for the use of pepper spray against peaceful protesters. The complaint also contends that sending riot cops to a nonviolent demonstration sends a message that authorities do not look kindly on such events, and discourages people from expressing political opinions in the streets. I myself heard one officer tell a woman that “I would never bring children to one of these,” and admittedly, it’s hard to justify bringing a child to a police riot.
Later in the day, one of the pepper-sprayed protesters, his eyes and skin still burning, said about the actions of the police:
“Today they were just extra violent. I always attempt to engage in conversation with them because I love and care about them as much as I love and care about my brothers and sisters. The feeling just is not mutual.”
I was about 20 feet away when the pepper spray came out so unexpectedly, and with my chemical sensitivity I started coughing and choking pretty quickly. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to get the full force right in the face – but apparently that’s the way they do it nowadays.
Eventually I left the area, but on my way out a woman with two young daughters stopped me to ask what had just happened. I told them what I had seen. The mother and I had to explain to the girls what pepper spray was. Then one of the girls asked me a simple, important question:
“Why would the police do that?”
She and I, and hundreds of other Portlanders, would very much like to know the answer.
Janice Leber is a musician, a union member, and an occasional contributor to The Daily Censored. Her banner read, “Question Austerity.” It was not confiscated. Thanks to Walt Roberts and Sarah Bennet for their outstanding photos.