Anatomy of A Portland Police Media Campaign

Nicholas Caleb

Despite the fact that violence has yet to occur in any mass demonstration in Portland in the last year (that is, except for the violence police use on protestors), the PPB routinely sends out press releases warning the community about expected violence at upcoming protests. The media, for its part, largely prints these press releases uncritically, never following up on stories and asking if there was actually violence. Ironically, when the PPB issues a press release about expected violence, you can be pretty sure that the PPB is going to be using violence.

Anatomy of A Portland Police Media Campaign

Police, moments after pepper-spraying a crowd of anti-austerity demonstrators

About a year ago, after I had gone to the November 17 Occupy the Banks protest -- the first protest I'd ever actually been to -- I wrote an op-ed on BlueOregon about how I thought that the police presence was unnecessary, intimidating, and unconstitutional. I wrote, in part:

The first irony of the situation is that we have a Constitution granting, as its chief civil liberty, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble. Presumably, this right extends to the ability to express displeasure at the dominant ideologies of the day without having to submit to intimidation and implicit threat of violence that accompanies the presence of riot police. Scaring people during an assembly, though not as serious as actually beating them, is a form of prior restraint, of telling you that the State doesn't authorize your message.

As the son of a long-serving district attorney, I was brought up to have a deep and profound respect for law enforcement. I suppose what I previously believed about protests is that crowds are inherently dangerous and not to be trusted. However, after actually protesting a few times in the last few weeks, I now know better, and am appalled at the actions of the Portland Police and scoff at the notion that they deserve any modicum of respect or praise for their handling of the protests. Failing to use violence on peaceable assemblies should not be lauded as respectable restraint. Instead, we should be outraged that it is ever even a consideration in the first place!

Over the course of a few weeks, I went from being a legal observer and citizen journalist to actually attending meetings and becoming friends with lots of people in the activist political community in Portland (who, like me, wouldn't have even considered themselves activists until the media began insisting upon it). Honestly, it probably would not have happened if not for the overwhelmingly disgust I felt on November 17, 2011. Seeing that kind of intimidation on display -- something out of a movie about a dystopian future -- was just too much. It shook me off of whatever fence I was sitting on before. It became clear to me just how important political dissent is and how just plain wrong it is to treat human beings with this kind of unnecessary violence.

Since that day I have seen all manner of violent tactics used on people for actions that are, if even illegal, traffic violations. The most gruesome displays were on the night of February 6th -- where police used anti-terror "snatch and grab" techniques on people walking on the sidewalk -- and at an unpermitted march on May 1st -- where police rode into crowds on their bikes, punched people in the face, and generally roughed up everyone, including citizen media. Both links contain pictures and videos. Personally, I was only directly assaulted once, on May Day, after an officer lifted his bike and swung it at me on while I was filming an arrest, but I consider my encounter to be minor compared to what I've seen others go through. There are countless stories about violence from the last year, plus hours and hours of video, but these are readily available to anyone who can use Google.

Despite the fact that violence has yet to occur in any mass demonstration in Portland in the last year (that is, except for the violence police use on protestors), the PPB routinely sends out press releases warning the community about expected violence at upcoming protests. The media, for its part, largely prints these press releases uncritically, never following up on stories and asking if there was actually violence. Ironically, when the PPB issues a press release about expected violence, you can be pretty sure that the PPB is going to be using violence.

In addition, Portland Police and the local district attorneys routinely charge people with serious crimes, drag their proceedings out far longer than what is reasonable (in an attempt to get plea bargains, perhaps), and later simply drop the charges down to violations. The practical reality of this is that the police use extreme violence and hurt people, arrest them, release their mugshots to the public, and then these people don't even receive the benefit of a jury trial. It's seems to be a strategic decision to cause maximum damage up front and avoid the institutional costs associated with a fully functioning legal system. In October, Judge Cheryl Albrecht began to interrupt this strategy, but largely, it remains viable.

