Police Deploy Tear Gas In North Portland As Protesters Seek Sanctions

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
June 30, 2020 11:51 p.m.

UPDATE (Wednesday, 3:45 p.m. PT) – Portland Police deployed tear gas against protesters Tuesday night, just hours after a local civil rights organization and demonstrators had asked for sanctions against the agency for its use of the gas.

PPB is under an order that limits use of tear gas to situations where the safety or lives of members of the public or law enforcement officers are at risk. Attorneys representing the protesters argue police used crowd control devices without meeting those conditions.

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With protests now in their second month in the city, demonstrators and police clashed again Tuesday night in North Portland.

Police allege demonstrators threw rocks and bottles while they marched through parts of North Portland. They also allege "commercial grade fireworks" were thrown at officers.

At least one media account contradicts that description, saying instead that fireworks were being shot into the air. Around 11 p.m., police shot tear gas — also known as CS gas — into the crowd to disperse it.  In a statement Wednesday morning, police justified the use of the gas, saying officer safety was at risk because of fireworks.

"PPB’s statement asks the public not to believe their eyes and ears," said Jesse Merrithew, one of the attorneys representing protesters in the case against the city. "They acted in flagrant violation of the order last night, as anyone can see based on the videos posted to social media."

On Wednesday, Speaker of the Oregon House Tina Kotek, who represents part of North and Northeast Portland, emailed Mayor Ted Wheeler that police actions were “completely unacceptable.”

“Instead of managing the situation, they created an unsafe situation and a public health hazard with their use of CS gas, in a residential area (and near several gas stations, I might add). It was an unnecessary escalation by the PPB against people exercising their freedom of assembly and freedom of speech,” Kotek wrote. “It showed an utter inability to exercise restraint.”

Last week, state lawmakers in Salem also passed legislation that allows the use of tear gas, but police must first announce they plan to use it so people have time to disperse. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law Tuesday.

Protesters, and even some city officials, have said use of the gas is dangerous because it is indiscriminate and harms people who are peacefully protesting or simply in homes and vehicles nearby when police use it.

In a video statement posted on social media, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell defended officers actions and blamed protesters for police's use of force. He said officers were trying to protect lives.

“CS gas is uncomfortable, but effective at dispersing crowds,” Lovell said. “We would rather not use it. We would rather have those in the area follow the law and not engage in dangerous behavior.”

Lovell added that there was warning before officers used gas and protesters had the opportunity to leave.

“When tools are restricted that help us disperse crowds, the options are limited to batons or physical force,” Lovell stated. “This makes it more likely that people will be injured. No one had to be subject to arrest, force or munitions. This happened because some people choose to engage in violence and destruction.”

Several protesters and the civil rights organization Don't Shoot Portland sought action just before Tuesday night's use of the gas to sanction PPB for similar incidents since the organization first sued the city June 5.

U.S. District Court Judge Marco Hernandez granted the temporary restraining order as a result of that lawsuit. An agreement between the city and protesters expanded the limits to other types of less-lethal munitions, like the FN 303 riot gun and 40mm launchers. Both weapons, and weapons like them, are in use across the country and have caused severe injuries and death.

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Protesters said the city quickly violated Hernandez’s order.

Portland police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters from near the Justice Center an hour before the 8 p.m. curfew went into effect on May 30, 2020. The protests were against racist violence and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Portland police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters from near the Justice Center an hour before the 8 p.m. curfew went into effect on May 30, 2020. The protests were against racist violence and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

They're asking the judge to impose sanctions and suggested a complete ban on some crowd control devices. They also suggested requiring the use of tear gas and other so-called less-lethal weapons be authorized by a "politically accountable leader, such as Mayor Wheeler, the commissioner of the Portland Police Bureau." Other suggested sanctions include fines or preventing police who violate the court order from working future protest duty.

The court filing states police used tear gas on June 25 "when there was no risk to the lives and safety of the police or community, and for the purposes of dispersing the crowd."

During protests that began June 25 and stretched into the morning of June 26, “officers used tear gas, flash bang grenades, and pepper balls to scatter protesters who were not engaged in any acts of violence or property damage," the court document states.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city leaders in Northeast Portland condemned the June 25 violence by protesters. Some said protesters were trying to lock police inside the North Precinct building and set it on fire.

“Last night was plainly and simply about arson,” Wheeler said. “It was about destruction. It was about endangering lives. It’s blatant criminal violence.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to the media about protests against systemic racism and police violence in front of a beauty supply store located in the same building as PPB's North Precinct. The night before, police used tear gas and impact munitions to disperse protesters who then set a small fire next to the building.

Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to the media about protests against systemic racism and police violence in front of a beauty supply store located in the same building as PPB's North Precinct. The night before, police used tear gas and impact munitions to disperse protesters who then set a small fire next to the building.

Protesters said police also violated the court’s order on June 26.

The filing states police used FN303 and 40MM less-lethal launchers, aerosol restraints and rubber ball distraction devices "against people who were both attempting to follow orders or engaged in only passive resistance on” June 26 and into the early hours of June 27.

Around 11 p.m. on June 26, law enforcement started shooting at people gathered outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland.

"About a dozen or so protesters were standing there with their hands up," the court document states. "Yet law enforcement officers shot impact munitions through the holes in the plywood at the crowd of protesters from about three to ten feet away."

Later, the court document states, police dropped a crowd control device out of a window.

"Without warning, officers dropped a flash bang grenade into the crowd from a second-story window of the Justice Center and fired rubber bullets into the crowd," the court document states. "At least one person collapsed and was unresponsive after the flash bang grenade; another person fell from rubber bullet injuries."

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Multnomah County Justice Center in the third week of widespread demonstrations against structural racism and police violence on June 15, 2020. Throughout the night protesters shined flashlights and laser pointers at police officers and sheriffs deputies, who ultimately used physical force and less lethal munitions to disperse the crowd

Hundreds of protesters gathered at the Multnomah County Justice Center in the third week of widespread demonstrations against structural racism and police violence on June 15, 2020. Throughout the night protesters shined flashlights and laser pointers at police officers and sheriffs deputies, who ultimately used physical force and less lethal munitions to disperse the crowd

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

On the night of June 27, the court documents states, another protest outside the Justice Center led to a confrontation between police and protesters.

Around 10:30 p.m. two vans of police in riot gear arrived. Some protesters tried to leave but were blocked by a thick smoke-like substance which was painful to breathe, protesters stated.

"Law enforcement officers’ indiscriminate use of chemical agents and munitions against the crowd was unprovoked: no one had thrown anything at the officers, no one had started a fire, or otherwise posed a threat," court documents states.

Hernandez's restraining order is in effect until July 24.

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