On August 9, a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Accounts by police and witnesses differ as to how it happened. Ferguson police said that Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown after Brown attacked him in his cruiser. Witnesses at the scene said that Brown was attacked by Wilson and had his hands up in surrender as he was shot. That day Brown’s dead and bleeding body lay on the concrete where he fell, uncovered for four hours, before it was removed.
The next day, as night fell, protesters who gathered near the Quick Trip convenience store on West Florissant and West Estates Drive threw rocks, punches and kicks at the police cars that tried to make their way through the crowd. Later that night, the store was looted and burned, and every night after, it became a rallying point for protesters during the day, who maintained a memorial for Brown, and at night, when they were met with overwhelming force by heavily-armed police from Ferguson and St. Louis County.
Three separate autopsies were performed on Brown’s body. Federal investigators with the FBI and the Justice Department were dispatched. A grand jury was empaneled to investigate whether the shooting of Brown by Wilson was unlawful. And people prepared to confront the authorities responsible for yet another death in the ongoing racial nightmare that is the United States.
Brown’s death has become a focal point for all the demoralizing, routine interactions people of color have with the police, for the rage and humiliation of being scrutinized, of being targeted for harassment and intimidation, of knowing that in every interaction with police there is an implicit or explicit threat of force. Just this year, black men have been mysteriously hanged, shot for having toy weapons, choked to death for resisting police commands, and shot for obeying them. This year another black man somehow managed to shoot himself in the head with a hidden gun in the back of police cruiser, with his hands cuffed behind his back. This is the status quo in America, one that most of its well-off inhabitants don’t even deign to notice, its manifestations have become so routine, and their effects so central to what is understood as order. A killing like Brown’s is so common; what happened in Ferguson on August 9 happens almost every day, everywhere.
By the FBI’s own numbers, in their Uniform Crime Report, there were 461 fatal shootings by police last year alone, a two-decade high. An analysis by USA Today found that in data analyzed between 2006 and 2012, there were an average of 96 incidences of white police shooting a black person dead annually. In data compiled by the public interest journalism group ProPublica, they found that from 2010 to 2012, black people were 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than whites.
At an August meeting where community members and the police met to discuss gangs, Portland Police Commander Kevin Modica told his assembled officers “We’re not Ferguson, Missouri. We’ve never been Ferguson, Missouri,” a line which got resounding applause.
Modica was speaking of the Portland police’s response to a small protest outside the North Precinct in Northeast Portland in response to Brown’s death, which briefly obstructed traffic. Modica was apparently proud that this minor disruption wasn’t met with flash grenades and tear gas.
He was right that Portland is not Ferguson, Missouri. But for the black residents of both cities, there are similarities.
For instance, the racial lines which demarcate Ferguson, like Portland and too many other cities to name, have been mapped by systemic collusion between governments at the federal, state, and local levels and real estate interests, with the aim to preserve segregation. The Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein explores this relationship in his report, “The Making of Ferguson.” It describes the exclusionary post-World War II hosing policies that made Ferguson first a bastion for whites up until 1990, when a major demographic shift saw the city’s population two-thirds black by 2010. The report highlights white-only home loans handed out by the major lender of the post-war boom, the Federal Housing Authority, as well as a host of other policy decisions that, taken as a whole have reversed “white flight” from the inner city, while banishing black and low-income people to the suburbs. In 1974, a federal circuit court found St. Louis metropolitan housing to be “in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments,” and in 1980, the a federal ruling ordered schools integrated in Missouri by ordering state, county, and city governments to integrate housing. That was ignored, and governments simply resorted to busing to comply with the law.
St. Louis demolished the maligned 33-building Pruitt-Igoe housing project in 1972, displacing the poor, predominately-black residents who had occupied it’s 2,870 apartments. Their exodus out of the city and, for some, to the suburbs followed. Ferguson, without zoning ordinances banning high-density housing like some of its affluent neighboring suburbs, was left to absorb the county’s poor and black population, and its white population fled. Taking advantage of the situation, the suburb also set up a cynically-repressive and extractive funding apparatus where its essentially captive residents have been routinely stopped, arrested, fined, and jailed, over and over again. Ferguson derives about a quarter of its revenue through court fees, according to the area charity Better Together, and in 2013, 86% of stops and 92% of arrests were of black people. In Ferguson, 94% of the police force is white.
Ferguson’s path actually mirrors shifts seen nationwide, where 117 suburbs are growing and experiencing radical demographic shifts from white to black, in data compiled for the New York Times by Queens College sociology professor Andrew Beveridge. A few of these suburbs are actually neighbors to Ferguson in metro St. Louis, but the phenomenon is present in the Northeast, Midwest and South, as well. Four-fifths of the suburbs studied also had lower median incomes than their nearby urban center.