Flash forward a few months to November 3rd at the Solidarity Against Austerity day of action where a large (1000 - 1200 people) coalition of educators, public service workers, anti-war advocates, housing justice advocates, students, and other members of the community came out to express discontent about upcoming "Grand Bargain" between the Democrats and the Republicans, demanding instead that the 1% pay for the crisis they caused. There was a rally and then protestors took to the streets -- unpermitted -- with art, music, and general happiness . . . until the police indiscriminately pepper-sprayed who they later discovered to be a bunch of high school students out protesting budget cuts, at least four veterans, and our favorite Grateful Granny, Nan Wigmore -- oops! Later, we received word that riot police posed with an Elvis impersonator moments after the incident (PPB posted the picture on their Facebook page), drove by the victims of pepper spray to taunt them while they were still on the ground suffering, and later celebrated as though they'd won a football game at the Justice Center when people tried to acquire complaint forms. This type of openly sadistic behavior and indifference to human dignity just further traumatizes people associated with violence because not only do they have to experience it firsthand, but later must literally experience insult heaped on top of injury. There is a sickening awareness that nothing will happen to those who flaunt their immunity. Why, instead of a celebration of free speech, the day had to be tainted by police violence is a mystery -- especially since PPB told us on the day of the march that we could go wherever we wanted -- but PBB quickly sent out a press release blaming demonstrators, accusing us of aggression, and insisting that they had long been attempting to contact people who were active in organizing the protest. (Notably, the police used pepper spray on protestors only a week before after a crowd arrived to protest the eviction of Darren and Patricia Williams; a family who was forcefully evicted from their home, which was foreclosed on after a pulmonary illness had caused Patricia to go into medical retirement.)

Since I was on the media team, I had the pleasure of responding to the PPB with our own press release, which read, in part:

Portland Police later issued a press release claiming attempts to contact organizers weeks before the event. The Portland Action Lab, the organizing body for this event was never contacted by the police regarding a permit. Either the police did not utilize the clear and established channels of contact with PAL (our email address is public), attempt contact in person at the fully public meetings where the event was organized, or are simply being dishonest as to justify the use of force after the fact. We invite the PPB to release evidence of their attempts to contact us and steadfastly declare that there is never a justification for the police to use violence against peaceful demonstrators. It’s unconscionable that a bureau that is under investigation by the Justice Department for civil rights abuses still behaves this way with the cameras on. Victims of the day’s police brutality are encouraged to submit complaints to the city and we will be gathering footage of these incidents to submit to federal agencies and the media. Political speech is a fundamental right and we will continue to fight for it.
After our release, the PPB actually tailed one of our organizers and issued another press release claiming that they had tried, in vain, to contact us. After more facts were discovered, we issued one final release, which read, in part:
 Portland Action Lab would like to set the record straight about communication with the Portland Police Bureau prior to the N3 event. In two post-incident press releases, Portland Police said that they had made repeated attempts to contact Portland Action Lab regarding a permit. We checked the publicly listed emails and voicemails of our media number and initially found nothing. However, after further investigation, we have come to find that Officer Craig Dobson did in fact make an attempt to contact members of Portland Action Lab… via private messages from a personal account on Facebook.

We’re not kidding. Instead of contacting the numbers and email addresses listed on portlandactionlab.org, solidarityagainstausterity.org, and all of our press releases, Officer Craig Dobson created a Facebook account on Oct. 30 and sent personal messages to a handful of people associated with PAL — apparently those were listed as hosts for the day of action Facebook event page — which then got lost in the “Other” folder on our Facebook inboxes; the equivalent of the spam folder where all the unwanted spambot messages are stored. Notably, one account that didn’t have a message was the Portland Action Lab Facebook account. Only by accident did one of our colleagues discover this. We’ve attached screenshots from one of our personal Facebook accounts. This was the only means in which they pursued contact and we can only assume they thought it was a meaningful attempt.

  

On Monday the unprofessional would turn distressing, when one of our colleagues was tailed by a Portland Police [officer in a] cruiser who attempted to make contact with her on the street. From his patrol car, he communicated that he knew who she was from the protest and expressed an interest in talking to her about a better relationship with the police. She refused to talk to the officer, as is well within her Constitutional rights, who continually pestered her and even rode his cruiser up beside her to chastise her for refusing to talk. Our colleague felt very threatened by this approach. This is clearly inappropriate and unacceptable behavior from any person, let alone a police officer.

