Protesters with the group Don’t Shoot Portland forced Oregon Senator Ron Wyden to cancel a town hall meeting on Saturday after the first 30 minutes.
About 200 people had gathered in an auditorium at the Southeast Portland campus of Portland Community College to speak with the senator, who is holding six town halls across Western Oregon this weekend. Many in the audience held signs opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement the U.S. is negotiating with 11 countries in Asia.
Wyden had just enough time to crack one crowd-pleasing joke. “I’m going to keep my opening remarks shorter than it will take the Ducks to score on Ohio State,” he said.
Then, dozens of members of the group Don’t Shoot, which has led protests in memory of black men shot by the police, streamed in through a side door, raising their hands and chanting “No justice, no peace.”
Some in the crowd raised their hands or chanted in solidarity. Others looked frustrated, and called out for the protesters to leave. After 11 minutes, Wyden promised to set up a meeting with the leaders of Don’t Shoot Portland.
“This is one of the most important issues our community faces,” he said. “The questions you’re raising will be some of the most important issues for me in this upcoming session.”
The senator was able to quiet protesters for a brief ceremony honoring World War II Veteran Dario Raschio. Wyden presented Raschio, who turned 100 years old in November, with a flag and several medals.
Raschio served in the Navy and participated in five campaigns in the Pacific. Wyden recounted Raschio’s bravery when his plane crash landed in the ocean. He was eventually rescued and provided important reconnaissance information about an enemy ammunition dump. Raschio thanked Wyden and then called for quiet.
“Give me a chance. Give me a chance,” he said. “At least let’s show a little respect for this occasion. I am accepting this on behalf of all the people who died in World War II. They are the true heroes,” he said.
Then the protest resumed. Wyden eventually left the room, and his staff announced the Town Hall was cancelled. They apologized that the Senator was not able to take questions from the people who showed up to participate, and quietly escorted several representatives from the fair trade movement into a small room to meet with Wyden one on one.
Most people left the Town Hall. About 60 or so, including members of Don’t Shoot and the fair trade groups, stayed behind for an impromptu community meeting.
Wyden has hosted more than 700 town halls during his time as an Oregon senator, and said it was the first time he was forced to cancel one due to a protest.
Wyden said he understood Don’t Shoot’s interest in shining a light on the deaths of black men in incidents involving the police. “I believe this issue doesn’t get enough attention. I believe it is an urgent issue,“ he said.
But he said the town hall was supposed to be a chance for everyone to have an equal opportunity to be heard.
“When some of the individuals were protesting, they said, “It’s our town meeting,’” the senator said. “I said to them, ‘Yes, it is your town meeting, but it is also the town meeting for the hundreds of others in the audience who are not getting a chance to be heard because their voices are being drowned out.’”