Incident on 4th and Oak: Why mercenary quasi-police have no place in a democratic society
I don't really know how to say this. I'm not sure if I can put into words what just happened, downtown, right underneath all of our noses. I'm not sure if I can make people understand why this really, fucking, matters.
But it does.
I was standing at a bus stop a little while ago, on the corner of SW 4th and Oak. It was lunchtime, so there were a lot of people there. There had to be nearly a dozen of us, mostly waiting for one of three buses that would be passing by soon. And there was the man who was sitting by the wall on the corner. I see him now and then. He was leaning back, soaking in the scant rays of the weak November sun. Occasionally, he would ask people walking by if they could spare some change. None did, but he is used to that. He took it all in stride, just leaning back again and waiting for someone to show some kindness.
I know, in reading this there will be people who will roll their eyes, and make all the usual excuses for indifference or even hostility. A lot of people imagine they have the right to ask that people who are homeless just go away. Just disappear from the streets. Stop "bothering" them. They talk about "aggressive pan handling" and "cleaning up the streets." But there was nothing aggressive about this man, and no one should have the right to just sweep him away like refuse. If people were annoyed by their encounter with him, then it was their own consciences bothering them, because this man was not bothering anyone. And if their consciences are bothering them, then maybe they should think about that.
Anyway, so I was standing there, waiting for this bus. And as I'm squinting up the street wondering if it will be on time, I see the two "Clean and Safe" oppressors walking toward us. (It occurs to me as I write this, that I don't even know what to call them. Clearly, they would like to be called "officers," I think. They wear badges, and uniforms designed to mimic the Portland Police Bureau. They even have guns on their hips. But they are not officers. Unlike the police, they are not even accountable on paper to the rest of us.) One is a young-ish woman wearing a yellow and black jacket, like the bike cops wear. The other is an old-ish man, in the blue uniform that looks almost exactly like the Portland Police uniform. Both have fake badges on their chests.
As I see them, I realize that my friend by the wall is probably in danger of being harassed. Despite there being at least thirty people just down the street sitting on the sidewalk outside the Greek Cuisina, I'm pretty sure that this man, alone, will be called out for violating the "sit-lie" ordinance. Without really thinking about it, I take a few steps toward him. I see that he has seen them too, as he is already standing when I turn around. I wait. He waits. The "officers" approach.
One of them, the woman, walks up to him, while the other "officer" goes into the little market there, for a moment, either picking up a snack or trying to justify what comes next. I hear my friend ask the first officer, "Hey, how ya doin'?" And I hear her terse response. She's doing fine. She's loud, and trying to effect a jovial mood. But she seems friendly enough, and I think, maybe they're not going to bother him. Maybe they're just out patrolling, and maybe they will just keep on walking. But no. The male officer comes out of the little market, walks right up to the man, and growls at him that he has to leave. He's being kind of obnoxious about it too, standing right up against him with his face only an inch or two from the other man's face. And of course, there is the implication that if he does not leave, force may be employed. If the man realizes that these are fake police with no real authority other than the guns at their sides, then a real officer can always be called to trump up some charge and take him away.
The relish with which the fake officer brandished his fake power was just too much.
"Why does he have to leave?" I asked. It seemed like a simple enough question. All three of them turned to look at me. I waited. They seemed perplexed. "Why does he need to leave," I asked again. The male officer responds, "He's getting complaints." He then tells the man, again, that he is to leave. At that, the homeless man dips his head and begins to walk away, wisely exiting the scene. "I don't understand," I say. "This is a public place. Why can't he be here like the rest of us? Why does he need to leave?"
Incredibly, the "officer," whose name I now know to be Mr. Long, answers, "He's just a very small part of the public."
I wonder if he knows just how revealing that answer was. Probably not. "But he is a member of this community," I say. "A member of the public. He hasn't done anything wrong. He has the right to be here."
"Officer" Long tells me that the man's presence is "impacting the quality of life" in this city. I tell him I live in this city, and that man is my neighbor, and I would rather have him on the street than a bully with a fake badge and a gun. "It's not right what you're doing. You should not be able to just wander the streets with a gun on your hip, pretending to be cops, harassing homeless people. That's not right. It's disgusting. It's not a crime to be homeless," I say. It all came rolling out of my mouth before I even knew what I was going to say. I only knew that something must be said.
Mr. Long imagined himself to be in possession of some kind of authority which he felt should be enough to put me in my place. "Why don't you ask him if he feels harassed," he sneered, gesturing down the street toward where the homeless man had disappeared. What a strange thing to say, I thought. How can he think, for one moment, that the people he treats like this don't mind it? Can he really believe that???
So I say, "If someone were to come up and treat you like that, wouldn't you feel harassed?"