We can’t tell if the Portland Police Bureau is just an extremely unprofessional organization that is making honest and creepy efforts at contact or whether they are in the process of an intimidation campaign. To claim, on one hand, they attempted to contact us — with what proved to be the diligence of a meek internet lurker — and on the other hand showed no hesitation in spending the time and city resources to surveil one of our associates makes us wonder if this unprofessionalism is simply endemic to the entire bureau. Maybe the Department of Justice will enlighten us more than it already has on this matter. Though it’s hard to know for sure what the intent of the bureau is, we’d like to publicly state that no person associated with the Portland Action Lab consents to police following them down the street asking questions or attempting to contact them in any other form outside of the publicly available emails or the media phone number. Members of the media have had no problem utilizing these channels. Let us be clear, the ONLY acceptable form of contact is through the channels communicated via the website. We consider any other form of communication to be stalking or, if it escalates, harassment.

(emphasis added).

The high school students, equally unimpressed, organized their own press conference to tell their side of the story, condemn the police action, and publicly announce that despite the post-traumatic stress from the incident, they would not stop speaking out and exercising their political rights (full video in the link). The next night, members of the community packed City Hall to give citizen testimony and show video of police abuse, criticize the proposed settlement between the City and the Department of Justice, and demand the creation of an independent, citizen-run police oversight commission with subpoena powers and the ability to dismiss officers found to have violated civil rights. On Friday, protestors stormed the Multnomah County Building to demand an end to violent evictions. Though this particular protest was aimed at directly the Sheriff, the PPB has been assisting evictions and even kicked in the door to evict a woman with cancer from her home last week. As Denis Theriault reported:

But in a shift, according to activists with We Are Oregon, deputies seemed to be trying to subvert the same rapid-response network of sympathizers who showed up last week. Angus Maguire, spokesman for the group, said deputies in unmarked cars waited until Will Sirotak left the house with his granddaughter and then tailed him, even detaining him briefly, before knocking on the door of the home. Eventually, both the home's front and back doors were broken down and Heather Sirotak was escorted out while still in her pajamas—her phone, which she was using to call supporters, having been taken away.
Under fire from the backlash against the pepper spraying, evictions, and staggering amount of citizen testimony given Thursday, the strategy of the police has shifted to arresting people who were at the Nov. 3rd march. The PPB maintains that protestors were aggressors, despite video evidence to the contrary. Mike Hernandez, a military veteran and bike mechanic in town, was arrested -- his bike pulled out from beneath him -- after he left work on Friday night and charged with assaulting a public safety officer, harassment, interfering with a peace officer, and disorderly conduct. Presumably, the PPB arrested him late on a Friday night so if he refused to talk to the police, he would be held over the weekend. At the protest, Mike was pepper sprayed in the face and later struck from behind with a baton by a riot cop as he staggered backward. In the video, embedded below, you can see Mike walking with his bike, standing calmly near the front of the line even as police are pepper spraying the crowd. A bike cop forcefully push him and apparently entangle bikes, Mike is pepper-sprayed (the pole obstructs the view), and when the camera pans back, is walking away as a riot cop bashes him in the back with a baton.

Here's another video (camera fixed right on Mike - start at the 26 minute mark).

After viewing videos of the incident over and over, from different vantage points, I'm not sure where the alleged crimes are committed. Whatever is going on, it's clear that Mike is not the aggressor and if he were violent or intending to assault an officer, he had plenty opportunity to do it. It's clear that he's angry and dazed about getting pepper sprayed -- who wouldn't be? -- but if you read the language of the statutes cited by the PPB, you'll see that his conduct doesn't fall within its bounds. Again, it's unclear why police changed their minds and insisted upon a blockade after they'd verbally given us permission to weave through the streets, but as usual, there were no problems until the police decided to establish strict control of a peaceful crowd and using force at the first opportunity. As I've written before, these are political choices and are not inevitabilities of crowd control operations. Further, it's not even clear from the language of City Code that the PPB can require permits for larger protests that don't request city resources. Yet, they regularly assert this authority through threat of violence and the City doesn't stop them.

