Eric K. Ward: The Racialization of Crowd Control Has No Place in 21st Century Policing

I am not one to call for abolition of police forces. I am calling for accountability. I am not calling for disregard of the law. I am calling for respect for the rule of law.

Eric K. Ward, Executive Director of Western States Center, Senior Fellow of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Senior Advisor to Race Forward. @BulldogShadow

While our attention has been focused on the election, inclusive democracy rests on more than voting. Whether every Oregonian can live, love, worship, and work free from bigotry and fear also depends on how our communities are policed. 

Fairness in policing has never been a given. If you haven’t seen Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, now is a good time to sit down and watch it. The film will help you understand the historical throughlines behind our contemporary mass incarceration practices. The legacy of institutional racism in policing continues to play out today. You see it in headlines like “‘Old-boy-style racism’ by small-town cops leads to $600,000 payout to Portland man.” It appears in reports like the one produced in 2012 by the U.S. Justice Department on the Portland Police Bureau, which noted “the often tense relationship between PPB and the African American community.” It shapes perceptions, including the widespread perception within the Black community of racial profiling and that the police “protect the white folk and police the black folk.”

The events of 2020 have exposed further concerns, beyond the day-to-day implicit bias in policing that is far-too-often deadly to Black and Indigenous people and other communities of color. Along with racial bias, bias against protesters stereotyped as “antifa” or “radical left” is now a major problem. Both nationally and locally we have seen case after case of alignment of on-duty officers and far-right actors. This ranges from sympathy for anti-democratic ideologies and activists (handing them water bottles and thanks, for example) to collusion with the far-right paramilitary formations that are known to pose a strong threat of domestic terrorism and a danger to law enforcement itself

The Racialization of Crowd Control

The way law enforcement has responded differentially to protests led by people of color compared to those led by white activists has long been critiqued.  Two years ago when JoAnn Hardesty was newly elected to the Portland City Council, she made headlines by pointing out, “We see how police show up when white women protest and when people of color protest.” Referencing the policing of Portland's Resistance marches and the Women's March in January 2017, Hardesty noted, “Police showed up in riot gear versus showing up in pussy hats. It's a totally different presence.”

When a broad rainbow of communities took to the streets to protest George Floyd’s public lynching, the turnout – and public opinion polls – demonstrated that more white Americans than ever now support the belief that Black Lives Matter. In response, Trump and others invested in the politics of division revived the racist dog whistle, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Despite the vast majority of racial justice protests being nonviolent, a racialized narrative of the protests as unlawful and dangerous was relentlessly promoted. White nationalists and paramilitary groups, many with white supremacist beliefs, were encouraged – sometimes by law enforcement and elected officials – to go “antifa hunting.” 

At this point, those protesting for racial justice are being perceived in a racialized manner regardless of who the protesters are. 

There is a longstanding animosity between those considered to be, or who consider themselves, “anarchists” and police. And the institutional racism in policing is well established. These two problems have now been conflated. Whether those protesting adhere to anarchist beliefs or consider themselves part of an anti-fascist movement, or simply want to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter,” if they are perceived by law enforcement to be on the “left,” they are subject to more draconian crowd control measures. In Portland and other communities in Oregon, “left” has become a racialized code word for policing people of color. 

It’s a code word that misdirects attention and resources. Governor Kate Brown appropriately engaged state police when white nationalists were threatening to descend on Portland, 20,000 strong, in late September and again during election week. But the narrative is once again shifting from a spotlight on the well-documented threat of far-right domestic terrorism, to fears of property damage from “the left.”

Earlier this week Oregon State Police Superintendent Terri Davie told OPB’s Think Out Loud, “In the election period last week we were very fortunate in the fact that there could have been a lot more vandalism and destruction but law enforcement resources pooled together very well under the unified command in order to prevent the property damage that could have, and has happened, in Portland previously.” To be clear, I am not a proponent of property damage – but listening to Superintendent Davie’s comments I wouldn’t know that Oregon had been rated in the top five states “at highest risk of increased militia activity in the election and post-election period” – militia activity which poses serious risk of harm to humans and to the rule of law itself, not just property. Where was the relief that that form of violence had been deterred?

Can Portland Police Be Trusted with Crowd Control?

The way some police departments have chosen to respond to constitutionally-protected nonviolent protest raises questions of whether they can be trusted with crowd control duties. 

