Port­land grap­ples with racial his­tory

Racism has plagued the pro­gres­sive city since long be­fore last week’s train killings.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Jaweed Kaleem jaweed.kaleem@la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Rick An­der­son in Seat­tle con­trib­uted to this re­port.

PORT­LAND, Ore. — It was sup­posed to be a sim­ple job ad. Ore­gon’s big­gest city was seek­ing a new po­lice chief, and the mayor had posted a lengthy de­scrip­tion on­line of what he wanted in the hire.

But two words stood out. The mayor, a re­cently elected white Demo­crat, said the city had a his­tory of “sys­temic racism.” He wanted the new chief to “im­prove re­la­tion­ships” with mi­nori­ties.

The po­lice union pres­i­dent, a more con­ser­va­tive, black vet­eran of the force, snapped back. Cops were “an­gry and con­fused, as the clear im­pli­ca­tion from the post­ing is that the Po­lice Bureau and its mem­bers have sup­ported a racist cul­ture in the city,” he said. Po­lice felt de­mor­al­ized, he added.

Port­land, Amer­ica’s whitest big city, was de­bat­ing race long be­fore a white su­prem­a­cist killed two men and in­jured a third in stab­bings on a city train last week. Long-sim­mer­ing ten­sions over skin color and polic­ing have led to an un­usual feud be­tween po­lice union lead­er­ship and the mayor over where and when it’s OK to dis­cuss racism.

The soul-search­ing over race in a place known as a lib­eral haven has only in­creased as res­i­dents brace for du­el­ing “alt-right” and anti-fas­cist ral­lies this week­end that city of­fi­cials ex­pect po­ten­tially armed white su­prem­a­cists to at­tend.

“Port­land is a pro­gres­sive city .... But we can’t as­sume that the legacy of the past isn’t im­pact­ing the present,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler. He said the po­lice union pres­i­dent, Daryl Turner, wanted to “pro­tect the sta­tus quo” and “not lead us into the fu­ture.”

Turner said the mayor was play­ing pol­i­tics. “It is hard for me to un­der­stand that dur­ing his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, this is the first time ... that he has taken an in­ter­est in eq­uity and di­ver­sity,” Turner said. He ac­knowl­edged that po­lice had “work to do” on racial is­sues, but said putting that in a job post­ing would turn ap­pli­cants away.

Caught be­tween the two men are res­i­dents and ac­tivists who have be­come in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated over race re­la­tions and polic­ing in the city of 632,000 peo­ple, which is 76% white, 9% Latino, 7% Asian and 6% black. (NonLatino whites make up 62% of the na­tion as a whole, and are a mi­nor­ity in many big cities.)

Pro­test­ers have re­peat­edly taken to the streets this year, in­clud­ing af­ter two deadly po­lice shoot­ings of black res­i­dents. Ac­tivists have shut down City Coun­cil meet­ings, shout­ing at the mayor and com­mis­sion­ers, whom they blame for not re­spond­ing to the shoot­ings and for po­lice clashes with demon­stra­tors. The mayor has called pro­test­ers “hos­tile” and “abu­sive.” One com­mis­sioner told his staff to not at­tend the meet­ings, say­ing they were “no longer safe.”

Ten­sions have in­creased since March, when a grand jury de­clined to charge an of­fi­cer who fa­tally shot a 17year-old black rob­bery sus­pect.

Port­landers an­gry over po­lice tac­tics have ral­lied out­side the mayor’s house over the months, at one point con­fronting Wheeler and his wife on video. At an­other point, his tires were slashed.

Last month, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union com­plained to po­lice, say­ing of­fi­cers were too heavy-handed and in­sti­gated vi­o­lence at a May Day rally that re­sulted in the ar­rests of demon­stra­tors ac­cused of throw­ing rocks and road flares at po­lice. Po­lice said they were the ones be­ing tar­geted.