The PPB, in their press release to the media on Sunday, added an edited version of the pepper spraying incident that removed the riot cop slamming Mike in the back. Not only are the police violating copyright law by editing and distributing a video without license to do so (in fact the videographer has made it clear over and over that PPB is not allowed to edit his videos), but this is a very dishonest way of dealing with the public. As uncritically as the media accepts the PPB's unsubstantiated warnings of upcoming violence, they routinely print press releases of arrest incidents without any investigation or verification; they simply trust the police accounts. On this occasion, enough people noticed what was happening, contacted KOIN, who then added the full video in their article underneath the PPB edited video so people could compare the two. KOIN did not, however, explicitly point out the PPB's video editing.

The point of going through this is fourfold. First, the media doesn't fact check the police. They uncritically print whatever the police present to them. I've only been dealing with the police for a short while and it's obvious that their press releases are designed with this fact in mind. Without a media to check them, they have free reign to spin as they like. Second, I find it important to put these facts into the public record, so people outside of the protestors who are being arrested and beaten actually see how the PPB creates reality through its interactions with the media. People are constantly amazed when I describe the sheer amount of unnecessary (and expensive) violence I've seen over the last year. Third, the police arrested a really good person in Mike Hernandez and people need to hear that story. Whatever people have been led to think about protestors in the last year, Mike is a hardworking, gentle, caring, thoughtful, and upstanding human being. Fourth, I also recently found out that the police have been asking questions about who I am, which annoys me. I find it absurd since my role isn't even remotely close to the "violence" they claim to be investigating. As the police search in vain for organizers and leaders, they can't wrap their heads around the fact that the new movement culture is non-hierarchical and there are no leaders. The broader problem is that the police are lashing out and trying to create crimes where none exist as to justify, after the fact, the use of force. They think that they are the law, that they get to choose where and how free speech happens, and that any challenge to this authority can be met with whatever force they see fit; they mistake authority for law. Despite the realities I have witnessed over the last year, I learned in law school that the lawful job of the police is to investigate crimes and not to use any means necessary to establish their version of order (Minority Report's "pre-crime" comes to mind). I think one of the most interesting struggles of our time will be over whether we continue to tolerate a militarized police force that has few qualms about using violence on the peaceful.

The thing is, despite a repeated exposure to violence, I still don't think that all cops are bad. Not by a long shot. I'm quite sure, having met some of them, that there are many solid officers at PPB who want to do their jobs well and protect the community. However, they are lumped in with those who are overly violent, unprofessional, and sometimes, mentally unfit to do the job. And when police abuse happens and no one does anything about it, the problem shifts from being about that person's individual responsibility to questions of institutional corruption.

Whether intimidation or ineptitude, PPB's treatment of peaceful demonstrators takes place within a broader context of federal investigation of so-called "anarchists", violent raids looking for black clothing and literature, and on-going grand jury resistance. The FBI has also taken great pains to try to engineer terror plots so they can link "anarchists" to them. According to leaked FBI training powerpoints, they consider "anarchists" to be "criminals seeking an ideology". "Anarchist" is quickly becoming the new "terrorist", as was "Communist" before it, and "Hun" before it.  One can only wonder how much of this viewpoint has trickled down into our local police bureau so eager to reduce what are complex social upheavals over legitimate issues to simplified words that can instill fear and allow the maximum of authoritarian leeway (they also serve as justifications for further institutional funding). It's why they are having trouble wondering why a middle class attorney/university professor who doesn't fit their categorical expectations is out in the streets demanding change. Your government is (again) making it very difficult to express messages of dissent at a time when they are needed most. Unsurprisingly, you don't hear about it from the mainstream media, but it is happening.

