One after the other, Portland State University students, faculty and staff stood before the university’s board of trustees while echoing demands to immediately disarm campus officers.
In the second row of the university’s Lincoln Performance Hall sat the family of Jason Washington, a black Navy veteran whose death marked the first fatal shooting by armed campus officers at the school.
The shooting reopened old wounds over the university board’s controversial 2014 decision to arm campus officers despite protest from students and faculty at the time. Washington’s death was fodder for a told-you-so argument for members of the university community who feared arming campus officers would only make the university less safe, especially for people of color on campus.
Thursday’s board meeting marked the first since campus police officers James Dewey and Shawn McKenzie shot and killed Washington seconds after arriving to the scene of a drunken brawl outside the Cheerful Tortoise Bar the morning of June 29.
Black Lives Matter signs were placed on stage in front of board members. Students filtered in and out between classes. Faculty came with their expertise in public health, conflict resolution and urban planning in support of calls to disarm.
Several faculty members sought to dispel any idea that students are alone in their demands for the university to disarm campus officers. Ben Anderson-Nathe, associate professor of child and family studies at PSU, said during the open comment period that faculty have stood with students since protests against arming campus officers first began.
“We have marched, we have testified, we have stood with students,” Anderson-Nathe said. “Jason Washington was killed on your watch, and faculty have watched. We are watching to see how you respond.”
At one point, a speaker asked which board member would call a motion on the spot for an up and down vote to disarm campus officers.
None of the board members moved.
Board member Gale Castillo began the board meeting saying the board would wait for the results of two independent reviews of the incident, followed by nine public forums, before reconsidering its policy to arm campus officers.
“We do not want to rush toward a final decision,” Castillo said.
The PSU Student Union delivered at least 6,100 signatures to the board in support of three demands: immediately disarming campus officers, firing the two officers who shot Washington and creating a permanent memorial for Washington.
“We have time to change and transform ourselves,” said Lisa Bates, associate professor of urban studies and planning. “And we have not acted in time for Jason Washington and his family.”
The university made several modifications to the board meeting in anticipation of crowds. The university moved the meeting to the university’s Lincoln Performance Hall to accommodate more people. It also extended its open comment period from 30 minutes to three hours, removing or significantly truncating agenda items to make room for people who wanted to address the board.
The board, which worked to keep speakers from talking longer than a three-minute time limit, was at times unable to stop speakers from going over time at the demands of the audience, who in the most contentious moments of the meeting yelled, “Let them speak!”
At one point, a first-year transfer student from Eugene who asked to be identified by her first name prefaced her statements acknowledging she was sharing an unpopular opinion. The student, named Kathryn, said she doesn’t support calls to disarm campus officers. A small corner of the hall applauded after she concluded saying she doesn’t want campus officers to be in a situation in which they don’t have the means to protect themselves.
“I wasn’t planning on being the only one,” Kathryn said. “That was probably the most terrifying thing of my life.”
Later, a speaker would address Kathryn from the mic, saying the fact that she feels unsafe even with armed officers speaks for itself.
A grand jury ultimately decided not to criminally charge the two public safety officers who shot at Washington 17 times, wounding him nine times, according to medical examiner records. The two officers returned to work but were relegated to administrative duties after the grand jury decision. The university said one of the officers has since left PSU for another job.
Students and faculty warned a fatal shooting could happen again if the board doesn’t act.
“We only await the next tragedy,” said Aaron Golub, associate professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU who read a letter calling for disarmament signed by 17 faculty members.
Ahead of the meeting, PSU’s Student Union urged people to show up to the meeting. Flyers distributed by the group, which is not an officially recognized student organization by the university, called on members of the public to attend the meeting.
“The Board of Trustees voted to arm campus police in 2015 despite mass dissent from student, staff and faculty who said this decision would put marginalized people in danger,” the flyer read.
The Portland Police Bureau was on board with the University Public Safety Department’s plan to commission sworn officers. PSU was “almost exclusively” policed by PPB, according to background documents on the 2014 resolution, which resulted in “considerable wait times to calls for a police response.”
The crowd erupted when the meeting adjourned. A majority of the board members walked away; three remained seated. One of them, board member Maude Hines, said she voted against arming campus officers. Hines said it’s important to slow things down and that there needs to be reflection.
“I want to do this the right way,” Hines said.
“But what is it gonna take?” asked Pace with PSUSU. “Someone died.”