Civil rights groups raise alarms about Portland mayor’s harsher stance on protesters

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
Jan. 5, 2021 2:46 p.m.

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said Monday that it’s moving ahead with plans for harsher penalties, new approach to property destruction.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler rang in the New Year — and a new term — by pledging a tougher stance on people who commit violence and vandalism at demonstrations.


The mayor’s office said Monday that staff were beginning to kick the protest-related proposals Wheeler first announced over the weekend into gear. These ideas include giving police more opportunities to videotape and “gather intelligence” on protesters, levying harsher penalties for demonstrators who have been charged with multiple protest-related crimes, and requesting people who vandalize businesses meet with store owners. The mayor’s office said Wheeler plans to meet with law enforcement as early as this Friday to discuss how to move the proposal forward.

Related: Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler calls for tougher penalties, more police tools, as protests mark new year in Oregon cities

But while the mayor’s office pledged a new approach to the property destruction that has accompanied some demonstrations, some civil rights advocates said they believe Wheeler’s proposal would keep the city stuck on the same volatile trajectory, antagonizing protesters while failing to address their larger demands around racism and white supremacy.

“The mayor is just completely missing the point on this and is again putting us back in a position where we’re just gonna continue the cycle over and over again,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “We need leadership who can understand how to disrupt this cycle.”

Over the weekend, the mayor made it clear he felt the demonstrations had strayed far from their racial justice roots. Following a New Years Eve demonstration that saw protesters break windows, light small fires and throw fireworks at buildings, the mayor said the protesters, who he described as largely white and young, had acted at “the height of selfishness.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a file photo from  Aug. 30, 2020.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a file photo from Aug. 30, 2020.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB


“There are some people who just want to watch the world burn,” Wheeler said.

Singh’s nonprofit had been one of several left-leaning civil rights groups who called for Wheeler to resign last fall, citing a lack of leadership.

Singh said he believed the mayor’s push for stricter penalties for protest-related crimes contradicted the stance taken by the new Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt. Schmidt, who was officially sworn in on Monday after completing the final months of former district attorney Rod Underhill’s term, has declined to bring low-level charges against protesters and pledged to move away from tough on crime policies like the mayor appeared to be championing.

Related: In one of America’s whitest cities, Black activists struggle to separate themselves from anarchists

“There’s already tough sanctions in place for property crimes — in fact, too tough,” said Singh. “And what we see with property crimes generally speaking is a lot of it is driven by other factors besides the desire to commit property crimes - whether it’s drug addiction, mental health. In this case, we’re seeing communities that are wanting to confront these challenges of white supremacy and racism and police brutality.”

Kelly Simon, the interim legal director of Oregon’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed Singh’s concern, noting Oregon already had enhanced sentencing laws for repeat property offenders.

“We know that tough on crime solutions like those that are being called for here just don’t work. We’ve tried that,” said Simon. “It’s already a crime to do many of the things that the mayor has expressed anger at.”

As for expanding the surveillance abilities of law enforcement, Simon said such an idea would surely sound alarm bells within the ACLU.

“Expanded authority to conduct surveillance on the public is a practice we know is disproportionately used against communities of color both in Portland and through the country.” she said. “Calls for tools or responses that we know harm Black people, that we know harm people of color is not the right call right now.”

“It wasn’t the right call yesterday. It’s never been the right call.”