To that, he responded, "I'm being harassed right now." Meaning me. He was being "harassed" by me because I was asking him for some accountability. I was asking why he felt he had the right to tell a member of this community that he can't be there on a public sidewalk. I was standing up for a neighbor, and so this "officer" was feeling harassed.
"Really," I said. "You're feeling harassed right now?" I paused. "Good," I said. "You should feel harassed. You should feel ashamed. What you're doing is not right, and you should know that. You're not even real cops. Yet you wear badges and carry guns, and you prowl these streets bullying homeless people. You're mercenaries, working for the Portland Business Alliance. That isn't right, and you should just be ashamed of yourselves."
The woman in the yellow and black jacket was fading into the background. Maybe she realized that I was right. Maybe she felt sheepish about her role in the quasi police state. Maybe not. Either way, at the very least, she understood that it was not appropriate to escalate the situation any further. This was something that should have occurred to Mr. Long as well, but it did not. Instead, he thrust out his chest and took several steps toward me, intent upon intimidating me into silence. I am not so easily intimidated.
Mr. Long stuck his chest out and came right up to me and said, bizarrely, "No. I'm not ashamed. I'm not ashamed at all. Know why? Because I used to be a real cop, for a number of years." As if that explained it all. ...And again, it probably explained more than he intended it to. For instance, it explained why he still believed he had the authority to intimidate people on the street, why he was waiting for me to melt away in fear, why he was almost foaming at the mouth with the urge to haul me downtown for daring to speak up to him. I could feel it. I could read him like a book.
We exchanged some words. I can't remember them all. But the gist of it was that he felt he had the perfect right to tell the homeless man to go away, and what's more, he thought he had the right to stand there and bait me and try to make me squirm. He was nasty and rude and challenging, and trying to get me to back down. I will be honest with you. I was shaking so hard through this encounter that I feared my legs would not hold me. I was shaking because, like any human being, I am not comfortable with such a public confrontation. I could feel upon me the eyes of all the other people on that corner, and it was very disconcerting. And I was shaking because I was upset. I was upset that someone like this could be granted the perceived power to harass other people like that, in what is supposed to be a democratic society. I was upset that he could be allowed to just walk up to a member of this community, at the behest of shadowy private interests, and just tell that person to get lost. I was upset that this little man could think it was even remotely appropriate to stand there and try to brow-beat me into silence like that. And, inside, I was especially upset that mine was the only voice speaking out against this injustice.
I told him he had done his job, he had chased away a homeless man, why didn't he just go away now? But he would not. He sneered at me. He implied that he has the support of the public on his side for what he does, even if I don't "get" it. He postured and baited. He gave me the same, practiced maneuver that he had used on the homeless man: He walked right up to me, nose to nose, glaring in my eyes. I glared right back. He glared. I glared. Neither of us would look away, neither spoke. Finally, he broke the gaze and looked furtively downward. But quickly he regained himself and lifted his chin to glare back at me. "You have a lot of anger in you," He said, employing what I took to be a sad effort at a psychological tactic often used by the police to bait people into doing something they can charge them with. He was still trying to look intimidating. "I should tell you," I said. "You have no authority here. I am not afraid of you. And unlike that man you chased away, I have a home. Don't fuck with me."
"Fuck?" He said, seizing on the word. His hands flew up to his chest pocket -- one hand opening his jacket, the other reaching into the shirt pocket inside. He stood there, frozen like that for a long, long moment. Waiting for me to crack, hoping I would believe, as he had believed in one senile moment, that he still had something in that pocket. Maybe the power to write me some sort of citation, to detain me, to take me in. Maybe he even thought that I would think he had a gun in there. Clearly, he was waiting for me to quake in fear. "FUCK?" He said again, in his most challenging drawl.
"Yes," I said at last, very evenly. "Don't fuck with me."
"Do you eat with that mouth?" It was all he could think to say. When I did not respond, he finally retrieved the impotent hand from his pocket, wielding nothing more substantial than a flaccid ballpoint pen. Probably had no ink.
"You should be ashamed," I said again. "What you did to that man is wrong. It's disgusting, and you should be ashamed."
"I'm not ashamed," he said, childishly defiant.
"Then I weep for you."
I turned away, hoping this ordeal would just be over with. But it was not. He shouted at me from the corner that there was something wrong with me, and sneered something about my being "an angry person." I turned around and asked him, again, to just move along. Still, he would not. He cajoled and insulted, and did his best to escalate the whole affair. I asked for his name, pointedly glancing at the little brass rectangle on his jacket where the offending name was printed. Finally, upon my insistence, he produced a card that reads, "IF you have a complaint My name is ofc Long." (He'd had to write the name in himself, with the impotent little bic.) The card went on, "Please contact John Hren at 503-224-7383 or DPSST at 503-378-2100." He held it as if to give it to me, but kept holding it back. Such petty little games he plays. A man who craves authority in any little way. Even if all it means is making someone go to extra lengths just to get a business card out from his hand. Sad.
