A Complaint About Police Harassment in Downtown Portland
I work downtown. I work in a high rise office building, I have a PhD, I pull in a fairly good salary, and I am very involved with my community. I tell you these things, not because I think you ought to be impressed by them, but because I want to draw you a picture of the two different worlds that I am part of and the perspective that gives me. In one world, I have a five star view of the city from my ivory tower office, where I interact primarily with people in suits. In the other world, I am an advocate for people who are homeless - as I once was - and I am very close to the streets. And so this is where this story begins.
Today, as I walked through downtown on my way from a stuffy board meeting back to my office, I came upon a scene that I see repeated all too often in this city. I saw an officer standing in the park, hovering near a shopping cart filled with detritus from someone's life. I know this scene. I've seen it before. Obviously, I had happened by after the unfolding of a personal drama whose script I could write in the dark. Officers - either real or make believe "clean and safe" people - had arrested someone for some minor infraction or another, and now the low man was waiting around for the clean-up crew. As if a man whose life is in a shopping cart doesn't have enough to worry about already, these people in uniforms like to give them "something else to think about" by incarcerating them. As if there were any alternatives in this town for people without work, or with mental illness.
In any event, I returned to my office, where a lot of useless conversations ensued, as they do, until I was asked to go over to check on a client at the 8NW8 building who had not been heard from in days. I changed out of the work suit I had worn to the meeting, and back into regular clothes, and headed off. I had not gone more than a few blocks when I happened upon another scene. Three officers were detaining a man whom I know as a talented street musician. One of the officers was a Portland police officer, the others were "clean and safe" fake police knock offs. Mercenaries for downtown business interests. They were on the corner of SW 4th and SW Oak streets, just in front of the Bancorp building. I had to walk past to get to 8NW8.
On my way past this scene, I heard the Portland police officer - a short woman with shoulder-length, sandy brown/dirty blond hair, apparently part of the bike patrol - berating the man. She was being rude, condescending, and her behavior bordered on harassment. I heard her making snide comments, and making light of the man's plight - as if she enjoyed having him at her mercy. As an advocate for homeless people, I felt it was my duty to speak up. And so I asked, politely, if it was really necessary to treat him like that. Now, I realize that any police officer reading this (and you know you do) will assume, at this point, that it was my own behavior that was at fault. After all, how dare I question an officer in the line of duty, right? How outrageous to interfere with an arrest/detention. Who do I think I am, right?
Well, I will tell you. I think I am a member of this community, and I know you believe that your badges give you license to do whatever you please, especially to people of color (this man was black), and especially to people whom you perceive as powerless because they lack the economic resources to defend themselves from your predations. But if you ask the people of this communtiy, I think we believe otherwise. I think we believe that you work for us, not the other way around. I think that we believe that, as public servants, you owe every member of this community some respect. You are handed a badge and a gun, but those things come with the expectation and the requirement that you not violate the trust of this community, and that you not abuse the authority you were given by hounding and harassing people because they seem homeless. I also believe that we, the citizens of this city, have both the right and the responsibility to stand up to you when we believe you are out of line.
No, I do not mean that I took out a weapon and threatened this officer with it, nor that I interfered with her arrest, nor even that I stood up on a soap box and railed against the injustice of it all. All I did was simply to state that I did not think it was necessary to treat this man as less than human.
I guess I did not expect my words to alter her behavior, at least not at that moment in time. However, I could not simply walk past and say nothing. As I said above, those of us who benefit from the unearned privileges of race and class have a responsibility to challenge this sort of behavior, if only to put the abusers on notice that we're not with them on this. I wanted the man in her clutches to know that he was not standing there alone, that he was not condemned by society, but that people passing by recognized that what she was doing to him was wrong. I have been in his shoes myself, and I know what a difference that can make.
I would like to say that I did something heroic, that I stood up and struggled with her and made her stop, that I somehow forced her to let him go and leave him alone. But I did not. All I offered were a few words. I know that what I actually did was very little. It's not always easy to know what to do, and it's certainly not easy to stand up and speak out to someone who can make up a charge and arrest you if they want to. It's especially not easy to speak up to someone who has a gun, in a city where the police quite often shoot people for less than that. (Wasn't it 3 years ago, almost to the day, that a man was beaten to death in the streets simply for being afraid of the police enough to try to run away from them? And are there not still officers out there carrying guns who believe that the killing of James Chasse was somehow his own fault?)
All I could do was to let her know, and let the man she was harassing know, and let anyone walking by know, that it is not acceptable to treat people like that.