“We are no stranger to protest or strong opin­ions here in Port­land, but usu­ally it comes in waves,” said Gre­gory McKelvey, founder of Port­land’s Re­sis­tance, a grass-roots group. “But now we have con­stant protests, a lot of them against po­lice prac­tices, and here are two top fig­ures fight­ing over some­thing that is so ob­vi­ous — racism. It’s a sym­bol of how en­trenched the prob­lems have be­come here.”

The squab­ble over the po­lice chief ad isn’t the first high-stakes drama in the de­part­ment, which Wheeler has promised to re­form.

The de­part­ment’s im­age is still re­cov­er­ing af­ter a Jus­tice De­part­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion five years ago found po­lice rou­tinely used “un­nec­es­sary or un­rea­son­able force” with the men­tally ill, many of them mi­nori­ties. An in­de­pen­dent law firm that eval­u­ated po­lice said re­cently that use of force and po­lice shoot­ings had sig­nif­i­cantly de­creased over the years.

But the same firm agrees with civil rights groups that po­lice have more work to do. Ac­tivists point to data show­ing that po­lice stop blacks at much higher rates than whites, for ex­am­ple.

Last June, a po­lice chief was forced out and in­dicted on al­le­ga­tions of mis­lead­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors about his ac­ci­den­tal shoot­ing of a hunt­ing com­pan­ion. His re­place­ment, Chief Mike Marsh­man, was then put on leave over al­le­ga­tions that he had a sub­or­di­nate sign him in for a train­ing ses­sion he missed. He was later cleared of wrong­do­ing and re­turned to work.

Marsh­man, who en­joys broad sup­port among of­fi­cers, said he never ex­pected his post to be tem­po­rary and has ap­plied for the job. On the con­flict be­tween Wheeler and Turner, he took a mid­dle road.

“I’m in agree­ment with the mayor that the per­son com­ing in should have a com­mit­ment to ed­u­cat­ing other of­fi­cers about the his­tory of Port­land,” he said. “But when I read the job an­nounce­ment, I sim­ply don’t know if folks who aren’t from Port­land will be put off or not.”

The his­tory of racism in Port­land has be­come cen­tral to Wheeler’s time in of­fice since the new year.

“When Ore­gon was es­tab­lished as a state in 1859, by law black peo­ple were not al­lowed to live here,” Wheeler said in his State of the City ad­dress in March, adding that Port­land had a “dark and clouded his­tory around race” that “must be brought to light.”

“Ore­gon was the only state with such a pro­hi­bi­tion. By the 1920s, there were as many as 200,000 Klans­man in the state. What was true in Ore­gon was cer­tainly true in Port­land as well,” he said.

Civil rights groups and ac­tivists give Wheeler high grades for dis­cussing the city’s racial his­tory and dy­nam­ics in mul­ti­ple state­ments, though some won­der whether he’s more about words than ac­tion.

“It can­not be de­nied that we have a his­tory of racism here,” said the Rev. T. Allen Bethel, board pres­i­dent of the Al­bina Min­is­te­rial Al­liance Coali­tion for Jus­tice and Po­lice Re­form. He said he was baf­fled by Turner’s state­ments, “but at the end of the day, we’re look­ing to see who is com­ing in and what will ac­tu­ally hap­pen.”

Jo Ann Hardesty, pres­i­dent of the Port­land Na­tional Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple, said Wheeler de­served some credit.

“He said we have to talk about race, and I’m re­ally im­pressed that he made our his­tory part of the job de­scrip­tion,” she said. But af­ter 27 years in Port­land, she’s also low on hope. “Port­land po­lice re­main the same. They po­lice dif­fer­ently based on your race. That hasn’t changed.”

Kristyna Wentz-Graff For The Times

VENUS HAYES weeps upon see­ing a paint­ing de­pict­ing her son Quanice at the the Port­land Art Mu­seum. He was killed by a Port­land po­lice of­fi­cer in Fe­bru­ary.

Don Ryan As­so­ci­ated Press

MAYOR Ted Wheeler’s men­tion of racism in an ad for a new chief has him at odds with po­lice.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.