This fall Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran surfaced an old idea whose time may have come: turning law enforcement in the state’s largest city (the Portland Police Bureau) over to the state’s most populous county. “In the context of deep community safety systems reform, it's time to seriously consider dissolving PPB and potentially bringing the work of law enforcement to the county, which has a much broader, integrated, upstream and holistic approach toward public health, safety and justice,” Commissioner Meiran said, in a story reported by Willamette Week.

Two recent reports underscore the importance of considering this idea. The reports reveal the appalling behavior of the Portland Police Bureau in the face of racial justice protests. Physicians for Human Rights sent an investigative team to Portland to document the shocking violence perpetrated in the name of “crowd control” – including the immoral refusal to assure medical care for the wounded. The intentional infliction of harm on medics and journalists, not to mention everyday citizens exercising their constitutional rights, has no place in a 21st century democracy. The investigative team’s findings were so egregious that they titled their report “‘Now they seem to just want to hurt us’: Dangerous Use of Crowd-control Weapons against Protestors and Medics in Portland, Oregon.” Underscoring how the world is now viewing us here in Oregon, the report includes a forward from the Chairperson and Secretary General of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey.

Complementing the detailed reporting of Physicians for Human Rights is a forensic-style breakdown of deliberate use of violence by Portland police against peaceful protesters. Coverage by The Intercept, Don’t Shoot Portland, and the applied-research group SITU, culminated in “a granular analysis of a number of incidents of police violence over a 90-minute period of time [during a June 30th protest] that clearly shows the circumstances, and lack of justification, that preceded each deployment of force.” The reconstruction is part of a lawsuit against the City. “It provided a rare piece of evidence of abuse by officers that is much harder to dismiss than many witness accounts of police violence, opening the door for an equally rare moment of accountability,” The Intercept reported.

“What these protests have exposed is the utter contempt that the police bureau has for criticism or even the idea that anybody should question what they do at any time,” Jesse Merrithew, one of the attorneys representing Don’t Shoot Portland, told The Intercept.

This kind of authoritarian bias has no place in a 21st century police force. While there are many good and even heroic police officers, adoption of Trump-driven partisanship and intolerance of lawful protest is increasingly putting law enforcement officers and communities across the United States in danger.

I am not one to call for abolition of police forces. I am calling for accountability. I am not calling for disregard of the law. I am calling for respect for the rule of law. Police forces and police unions cannot hold themselves above the rule of law. Their complicity with anti-democratic forces undermines the rule of law and destroys their relationships with the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.

The politicization of city policing was escalated by Trump’s insertion of unaccountable federal agents this summer - an overreach of federal powers which Western States Center and others are challenging in federal court. While Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Governor Brown both denounced the escalation of conflict brought by these federal officers, PPB union head Daryl Turner and other officers met with Homeland Security, apparently without the approval or knowledge of their higher-ups. 

Rebuilding Community Confidence in the Rule of Law

The lack of accountability in the Portland Police Bureau has gone too far. The damage to community confidence cannot be undone. A restructure such as the one Commissioner Meiren is floating will take time. In the interim, we need an immediate change in how crowds are managed in Portland. We need de-escalation, now – and the Portland police force has proved itself incapable of de-escalation.

What if, starting now, crowd control duties in Portland were placed under the direct supervision of the Multnomah County Sheriff? This would allow Portland police to get back to what they say they can no longer do: community policing, the daily activities of working with residents to uphold law and order. If we don’t make structural changes like this, I fear for continued federalization and privatization of basic policing. 

What do you do when you lose perspective, when you lose sight of your mission?

When you’ve allowed the culture of law enforcement to be so steeped in ideological bias that crowd control is treated as beating or defeating “the other side”? 

The policy demands compiled by Reimagine Oregon are a good place to start.

But I’d like to hear from law enforcement – what are their solutions to the problems with their internal culture?

What we keep hearing from law enforcement are the reasons why nothing can be done – except maintaining the status quo. I long for a day when law enforcement begins to articulate solutions to the disproportionate killing of unarmed Black community members. I long for a day when law enforcement can see itself in relationship with all parts of the community, not just those flying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag. I long for a day when law enforcement comes to terms with the radical, anti-democratic threat posed by paramilitary and militia formations which seek to take the law into their own hands—a day when law enforcement decides that the rule of law – including our constitutional right to protest – is more important than their own political ideology.

How do we get to that day, Oregon? 

Is this just a Portland problem? Or do we need to rethink the roles of city police alongside county sheriffs and the state police in other communities, too? 

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