Two weeks into her term, Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says a small group of disruptive white men are frightening people away from participating at City Hall.

“I am concerned about how privilege, and specifically white male privilege, is limiting the public’s access to City Hall,” she said in a written statement sent out Tuesday night that she also read at Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s a chilling effect on persons who are unaccustomed to coming to City Hall to have their voices heard when they see and experience the disruption that seems to be the new normal.”  

Though Hardesty did not identify anyone by name, several men who identify as police observers — “cop watchers” is a term they use for themselves — and citizen journalists have disrupted Portland City Council meetings in the weeks since she took office.

The men are not affiliated with the better-known grassroots police reform organization Portland Copwatch, and two have been subject to stalking orders for harassing city officials.

Every member of the city council has complained about the disruptions, and now-former Commissioner Dan Saltzman said they contributed to his decision not to run for re-election.

Hardesty’s rebuke is notable because of her own grassroots credentials and history of activism on two issues the disruptive men frequently claim they are addressing: homelessness and police accountability.

Hardesty is the first African-American woman to serve on Portland City Council. She spent years as a civil-rights activist before winning her council seat in November.

“As someone who has spent time — a lot of time — on the other side of this podium demanding accountability, I find it chilling and disrespectful that there are a few white men who think that everything this council does is about them,” she said. “It isn’t.” 

She called the disruptions “not in the spirit of speaking up for civic change that is the heart of activism.”

Hardesty says the hostile atmosphere at the council is stopping people new to the political process from getting involved and preventing parents from bringing their children to participate in the city council.

In a city known for vibrant and unruly activism, the Portland council has long struggled to strike a balance between preserving order during council meetings and its obligation, rooted in the First Amendment, to hear criticism and dissent. In 2015, after an activist sued, a federal judge ruled that the city’s policy of barring particularly disruptive people from council meetings for months at a time was unconstitutional.

When Mayor Ted Wheeler took office, he passed an ordinance that clarified what type of behavior could lead to an extended exclusion from City Hall. That policy has yet to be challenged in court.

Shortly after Hardesty’s swearing-in on Jan. 2, 2019, the City Council meeting was forced into recess twice while Wheeler expelled people for disrupting the proceedings.

Cop watcher Eli Richey was excluded from council that day for interrupting and yelling.

Richey has frequently tangled with city officials. In 2017, a judge granted Police Chief Danielle Outlaw a stalking protective order against him after he filmed her while she was off-duty shopping at Safeway.

Activist David Kif Davis has also been disruptive at recent council meetings as well. Kif Davis films the council during his testimony and posts the videos to a YouTube channel. 

“You remember Jeffrey Dahmer? He didn’t set out to kill so many people,” he said in testimony before the council on Jan. 2, 2019.  “This is how politicians work. They drill a hole in the voters’ skull and pour in some false hope and make them a subservient zombie slave.

“You guys are all serial killers,” he concluded, shortly before the meeting was again called into recess.

In 2017, Kif Davis was temporarily barred from entering City Hall by a judge’s protective order after he challenged a City Hall employee to a fight. That protective order has expired.  In past public meetings, Kif Davis has self-identified as living with mental illness.

A group of white men also disrupted Hardesty’s second council meeting, including free speech activist Joe Walsh, who began shouting and using profanity and forced the meeting into recess a few minutes after it started.

At Wednesday’s meeting, other council members echoed Hardesty’s worries: 

“We often hear from our employees,” Commissioner Nick Fish said. “This is a building where lots of people work. We have witnessed significant disruption. People have told us that increasingly they don’t feel safe and welcome in their own workplace.”

“There are plenty of opportunities for people to have their voice heard in this chamber,” the mayor said. “What we have witnessed in this chamber … has no place in this chamber.”