The experience of black Portlanders is different than the particulars in Ferguson, but similar in effect. Mass black settlement in Oregon happened later than in St. Louis, for one, and under distinct circumstances, the production effort related to World War II.
African Americans were prohibited from living in Oregon, as laid out in the state constitution’s 19th century exclusionary acts (which weren’t officially repealed until 1926), and a law from 1844 requiring Oregon blacks to be flogged every six months until they left Oregon left no doubt as to the state’s intentions. World War II brought black people en masse to Oregon, to work in the Kaiser Shipyards, and live in Vanport, the public housing community built to house the shipyard’s workers that once occupied the place of what is now Delta Park, on a floodplain on the Columbia’s south bank. Vanport was built because Portland, in deference to local real estate interests, wouldn’t build public workforce housing, and the influx of black workers wouldn’t fit into Albina, the area of North and Northeast Portland centered around North Williams and Union (now MLK), where blacks were restricted by racist real estate and lending practices, with the city’s help. On May 30, 1948, the Columbia flooded, and a dike broke, causing the Vanport Flood which killed 15 people. Vanport was utterly destroyed, its black residents displaced.
In 1940, Portland’s black population was 1,800. In 1946, that number had grown to 15,000. In 1948, that number had shrunk due to Vanport’s neglect following the war, but those that were homeless needed a place to live. They were largely restricted to Albina, and while Portland’s African Americans built a thriving community through the 50s, when Portland’s black population was 10,000, some 70% of that population remained in Albina, in de facto segregation. In fact, that segregation remains to this day, only being “alleviated” by the rampant gentrification that is decimating black communities in North and Northeast.
Portland began its embrace of “urban renewal,” city-backed tax and building programs meant to turn urban “blight,” largely neglected neighborhoods of color, into “renewed” areas that would attract higher-income residents and new businesses. Combined with the demolition of housing for I-5, Memorial Coliseum and the expansion of Emmanuel hospital, historic Albina was literally torn apart as hundreds of homes were demolished, causing some neighborhoods to shift from black and poor to affluent and white in a matter of a few decades. Decades-long disinvestment by the city into North and Northeast has played a role as well, adding to the explosive effect of 2000’s Interstate Urban Renewal District that has bled the area of black residents and built chic restaurants, art galleries and expensive apartments to Northeast Alberta and North Mississippi.
Portland has historically never been very concerned with gentrification of black neighborhoods, and has made little effort to combat it through the tools at its disposal. The city still abandons affordable housing targets it sets in its developments, inclusionary zoning has been illegal in Oregon since home builders lobbied to ban it in 1999, and Portland’s incentive-based approach to affordable housing has produced very little. All the while Portland rents increased at double digit rates last year, and last year’s point-in-time homelessness count numbered 16,000 unhoused people in Portland. Black Portlanders have been funneled out of North and Northeast, and are settling in the area east of 82nd. Portland’s center is developing and urbanizing further and shifting to wealthier, white residents. Inequality is getting worse. There is no sign of this stopping. The city is forcing an already-sparse black population into a lesser-served zone where police are increasingly resorting to stop-and-frisk pat-downs. While, recently, the city moved decisively to apportion $20 million to affordable housing efforts in North and Northeast Portland, following protests of a proposed Trader Joe’s grocery store on the corner of Northeast MLK and Alberta, the net effect is that Portland, urbanizing and segregating along class and racial lines, is on track to be more-unequal, and while the city repeats that it wants more mixed-income neighborhoods and developments, there is no serious work being done to ensure this. Rampant housing discrimination still exists to this day, and although a recent state law prevents landlords from advertising that they will not take Section 8 housing vouchers, landlords still have lots of tools, as always, to deny housing to poor renters and people of color. Taken with the severe housing demand in the city itself and climbing rents, the recovery of the economy in the state and nationally should only exacerbate this. While Portland never had the black population St. Louis has, black Portlanders still face the same economic pressures in a segregated, and further segregating, city. And then there is the matter of the police.
Much has been made of the militarization of the police, in the aftermath of protests around Mike Brown’s shooting. While a flood of investigative reporting and a couple book-length studies of the subject have looked at this phenomenon, Portland seems to differ from St. Louis County and Ferguson in terms of Pentagon-backed weapons acquisitions, the LRADS and armored vehicles that featured so prominently in coverage of the protests. Portland police still maintain a healthy stock of machine guns and riot gear, as well as chemical and projectile riot munitions. Those weapons have been displayed (frequently during the 2011-2012 period of Occupy Portland protests), if not frequently used, but a more-pressing question is not to what extent the police are armed (enough to kill you, as always), but their historical relationship within the community and the violence they commit on the day-to-day, as opposed to their already-known penchant for violence during protests.