The fact is that the PPB lacks oversight. They operate in a legal vacuum where bad officers can repeatedly violate civil rights and when someone is hurt or killed, the City pays out the settlement checks, and the officers get to stay. Last Thursday, Greg Kafoury told City Hall that in his 40 years as an attorney in Portland, he's never heard of an officer being fired for abuse. Considering the record of the PPB, that's an amazing statistic. I never would have believed the brutality of the PPB had I not seen it up close, but after a year of personally experiencing it and watching good people being assaulted, I have to say that this is a rogue institution that has decided that protestors are not worthy of respect and their rights are secondary to the need to establish a very narrow and tightly controlled view of order. There is a serious cultural problem in the PPB and without oversight, they have no reason to change. Despite an opportunity to change things right now, Mayor Adams' proposed settlement with the DOJ leaves these problems unsolved.

It's a little scary even to write about it, knowing that taking on the PPB's public relations wing means becoming a person of interest, but this is how I see it. We have moral responsibilities to speak out against violence, dishonesty, and intimidation. We certainly have social responsibilities to make sure that these things are not a part of our institutions. When they are, injustices are done in our names and we bear the responsibility. As a matter of equity, we must redress harms already done and make sure that they don't happen anymore.

Austerity is here and it appears that things are going to continue to get worse for everyone except the über wealthy. As our public resources and services continue to be privatized, wages continue to stagnate, and people take on more debt to cover their day to day expenses, more market bubbles develop, and crashes are immanent. We know that our system is biased toward helping the wealthy who need it the least and there is no reason to expect that this will organically change. We also know that we are facing one hell of a challenge with climate change that policymakers seem content to ignore. Only strong movements can provide the space needed for change to occur. These movements traditionally take place in the streets. It behooves us all to make sure that our Constitutional protections on political speech are upheld so that we can have the sort of unmediated, public conversations we need in order to move forward.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    A peaceful family protest does not hoist placards with baseball bats, pitchforks, or shotguns, nor does it use them as large cow catchers to push against a police blockade.

    I'm sympathetic to the anti-austerity cause, but PPB officers were being shoved around. Threatening cops does not speak for the cause, which is meant to save their jobs, after all.

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      So, if I carried a sign around with a gun on it, but I'm not carrying a gun, and I'm not threatening to use a gun, it's not peaceful? I'm trying to understand the logic here.

      Why are PPB inserting themselves in the first place? Why are they setting up a situation -- listen to the scanner -- where they premeditate the use of force?

      There's literally been no violence to draw police out. None. Their crowd control operations have only become bigger and wasted more tax dollars on overtime for people who come from outside departments and get their jollies beating "hippies" in PDX.

      And you blame the people who are moving at a glacial pace with banners of violence. Again, just look at the record. That's why I tried to include the context from before. If you take individual instances in isolation, you don't appreciate the context of what is going on. If sadistic celebration of injuring people isn't a clue into motivation, I'm not sure what is.

      • (Show?)

        And I honestly think that this is a discussion most people have not been having, so I hope there are disagreements. It took me months and months to get a handle on what was going on. The BlueOregon community has largely sat this one out. That's why I want to reintroduce it in this forum.

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    Carrying a wooden banner is a passive defensive action. In no way were any individuals involved with N3 violent, and in no way was the violence committed by the PPB legal or warranted.

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      It looks to me that protesters were either itching for a confrontation with the police or were expecting one. Why else would they bring wooden shields? Furthermore doesn't it make sense to get a permit for the march. The police would have known what the protest march route was and provided traffic control for it.

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    You know i just looked at the Nov 3 Protest video link here and looks like one of the protesters tried to steal one of the PPB bikes. Was that the case?

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      Yeah. Some guy totally tried to steal a bike when the ruckus broke out. I don't know who that dude was, but it's not the guy I'm referencing in my article.

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        Nor did it serve as a rationale for the pepper spraying or riot cops being called in as it happened after the pepper spray started flying.

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    Update: Youtube disabled the edited PPB video because of a copyright claim.

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    I'm still trying to figure out what the point of these protests are. Surely you're not crazy enough to imagine that they will actually change the policy you're protesting?

    Well, maybe you are.

    Anyone who has passed gradeschool civics knows that democracies change policies through elections. And that is accomplished by changing people's minds on their doorstep, not pissing off people (who usually largely agree with you) by annoying the hell out of them.

