May Day in Portland began with singing, dancing, and flowers. It ended with pepper spray, shootings, and 20 people in jail. Why did the Portland police try so hard to turn a celebration into a riot?
May Day was organized by a diverse coalition of community activists. They planned a celebration to honor May Day's dual history as a labor holiday and a pagan holy day. The planned events included a "pirate parade" through Northeast Portland, a Maypole ceremony, and another parade through downtown, with stops along the route for political actions demanding affordable housing; calling for amnesty for immigrant farmworkers; opposing the logging of old-growth forests; and pushing for a union contract for workers at Powell's Books. The day's festivities were to have ended with a picnic and concert on the South Park Blocks.
From the start, nothing went according to plan. The NE parade was attacked by police and several people were arrested. The downtown parade went only a few blocks before mounted police charged the crowd, trampling and beating people. Video tapes show that a couple of things were thrown at the police after they charged the crowd a second time, although who threw the objects (outraged marchers? provocateurs?) is still not clear.
Minutes later, police declared a "street-level emergency," herded the crowd into Waterfront Park, and gave an order to disperse. People were given contradictory commands about where to go, and were ultimately given no option except to move southward in a large mass. Marchers attempted to implement their contingency plan, which was to reconvene at the picnic site. Police attacked the crowd again as it moved west, splintering it into ever-smaller groups. Dozens of people were knocked down, trampled under horses' hooves, beaten with clubs, pepper sprayed, shot with "less-lethal" shotguns, and/or arrested--mostly for "disorderly conduct."
Marchers arrived at the picnic site to find it had been cordoned off with police tape. Nevertheless, the marchers were able to regroup at Powell's--the last stop on the parade route--where they were joined by delegates from the ILWU (Longshoremen's Union) West Coast convention. Police backed off when the unionists arrived, and marchers were able to rally peacefully in support of workers' rights, salvaging the spirit of May Day out of the jaws of police violence.
The police began their spin job immediately, alleging that May Day marchers had assaulted officers and broken windows, and making a big deal of the fact that the parades didn't have permits. Of course, they failed to mention that liaisons had worked out a deal with police under which the main parade would be allowed--a deal that the police broke. Nor did they mention that the permit the organizers did have--for the park picnic--was revoked. Police also made much of the presence of "people dressed as anarchists," citing unspecified "intelligence" that such people might be planning to commit crimes. (They mentioned the presence of gas masks and bandanas as suspicious, although neither are offensive weapons.)
Public response was not what the police expected. Angry complaints began flooding City Hall, media offices, and the Police Bureau itself. Barely a week after May Day, Chief Kroeker and Mayor Katz held a public hearing on the matter at Maranatha Church of God. Their attempt at damage control backfired, as dozens of people from a crowd over 500 outraged citizens confronted the Chief and Mayor with questions they couldn't answer.
The mainstream media began to publish some of the truth about May Day. On May 17, Willamette Week printed a scathing analysis of the police's own videotapes, showing that no evidence existed for their most inflammatory charges (marchers did not block streets; windows were not broken at Niketown; children were not terrorized at Irvington school, which was not locked down.) Even the Oregonian's editorial page eventually referred to the cops' presence on May Day as "riot control where a riot didn't exist" (May 20).
If any doubts remained that the police attack on May Day was a politically-motivated suppression of free speech, the release of Chief Kroeker's "May Day Protest Draft Report" put them to rest. The report was conspicuously short on specific allegations against marchers, but replete with hysterical references to the "people dressed like anarchists." Charges that had been debunked in the media were either dropped in the report (the terrorized schoolchildren) or else conveniently changed (the broken window became merely "chipped and scratched").
The report proves that Chief Kroeker understands something that former Chief Moose didn't: the value of strategic concessions. He admits to problems with the police May Day response: the onscene commander had too much to do; police didn't communicate well with each other and gave contradictory orders; individual officers broke ranks with their squadrons. He also decided that police should not drive ATVs into crowds in the future--not a great concession, since this tactic had never been used before. He was even willing to admit that one use of the "less-lethal" shotguns (out of three the Bureau reported) was "inappropriate." Sgt. Nate Hoerauf (DPSST #17036), the officer who gave the order, is conveniently on disability leave and unavailable for questioning or discipline.
Kroeker's solution to all these problems? Better training for police in the new quasi-military "mobile field force" techniques. Better "command and control" of future events, with more police lieutenants on the scene.
Better technology, to make sure orders given to the public come through loud and clear. In short, a chilling plan to suppress demonstrators more efficiently next time.
On June 28, the Chief presented his final report to the City Council. Amalia Alarcon-Gaddie of the Metropolitan Human Rights Center also presented her May Day report based on participant accounts. The MHRC report received almost no attention in the media, despite contradicting nearly everything in the Chief's report.
Dozens of people came forward to testify. Calm-voiced lawyers showed the Council video clips of people being run over by horses and shot in the back by lead-pellet bags, and one particularly harrowing clip of a man being clubbed while lying on the ground. A police liaison recounted how the police broke their agreement with her, physically assaulted her, then lied about it. Sue Phillips, a former Crime Prevention Specialist for Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, indicted the May Day response as a violation of every principle of community policing. A nurse described some of the injuries he saw among jailed marchers. A disabled marcher described police prodding her in the back to "walk faster." An emergency room worker choked back tears as she explained, "It's hard to respect the police when I'm afraid of them." Numerous people pointed out that what happened on May Day was not substantially different from how police treat people of color, homeless and poor people every day.
Commissioners Francesconi and Sten and Mayor Katz (the only City Council members present for all of the testimony) were visibly moved by what they heard and saw; by the end of the meeting, all three were acknowledging problems that went beyond the "admissions" in the report. However, they all voted to accept the Chief's final report, and none of them put any specific expectations on the Chief as to what he should do differently next time, except to carry out the "improvements" outlined in his own report.
For the City Council, conciliatory words gave way to business as usual. For the May Day marchers, however, official rubber-stamping only renewed their commitment to keep taking economic justice activism to the streets.
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