In Portland, the police are currently in the middle of a reform process brought on by a Justice Department investigation that concluded that Portland cops routinely use “excessive force” on the mentally ill, or those they perceived as suffering from mental illness. The city, the police union, and the federal government have all been in court working out the details of this reform. The Albina Ministerial Alliance, a Civil Rights-era organization of churches in North and Northeast Portland that have been pivotal as a community voice in successive instances of racist violence by Portland police, was also given standing, although its request that the focus shift to police repression of people of color was ultimately unheeded. Although mental illness has demonstrably played a part in recent high-profile killings by Portland police, what triggered the DOJ’s investigation in the first place were killings by police of black men, making the omission of race questionable.
We have to go back nearly five years to the shooting of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed black man in a mental health crisis who was killed by a police sniper, Officer Ron Frashour, as he was attempting to surrender. The city took the extraordinary step to fire Frashour, but an arbitrator reinstated him. He received two years of back pay and is on staff now, pending the results of an ongoing appeal of his reinstatement brought by the city.
Campbell was not the only young black man killed in 2010. Keaton Otis was stopped by “Hotspot Enforcement” police near Lloyd Center for what one officer said in sworn testimony was “looking like a gangster,” and driving a car the officers didn’t think was the type a person like him would be typically driving (the car was his mother’s). Otis is alleged to have retrieved a gun and fired on officers after they forcibly attempted to remove him from his vehicle, tasering him multiple times. Police fired 32 shots, killing him.
The litany of names will be familiar to Portlanders: Cleotis Rhodes, Rickie Charles, Tony Stevenson, Kendra James, James Jahar Perez, Raymond Gwerder, James Chasse, Jackie Collins. Dead possums on doorsteps. A toy gorilla taped to a police cruiser. “Don’t choke ’em. Smoke ’em.” These are the people we’re dealing with. They do not want to listen to us. They are disdainful of us, and suffer from delusions of persecution, casting those they “protect and serve” as the weak that they thanklessly and stoically protect from one another, in the classic “sheep dog” analogy police love. In the course of the ongoing DOJ reform effort last year, Portland Police Association head Daryl Turner wrote in the union’s historically-mewling newsletter “The Rap Sheet” that numerous complaints leveled by community members against the police made him wonder why the police “expose [themselves] to scrutiny,” and allow themselves to be criticized, as if a group that regularly beat and electrocuted the most vulnerable people in the city were the real victims.
This is the state of the Portland Police Bureau: Bret Burton, one of the cops responsible for beating and tasering James Chasse to death in 2006, is now part of the mental health unit the bureau expanded as part of the DOJ reform deal. Last year Chief Mike Reese assigned Captain Todd Wyatt, who was accused of workplace sexual harassment, to the bureau’s sex crimes unit, before reversing course following public backlash. Would it surprise you if the PPB rehired Officer Dane Reister, who nearly shot a man to death with live rounds he loaded into a shotgun meant to fire beanbag rounds, to teach crowd control?
To gauge where the city is, in terms of holding its worst cops accountable, consider Captain Mark Kruger. Kruger was found to have erected a memorial to Nazi soldiers who were members of the SS on Rocky Butte sometime between 1999 and 2001. He was suspended for this in 2010. Kruger, suing the city after an officer under his command accused him of retaliation and joked in text messages that he was a Nazi, had his disciplinary record wiped as part of his settlement. He was paid back the salary he lost during his suspension, and the police bureau wrote him a letter of commendation signed by Reese. Mayor Charlie Hales said he didn’t even read the settlement which precipitated the reversal. Kruger, in interviews with childhood acquaintances published during a civil suit against him for brutality in 2003, is depicted as a Hitler-obsessed racist, someone who has more than a passing interest in World War II history. Regardless, he has been promoted and placated after what was a comparatively stout response to discipline him.
Chasse and Campbell’s killings triggered reforms of the department, including more resources for mental health groups that work with the police, and more civilian oversight. The DOJ reforms will trigger further civilian oversight, more mental health support, and revised use-of-force policies. But the reforms address systemic failures; actual police who brutalize people still slip through the cracks.
But can the police be reformed? And is the state the proper venue for addressing deep-seated racism, wealth inequality and the two-tiered systems it gives birth to? Can a body which is primarily run by those who benefit from that inequality, and imposes the violence to ensure it, capable of ever truly changing?
Let’s look at the police in the US in general. As documented in Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams, the British colonies that would go on to become the United States imported from the motherland the positions of Constable and Sheriff, as well as a “night watch” composed of citizens to keep order. America, being a nation that owes its economic birth to black slavery, used the slave-catching patrols common in the prebellum South as a model as police forces modernized. As much as antebellum era was about controlling freed blacks through force and by law, police forces in the US played a central and part in this process for one-hundred-plus years afterward, and Portland’s police have historically been no different.
