Portland grapples with racial history
Racism has plagued the progressive city since long before last week’s train killings.
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.”
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.
MAYOR Ted Wheeler’s mention of racism in an ad for a new chief has him at odds with police.