The other side of the card, by the way, reads "Portland Patrol Inc, Downtown Clean and Safe. 208 NW 1st Avenue, Portland, OR 97209. Bus. 503-224-7383, fax 503-224-5041." I may call them to complain, but probably not. What would be the point? The man is doing the job he is paid to do. If I am to lodge a complaint about his behavior, it will be an indictment of the entire "Portland Patrol" charade. He should not be singled out alone. It is the position itself that is wrong, though he certainly embodies the ugliness that can develop in the human heart when a weak soul is given a little power over others. It seems this kind of weakness is common among Portland Police officers, which is one reason to question the wisdom of allowing them to continue their brutality in this petty manner after they retire.
What he did, here, was right out of the Portland Police play book. He was rude and obnoxious and trying very hard to be intimidating. He was threatening, but in a veiled sort of way. His actions and words were geared to get a rise out of me without being noticed by bystanders. He tried to get me to shout so that it would appear to the people around us that it was me who had the problem, not him. And all because he wanted very much to justify to himself, to the people around us, that it is all right for this private army of mercenaries to prowl our streets with guns, harassing homeless people and intimidating anyone who would challenge their right to do so.
Frighteningly, I have no doubt that, if he were still a real police officer, he might very well have arrested me at that moment when he reached into his pocket. He could have made up some charge -- perhaps "interfering with a police officer" or "disorderly conduct," or even "Attempted PSCII." Because they can, and they do get away with this all the time. And it's just not right.
In any event, after a long and hostile and draining encounter, I turned away again and made it clear that it was done. Mister Long finally gave up and followed his partner, who had long since backed away down the block. I was pretty sure I had missed my bus by now, and I did not want to meet anyone's gaze. I have been through this drill before. I knew what I could expect. In a culture where everyone is brainwashed to side with anyone in a uniform, where it's considered impolite to make any waves, I imagined that all the faces at that bus stop would be either refusing to meet my eye, or else glaring at me. I was certain that, to them, I was now "the crazy woman." Hopelessly, I felt tears stinging at the back of my eyes with this knowledge, but I would not let anyone see them here. I would hold my head up and look straight ahead, and I would not look at any of those glaring faces. I saw a bus coming. It wasn't my bus, but I thought I would climb on it anyway, just to get out of there.
I stepped into the line to get on that bus, when I heard a voice. "Hey," said a man in a suit and an expensive coat. "You probably can't win this. This is huge, and entrenched," He said. I blinked in surprise. He went on to tell me what an oppressive and system-wide phenomenon I'm up against, thinking I did not already know. "I know, it's hard not to say anything, though," he said, as he climbed on the bus. An old woman behind him smiled encouragingly at me, and shrugged. A gesture of the futility and hopelessness of it all, but meant to be supportive just the same.
I was so surprised that I did not get on the bus after all. I just stood there and watched others climb on board. "Thanks," I said lamely. "Thanks for saying that." Dazed, I looked at the people around me. No one was glaring at all. No one was trying not to meet my eye. Instead, everyone was looking at me with what looked very much like approval. Another man murmured, "It's all right. You were right." And a young woman said, "Thank you so much for speaking out." She touched me on the arm and told me that she wished she had the courage to speak up like that. And then, after I had walked a little way away to get out of the little crowd, a man and a woman walked over to me. Barely turning to look at me when he said it, the man leaned over and quietly said, "You were right, you know."
I was surprised beyond words. I had thought I was alone there. My first reaction to this revelation that I was not alone after all was such overwhelming gratitude that I felt those tears burning on my cheeks after all. Maybe it's not such a cold and lonely world after all. It wasn't until a long time later, after the right bus finally came, and I was riding off down the street, that I thought to wonder why none of those people had bothered to speak up sooner. Why they had not spoken up for the homeless man when he was still there, why they had not said anything to the fake "police." Then again, who was I to question it. I had really, really needed to know, in that one moment, that it wasn't just me. That I wasn't standing out there all alone. That I wasn't just some crazy lady shouting into the wind. And they had given me that. They had given me the reassurance that I needed. Indeed, they had given me the encouragement necessary to go out there and fight another day.
Our voices do matter. I think it mattered to the man on the corner that I spoke up for him, and I know it mattered to me that so many people spoke up for me when they did. So if you see someone being oppressed in this city, please, please speak up. It matters.
(Incidentally, before my bus came, I walked into the little market to see if anyone in there had complained about the homeless man. No one had. So if Mr. Long's report says otherwise later, perhaps someone should do a little following up.)
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