    Maybe this fellow was truly innocent, but it's also extremely clear from the footage that this crowd defied a police barrier, and tried to push its way past.

    And frankly, the whole thing is counterproductive. On the doorstep I've been able to get Christian Republicans to support people to help the poor. But no way in hell would I show them this video.

    • (Show?)

      When elections are rigged so that there is no capacity to express an anti-austerity measure through them, saying "just vote in the elections" is anti-democratic and beside the point.

      The whole history of political progress in the U.S. is shaped by the interaction of demonstrations and protests interacting with electoral politics and elected officials. To pretend that electoral politics are sufficient to democracy is just blind. There's a reason why that clause about the right to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances is in the First Amendment.

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      Maybe the problem is that you passed gradeschool civics that taught you that elections cause reform. Re-read the history of the Civil Rights Era, the New Deal, Women's Suffrage, and labor movements so you understand the surrounding context. There's a little more to it than "some people got together, after they went door to door, and elected folks to office."

      I'm not sure that social movements in the past have cared too much for the sensibilities of the reactionaries. Perhaps that's just my reading.

  • (Show?)

    I was at the N3 rally and what it taught me was that the way the community is working with the police and the way the police are working with the community is broken. There was direct assault on police officers with the "shields". The police pepper sprayed people indiscriminately when they could have used other methods. The protesters don't believe they need a permit or anything else evidently to block traffic. The police use so much force it is intimidating and way over the line. Plus they can be downright nasty.

    The Constitution gives you the right to peaceably assemble and the police's job is to make sure this right is upheld. The marchers could get the police to make sure they can protesst when and where they want. But this evidently is seen as some sort of compitulation instead of confirming the idea that it is the protesters' police force. So where are the city leaders whose job it is to take care of these kinds of problems?

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      I'd like to point out that hundreds of people marching in the street are in fact traffic and have public right of way, permit or no permit.

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        Same thing on a freeway, say the Banfield?? Or I-5? Right to assemble is a guarantee right? What about a group of gang members who enter a grade school without checking in? O.k. or no problem? Let them hang around, wander around? It is a publicly owned school after all.

        Since it takes a period of time to get hundreds of people together I don't see where it hurts to tell the city we are going to march from here to here. You are welcome to help us.

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          These are absurd examples.

          The City knew where we were going a few streets in advance like they always do. They decided, for no reason, to curse out our police liaison and set up a blockade.

          Almost as if they were looking to use force. Hmm... couldn't be.

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    One other point, Hart. Freedom to peaceably assemble has no number attached to it. You have the exact same right to assemble with three people as with 3,000.

    • (Show?)

      City Code sets 75 as a significant #, just so you're aware. But City Code also says that you only need a permit if you want City resources. We never do, so my reading of the code says we don't actually need a permit to march. The police, per usual, have invented an interpretation of code out of thin air.

      Also keep in mind that for years there have been unpermitted marches in Portland. Only after Occupy did the police presence become what it is today.

  • (Show?)

    I keep trying to put my updates in the text, but they keep getting removed. Anyways, second update:

    The Police/DA dropped the attempted assault charge on Mike at his arraignment today. Could it be that they simply charged it so the media headline would look worse?!

  • (Show?)

    Evan, the purpose of the permit process is to not tell you whether you can march or not, but to redesignate the street to make it legal for you to march. "Peaceable" assembly means following the laws. Breaking the law is not peaceable. There are laws which are derived from the democratic process which make it against the law to walk down the middle of the street blocking traffic. (Think -- runnng a light and you get hit. The driver if they are obeying the law is not libel because you were breaking the law.)

    And since the right of assembly is not based on a number (makes no diff what the city says about #'s) the process needs to be gone through so the people are not breaking the law when they march. 1000 people who want to do something does not offset what the democratically elected government, representing hundreds of thousands of people in Portland, has determined is the law. And that is a good thing. (Think, I want to drive 80 mph in your neighborhood so I should get to.)

    I don't want people making up their own laws. If a law is a poor one then people need to work to change it. If the law needs to be addressed through civil disobedience then it needs to be protested. Having it be legal to walk down the street and block traffic is neither.

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