As documented in ”Black and Blue,” by Leanne Sebulo and Karen Gibson, Portland, as elsewhere, experienced race riots in the 1960s that led to government commissions which studied the underlying problems those riots exposed. Portland’s City Club reproduced their own report mirroring federal findings in the so-called “Kerner Report.” As a result, the city further sought to work with the residents of Albina as part of the national “Model Cities” program, and those efforts led to the first attempt at citizen oversight of Portland police, efforts that were predictably contentious. Model Cities participants sued Portland in federal court, ultimately reaching a settlement in 1971 that barred Portland cops from using racial slurs toward black residents, and barred the used of lead-weighted gloves and batons that police favored for beating them with. It also mandated the creation of an Internal Affairs division in the police force and more minority hiring. The latter would prove a failure unremedied to this day. The first Justice Department investigation of the PPB followed four shooting deaths of black men by police between October 1974 and March 1975, and produced nothing. Numerous attempts at reigning in the PPB have followed since, and all have been undermined by push-back from the police at any attempt to limit their power, and the police’s determining presence in local politics.
The Portland police are a political body; they have a union, the nation’s first. The police are often immune from discipline and firing because, as a collective bargaining unit, they are entitled to binding state arbitration that narrowly reads bureau policy, restores their position, and makes them financially whole. The decision to charge cops rests on the efforts of state prosecutors leading grand juries, the same attorneys who regularly work with police to obtain convictions for criminals. Plus, the police always defend their own, enforcing a form of fraternal solidarity that prioritizes themselves over all else.
In one example of this, after Portland Officer Christopher Humphreys, one of the cops who beat Chasse to death, shot a 12-year-old black girl on a MAX platform with a beanbag-loaded shotgun in 2009, hundreds of Portland cops flooded the front of City Hall wearing “I am Chris Humphreys” t-shirts, similar to how police in Ferguson were photographed wearing “I am Darren Wilson” wristbands as they beat and shot at protesters. It is quite clear that the police identify more-often with the perpetrators of violence than the victims of that violence, and see a vested interest in shielding one another from scrutiny or discipline. Police, their unions, and associated lobbying groups are generally aligned with a conservative agenda, pushing for more-stringent “tough on crime” laws, and of course, their own further empowerment.
This is who police are. They are not just people from your community here to protect you. They are an organized gang suited up and given heavy gear in order to beat you into submission, and if they want to, they will kill you. They are not here to listen to you, and they will not be reasoned with. Their job is to feed a succession of black bodies to a bloated and growing prison system and their continued solo arms race, when coupled with historic material inequality, means that we will continue to see many more Mike Browns.
The people of Portland have, for decades, tried to reform an intransigent and openly-antagonistic police force. But, fundamentally, what has changed? No less than the city, the federal government, and the United Nations have been called on to deliver relief, and it has changed not one iota this reality for black and poor people: we are still left with one group of people who are allowed to kill us, at any time, for any reason, and go unpunished. No amount of citizen boards, further study, or body cameras will change that.
Today the authorities responsible for creating the conditions for Mike Brown’s death are urging calm. They are urging us to protest the way they say is right, legitimate. They use language against us, urging “non-violence,” when the order they maintain is anything but. Isn’t poverty violence? Isn’t white supremacy violence? The simple acts of defending ourselves against their violent escalation, or any disobedience for that matter, will be construed by them as “violence”.
For a free and truly just society, we cannot proceed as they’d have us proceed. We need to fight, both through concerted organizing, and in the traditional sense. The police and the state have the power to kill us or put us in cages at their whim; this is a dehumanizing existence. Our rebellion against this logic is an affirmation of our humanity. To assert our worth, to finally say that we have had enough, we need to abolish the police, abolish the prison system. We need to fight for an equal society where no one has such destructive power over anyone else. Instead of appealing to them that we are human, that our lives matter, while suffering their abuse until they realize this, we need to dispense with their abuse by any means necessary. We need to insist.
The only reason any of us outside of Ferguson know anything about Mike Brown, or his death, is that people stood up and challenged what is so routine. They were not satisfied at the official response, and while the authorities tried to paint Brown as a thug, or a thief, as some character that the majority of people would accept as deserving to be killed in the street, the community refused. In the coming days, the authorities in the police, City Hall and the press will try harder still to beat them down, to strangle any effort to challenge them, and to reimpose a status quo that is a potential death sentence imposed on any black or poor person in any community, anywhere, where there are police.
The re-imposition of the police and state’s order starts the beginning of the process of a collective acceptance of Mike Brown’s death. It will begin a process in which the memory of Mike Brown, and why his death inspired rage and defiance, is snuffed out. The state can effectively kill Mike Brown a second time.
The question, from Ferguson to Portland to around the world, is if we will let them.