This spring, the Portland Police intended to carry out their semi-annual ritual of raiding the camps that homeless people maintain under bridges and in parks. These raids are timed to coincide with the closing of the winter homeless shelters, ensuring the maximum number of people on the streets and in the camps. This year however, the cops were met with organized resistance from the community and were forced to back down.

"Officers Clean Up West Side for Earth Week," announced the Bureau's April on-line newsletter. This "clean-up" was a well-laid plan to simultaneously sweep eight campsites. In the past, the cops have claimed they only issue citations for camping (which is illegal in Portland), and make arrests for more serious offenses or outstanding warrants.

The catch is that homeless folks, busied with trifles like finding food and shelter, are not likely to show up to court for a camping ticket, and will therefore have a warrant the next time. In February, however, the cops were cutting right to the chase: they told Sisters of the Road Cafe that they were planning on arresting as many people as possible. Alongside the "law and order" operation of punishing the poor, the police had a Public Relations coup in mind as well: a volunteer anti-littering group called SOLV had been enlisted to send dozens of volunteers to assist the cops haul away the belongings left behind by the forcibly removed homeless. The police invited the media and the feel-good event looked as though it would bring as much favorable press as it has in past years.

Homeless advocacy groups including the Sisters of the Road Cafe, JOIN, and the Homeless Person's Legal Issues Task Force called a community meeting to discuss a response to these plans. Copwatch was at this meeting and we agreed to coordinate efforts to have observers at each of the campsites. With less than a week until the raids, we had a lot of work to do. When the police learned that there was to be a public presence at the sweeps, they re-scheduled the actual raids for 4 am. The media-friendly trash clean-up was to take place at 8 am. Clearly, the cops did not want people from the community to come and see the Bureau's priorities enacted as they forcibly removed people from their living spaces. This change in plans presented us with several obstacles: it would be difficult to get enough people to be out at 4 am, the public transit would not be running, and it would be dark, making videotaping problematic. We swung into high gear-reaching out to the people in our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods, organizing carpools from all over Portland, and soliciting donations for camcorder lighting. It was a mammoth task, but within two days we had it all put together. Each of the eight sites was to have a team of at least four observers, including one trained Copwatcher, one Spanish-speaker and one person from the homeless or homeless advocacy community.

When the volunteer group SOLV got wind of a community response, they decided this project was too controversial for them to be involved with. They informed the Bureau that they were pulling out a mere two days before the endeavor was to take place. The Police decided to cancel the raids. In a public statement, they stated they were cancelling the sweeps because they did not want to have to "remove protestors." As a result of all this, the Central (downtown) Precinct also agreed to meet with Sisters of the Road and JOIN about alternatives to raids. Although this commitment was made in April, the first meeting didn't happen until late July.

The significance of this story should not be understated. A relatively small group of concerned people, with very few resources, in less than a week organized opposition to a well-planned, well- funded operation of the police bureau. They announced their plans to do something we as a community considered disgusting, and we kept them from carrying out those plans. This small yet significant victory should be a lesson to all of us who care about liberty and justice: Organize. Agitate. Keep at it and seek out like-minded people, and you CAN win.

See sidebar, "Police Harass Homeless At Community Dining Hall."

To work on ending the anti-camping ordinance, contact the Campaign for Legal Places to Sleep at 228-5657 or the Oregon Housing Now Coalition at 288-0317.
For other info contact JOIN at 232-2031.
Check out the Portland Police Bureau's "Community Policing News."


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