Although they say they don't, Portland police appear to be engaging in classist profiling and harassment of poor and homeless people. (What a surprise.)
A few days ago, as I was walking through town on my way home from work, I noticed a police cruiser slowly gliding past O'Bryant square, otherwise known as Stark Park. The officers inside were riveted on something, and came to a stop near the park. I followed their gaze and saw two other officers and two plain-clothed people standing in the park. The officers in the cruiser stepped out and walked up to the scene.
I've learned from past experiences that it's never cool to just walk by when Portland cops are circling. One never knows what they will do when they think no one is watching. I decided to stop and bear witness to whatever they might be up to. I wandered into the park from another corner and saw that they were surrounding a young man who was hunched over on a park bench. He was wearing a hoody and carried a worn back pack. One of the officers began digging through his pack as the plain-clothed men laughed and looked on. They kept looking over at me as I casually leaned on the cement wall nearby, clearly out of "interference" range. Despite the rain, I stood and observed while they eventually clamped cuffs on the boy's arms and the cruiser cops marched him away.
About that time, one of the officers began to walk toward me. As I watched her approach, I idly wondered if I should awaken a man near me, who was sleeping on a blanket on the stairs, just beneath a small cement overhang. He looked so comfortable, though, and I believed she was only coming toward me. Let him sleep, I thought. The officer walked up to me, circled around behind me, and then began to go back where she came from. She signalled to the plain-clothed men and the remaining officer, and they all headed toward me again.
"How ya doin," She said in her most official and authoritative drawl.
"Good," I said in my most sincere you're-not-intimidating-me voice. "What did he do?"
She glanced over her shoulder to the place where the young man had been sitting before he was escorted away. "Oh, he had some violations," she replied. Then she circled around me again, and approached the man who was still asleep nearby.
"Damn," I thought. "Shoulda woke him up." But I had not.
She and the three others surrounded him. One of them nudged him with a foot until he finally rolled over and looked up at them. A threatening forest of cop legs stood over him. I was standing only a few feet away, so I clearly heard one of the cops ask him for his identification. (Don't give it to them, I silently pleaded. Ask them if you're under arrest or being detained.) But the intimidation of being aroused from sleep by a pod of portland cops was too much for him. He sat up and began digging through his pack.
"Who are you," he wanted to know. "What did I do?"
"Oh, these guys are from parole and probation," the cop replied. "Got any warrants or violations on you?"
"No," he answered.
He had stopped digging, so the cop prodded him again. "See some ID?"
At last he produced a piece of identification from his pack. The officer took it, turned it around in her hand, and called his name and other personal information into her radio. We all hovered in the rain, waiting through the long moments while someone looked him up in some ominous database somewhere. The parole officers lazily fidgeted through a stack of papers, each one printed with a black and white photograph of someone who had crossed them at one time or another. I peered at the pictures in their hands to see if any looked remotely like the man they were harassing. None did. And in any event, his face had been turned toward the wall and was not visible until they shook him from sleep, so it was unclear why they felt it appropriate to approach him at all.
At long last, a voice crackled back over the radio. I couldn't understand what it said, but apparently he was "clean." "All right," the officer announced. "You're good. Have a nice day." She and the others began to walk away. He was left with an open pack, his things scattered on the ground, and a sense of violation that I vicariously shared. We watched them move away for a silent moment, and then he said in a voice that resonated both strength and resignation, "Try not to shoot anyone today."
The officers turned around. "What did you say?" One of them demanded. (I flashed back to a similar incident when I had found myself saying the same thing, and had gotten the same response.) Clearly they had heard him, this was an effort to bully him into shamed silence. "I said, Try not to shoot anyone today," he said evenly. The officers glared back as the wheels ground to a halt under their hats. It was a bizarre moment that seemed dangerous and yet somehow oddly funny at the same time. I started to laugh. "No shit," I said, and walked over to stand near the man, who had folded his blanket and was now standing up. "Don't shoot anyone today." Shoulder to shoulder, we met their gaze, and after another long moment of silence, they turned and left.
"What the fuck was that," he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "Good thing we were white."
"No shit," he said somberly. "They'd have shot us for sure otherwise."
The truth of this utterance was sobering. It WAS a good thing we were white. We both knew it was true. People of color have been brutally slain by the police in this town for "infractions" far less severe than our uppity refusal to be cowed. It's not exactly an unearned privilege, since everyone deserves not to be shot by the police -- that's a right, not a privilege. But in fact, none of us can count on that right in this city, and particularly not people of color. Knowing that the risk of standing up to the cops is less for a white person than a Black person surely must carry some responsibility. We were left to mull this over as the cops faded away.
I've been thinking about this encounter for the last few days. Something disturbs me about it. It was, in every sense of the phrase, just another day in Portland. Just another minor and inexplicable violation of human dignity. Perhaps that's the point. This kind of harassment is so ordinary we're almost used to it. We almost don't even see it. Almost.
I suppose we should be used to this by now. But I'm not. And certainly the two men whose possessions and dignity were pawed through by the police are not immune to caring about it either.
It occurs to me that one of the things that gnaws at me, other than the offensiveness of police purposelessly demanding to see people's papers, is the fact that they did not ask me for my ID. I should be relieved, but I'm not. In fact, they didn't ask me, nor did they ask any of a number of other people waiting at a bus stop nearby. Why not? What was different about the two men whom they shook down? Why did they imagine these men needed to be quesitoned about nebulous "violations," but not the men at the bus stop, and not me?
I believe they targeted the people they did because those people appeared to be homeless. I know, it sounds crazy. The cops insist that they don't engage in profiling, and of course they always tell the truth. (The grand juries all say so.) But why else would they harass a man who had no warrants or "violations"? Who did not resemble anyone they pretended to be looking for? The two men whom they questioned did not look anything like each other, nor did they look like any of the photos the parole officers were holding. Why shake them down? Did they have "the look" of criminals? What right did the police have to invade these people's lives at all?
They had no right at all. But because they seem to believe harassing poor and homeless people is their mandate, they did it anyway. All in a days work. I don't understand why we allow this from the police. No, I will never just walk away when I see cops harassing a comrade, and I hope no one else will either. Silence is complicity. Let us all refuse to collaborate with the police state in these kinds of everyday crimes.
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