Portland’s mayor and police chief defended their approach to policing during another night of demonstrations against police brutality, as some on the ground condemned what they saw was an indiscriminate use of tear gas by police officers.
Tuesday night's protest saw thousands gather across the city to demonstrate peacefully against the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by a police officer who planted a knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. It was the first demonstration without an 8 p.m. curfew in place since major demonstrations began late last week.
On Wednesday morning, Wheeler said that in addition to the peaceful protesters, he’d also monitored a small group of people he said were provoking conflict and violence — acts he said he saw play out after a late-night visit to the police bureau’s incident command team.
“I saw where the pockets of violence were occurring and how our police bureau was responding,” he said. “It confirmed what I already knew about the minute to minute reports I had been getting over the last five days — that our officers are doing everything they can within their power to respect and protect peaceful demonstrators.”
Critics have condemned the police bureau’s response Tuesday night, which included tear gas widely used to disperse groups gathering downtown. On Twitter, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she’d followed reports of indiscriminate use of tear gas and flash bangs,and found them “completely unacceptable.”
“It was heartbreaking to see the day end in reports of the media, children, families, and youth getting swept up in an over aggressive response to a small group of disruptors,” she wrote. “Portland, we have a lot of work to do to change the culture and system of policing. One part of that is demilitarizing the police.”
And more. Gas and bangs everywhere. pic.twitter.com/WMr70KXQi8— Dirk VanderHart (@dirquez) June 3, 2020
In the aftermath of protests, both Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly have called for a ban on tear gas. The Geneva Convention has banned the use of tear gas during war, and the Oregon ACLU sent a letter to a collection of mayors Wednesday evening calling on them to prohibit their police from using tear gas.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the first since the protests began last Friday, Eudaly said she was horrified by what she witnessed play out on Portland streets the night before. She called the use of tear gas in the middle of a public health crisis “sadistic” and said she believed the council should ban its use.
“I went to bed in tears, watching police fire gas canisters as they were rolling down streets into random crowds of protesters,” she said. “I woke up horrified by images that were shared with me this morning.”
On Wednesday morning, Police Chief Jami Resch disagreed that police had responded with gas and flash bangs indiscriminately.
During the demonstration, an overflow crowd gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square to hear speakers and demonstrate against police violence. As the night continued, parts of the crowd moved toward fencing PPB had established around an area of downtown that had been hit by vandalism during previous nights’ demonstrations.
Police quickly warned people to leave the area and said over loudspeakers that crowd control measures would be used if they did not.
Resch said people attempted to tamper with the fence. Video of the gathering shows police shooting tear gas canisters into crowds of hundreds of people. Throughout the evening, Resch said, some people threw fireworks, bottles, ball bearings and other projectiles at police. Officers continued to fire tear gas and flash bangs for extended periods as they scattered crowds.
Whether or not to use tear gas was the decision of incident commanders, who usually make the call “to protect life and safety,” Resch said.
Some Oregon civil rights groups have condemned police action Tuesday night.
The police bureau’s “continued use of flash bang grenades, tear gas, intimidation, and violence against protestors is reprehensible,” wrote the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “It goes beyond the realm of an appropriate response to those standing against police violence and racial injustice. … This is obscene and an affront to all those who stand for and work for racial justice and civil rights."
Resch said the police have received many questions regarding use of force by Portland Police Bureau from Tuesday night. One of these incidents involved a police cruiser crashing through barriers protesters had placed in the middle of a street. The vehicle caused protesters to flee. Resch said these incidents “are documented and investigated,” but added that the focus should not be on the bureau’s response.
“I will not let the actions of a few individuals intent on causing violence turn this focus on the Portland Police bureau,” she said. “The Portland Police Bureau did not instigate the violence that began in our city last night.”
At City Council Wednesday, Eudaly said she was disturbed by what message these actions were sending to the young demonstrators. She said she understood the powerlessness many feel in the face of police.
"I still feel powerless against the police," she said, adding that, despite being a public official, she had been unable to push for police reform after the intense protests following the November 2016 election.
“Time and time again, we were told it couldn’t be done: ‘That has to be bargained in the contract, that’s a directive.’ We got nowhere with those conversations,” she said. “We are not going to see an end to this until we get somewhere.”
In remarks Wednesday morning, Hardesty also emphasized the need for concrete action. The commissioner said she plans to ask the Council to eliminate the police bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, school resource officers, and the Transit Police, as well as seeking more training for the Portland Police Bureau.
During recent budget discussions, Hardesty had said she was interested in introducing amendments that aimed to disband those three specialty units. Instead, the mayor and commissioners decided to create a team to “consider the ongoing use” of these units and bring recommendations to the Council by next February, which could potentially be incorporated in next year’s budget.
A week of demonstrations appear to have sped up that schedule considerably. Hardesty said she plans to make the ask before the Council passes the budget. The final vote to adopt the budget is in two weeks.
Hardesty said she shared Eudaly’s concerns about the effect chemical weapons could have on a person’s respiratory system — particularly given COVID-19.
“We know as we see more and more people show up to protest, those people are putting their health at risk, and that risk is going to be exacerbated by tear gas," she said. “We have an obligation to find out what the impact of those chemical weapons are, especially in the midst of a pandemic.”
Commissioner Amanda Fritz also made brief remarks about the protests at the start of Wednesday’s council session, though did not specifically mention the police response from the night before. She thanked Wheeler and Hardesty and noted the anguish of Black Portlanders, who, she said, had been routinely denied justice in the city. She said her office plans on putting out a statement later in the day.
At Wednesday's morning press conference, Wheeler said that for the second night in a row, he will not be instituting a curfew. After some late night "soul searching," he said he believed the 8 p.m. curfew in place over the weekend had little impact and possibly encouraged more people onto the streets.
“I would argue, in some cases, it may lead to some people being more highly motivated. When you put down a gauntlet, that can actually cause some people to say, ‘I’m going to try to cross that line,’” he said.
Dr. Markisha Smith, Portland’s equity director, also spoke at Wednesday’s morning press conference. She said the protests represented a breaking point for Black Americans.
“It is painfully clear that Black folks are tired and that empty words and promises for justice and reform are no longer enough,” she said. “The Black community is demanding action. While the vast majority of the Black community would not condone violence and looting, the reality is when over 400 years of oppression continues to play out in our communities, there is a tipping point.”