Instead of simply ignorning me, as I guess I expected her to do, she disengaged from her "work" to argue with me. She shouted at me to tell me that he was a criminal, and she demanded to know whether I was "telling her how to do her job." Her demeanor and her tone seemed odd to me. She seemed to be spoiling for a fight. I tried to walk away at this point, as I was not interested in a dangerous confrontation. (Like I said, I would like to be able to do the right thing, but abusive people with guns and attitudes and a sense of impugnity make me a little nervous. So yes, I just walked away.) But she began yelling after me, trying to provoke a reaction from me, making threatening statements, and posturing around like a nasty little chihuahua or something. "Yeah, that's right, you think you can just say your piece and walk away, well I don't think so" and etc. It seemed less than sane, and certainly far less than professional.
I will admit to you that, at this point, I was feeling angry with her and with the entire situation. I guess I had just had enough of this. People were sitting around at little tables outside Starbucks, there at the Bancorp, in their suits and ties, doing nothing. While this woman in a police uniform spouted off, first at a black man who was there to play music, and then at me. They just sat there, and she smirked and shouted, and it was the second time today that I saw people in their demeaning blue gloves picking on people who did not deserve it. It was also at least the tenth time this week that I watched uniformed officers bullying people with little or no power to defend themselves. I had had enough. I turned around and took some steps back toward her and asked, "Are you harassing me now too?" Her aggressive, snide, cocky epithets continued until I decided that was it.
I walked back into the Bancorp building, where I knew a friend had a phone I could use. I called Central precinct to lodge a complaint, but was initially given the run around (not unexpected). My friend loaned me her work cell, as I was late to my appointment over at 8NW8. I took the phone so that I could try again to get through to the rude police officer's superior officer. I believe that behavior like hers really must be addressed, and that if Chief Sizer is serious about wanting to change the manner in which the Portland Police Bureau bullies and harasses people (a BIG if), then I would like for something to be done about this. As I was walking back out of the building with the phone, I saw that the officer was finished with her dirty work, and I was nearly run down by her on her bike, on the SIDEWALK, as I exited the Bancorp. "Excuse me, may I have your business card?" I asked. (I had heard that they are now required to give them to people who ask for them. "I didn't make contact with you" she shouted at me as she regained herself and tried to ride away. A moment later, two officers on horseback met up with her on the corner, and she began gesticulating and pointing toward me, and telling them her side of the story - how dare I be so uppity! She with a uniform and a gun, after all, and me with nothing but the confidence of someone who knows what her obligations to the community are. (And here, I have to snicker, because I suspect that the officers were telling her that she should have given me her card. I'm just guessing, and maybe I'm wrong about that, but it looked to me like they were admonishing her about this, as her face fell and her composure shifted to a defensiveness I had not seen previously. I couldn't really hear the whole exchange, though, as I was now talking with Central Precinct again.)
I guess the whole point of this story is that I am seeing an increase in harassment of people on the street of a level that I do not usually see except during the period right before the Rose Festival when the streets are being cleared for tourists. I'm concerned about this, and concerned about the fact that so many Portlanders do not even see this seedier side of the city. People who live all the time in the world of high rises and suits seem oblivious to the indignities of police harassment and the injustices of constant abuse. There is too large a divide between the different worlds that make up this community. Too many people feel comfortable sitting quietly through encounters like this, too many are too quick to take the side of the police state. I could be one of them, if not for my own personal experiences that bridge the divide.
I am back at my desk now. I'm looking out over the city between sentences, thinking about the questions of the day. My co-workers are mostly people with good hearts who do not see what happens out there, even as they walk right past it day after day. I started talking with them about it, though, tonight, after I returned from a visit with my client. I told them about this experience, and I had to interpret it for them. They saw it as isolated, they saw the police officer as someone who was deranged, disturbed, had a personality disorder. No, I had to explain, this is how it is out there. If you take off the suit and wander around and LOOK, you will see it too. It is not isolated, it is not just a bad apple here and there. It is a system built on oppression and abuse and inane shows of force. People are victimized by it, and we cannot just silently let it happen. If we care about this community, then we must care about ALL of our neighbors.
I do not know if any of this got through. The divide is so wide.
What is so difficult about this?
I am asking for civility, for respect, and for police accountability. Is that too much to ask?
For those PPB persons reading this, and yes, you know you monitor this site, it was about 3:30 or 4pm, corner of SW oak and 4th. The officer in question was a short woman in a yellow and black bike officer uniform. She has shoulder length, sandy colored hair and an enormous chip on her shoulder. She should be mandated to take some classes.
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