The pepper-spray death of a mentally challenged citizen; the handcuffing of a teen's parents for a house search prompted by a fingerprint found on a protest sign; the harassment of anarchists including the photographing of patches worn on clothing; the demanding of civilians' social security numbers; and the second mistaken police stop of an African-American professor ­­all since September 1998­­lead us to question if Eugene, Oregon's police may, for now, be more out of control than those in Portland.

Here's some background on the cases we just mentioned:

On September 30, Richard Dennis Lee, age 34, suffered heart failure after being pepper-sprayed by Eugene Police. Lee lapsed into a coma and died a week later. Piecing together parts of the story from the Eugene Register-Guard (10/1 & 10/15/98), it is difficult to tell whether Lee's heart failure was in part brought on from positional asphyxia, that is, being laid on his chest after being sprayed, thus restricting his breathing. As reported in PPR #16, it is likely this is what caused Dickie Dow's death, as well as over 25 deaths in the state of California.

Lee was apparently screaming and banging his head against the sidewalk in mid-day, and "became combative with three officers who attempted to subdue him...The initial autopsy showed that Lee was not under the influence of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine."

The story is somewhat familiar, and while Eugene is reviewing their policies in the wake of Lee's death, we cannot stress enough the importance of taking pepper spray out of the hands of police and finding different non-lethal restraints.

Black Professor stopped for "looking like a robbery suspect"

John Gainer, a 44-year-old University of Oregon music professor, was stopped and questioned in December as police sought a suspect in a robbery, based on a grainy photocopy of the actual suspect's photo. Gainer, who is African-American, was also stopped by Eugene police in April, 1997 in a mistaken-identity stop. According to the Associated Press (12/29/98), Gainer is an ordained minister who works part-time in the shopping mall where a security guard picked him out as the suspect.

Over 50 activists attended a rally opposing the apparent racist behavior of the Eugene Police. The leader of Eugene's NAACP is quoted in the Dec. 31 Register-Guard saying the Valley River Mall "basically said it's OK for their security to stop a person of color, whether they meet the description or not." Police Capt. Roy Brown, who is African-American, defended the two officers who stopped Gainer in December, one white, one black: "I found no indication that it was a case of racism," he said (Oregonian, 12/31/98).

Anarchists targeted

A mid-October demonstration against the labor practices of Oregon-based corporate giant NIKE left the Eugene NIKETOWN and its surrounding mall with some mild disarray and property damage. Since many of the protesters came with their faces obscured, the police had a difficult time tracking down suspects. They found a fingerprint on one protest sign that was left behind in the store which led them to 15-year-old Brenton Gicker. Apparently, people involved in Eugene's Copwatch program happened by the Gicker house when the police conducted a search there. For several hours, the boy's parents were handcuffed and held at gunpoint. Police seized the mother's computer (which she used for her business), Brenton's high school textbooks, CDs, books, anarchist literature, and a novel called The Good Terrorist.

Steve Bouton, a.k.a. Sleeve, of Eugene PeaceWorks, tells us that police also took many items which were not listed on the property receipt they left the family.

Shortly after this raid, police stepped up their harassment of the anarchist community in Eugene.

Lars Limburg, 20, was stopped by Eugene police in December for a bike-riding offense and was taken downtown, where the cops photographed his clothing, "particularly various patches sewed on his shirt and jacket that espoused anarchist philosophy" (Register-Guard, 2/1/99).

In similar incidents, two young women from Eugene were asked for their social security numbers when police sought to ticket them for bicycle-riding infractions, one in January, and one during a July 1998 Critical Mass ride. Writing in the January, 1999 University of Oregon Insurgent, one of the women wrote, "It is stated in the 'Privacy Act' (title 5,U.S. Code annotated 552(a)) that in only four instances it's required for you to give your SS#: 1. for tax purposes. 2. to receive public assistance. 3. to obtain & use a driver's license. 4. to register a motor vehicle. Any person aware of the Privacy Act who continues to request your SS# is violating your rights & can be subjected to a $1000 fine."

She describes the encounter, stating that the officer asked for her ID saying he hadn't decided whether to issue a citation or not. After demanding her SS#, he decided not to cite her. "I believe the only reason the officer stopped me was to add me to their book of anarchists they so diligently have been working day and night on."

The interesting outcome of the harassment of anarchist youth is that both a City Council member, Bobby Lee, and the Eugene Human Rights Commission called for a community dialogue to defuse tension. Sleeve tells us that a forum put on by the anarchist community in Lane County's public building was attended by 70-100 people, went well and was generally positive. The February 26 Oregonian reports, "It was unclear if police officers attended the forum."

Meanwhile, some informal meetings have been taking place among bigwigs from the police department and some of the activists. There is quite a bit of distrust in sitting down to talk with police, and the activist community is aware that the meetings might be an effort to co-opt their politics. The situation has brought national attention, including a Wall Street Journal reporter who investigated the situation in late February.

We at Portland Copwatch look forward to strengthening our ties with Eugene Copwatch, and hope that we can learn from one another how to organize to find remedies for these kinds of incidents, as well as ways to prevent them from happening here, there, or anywhere.

[Sources include: Oregonian 2/1/99, 2/19/99, & The Other Paper, 12/98]

People's Police Report #17 Table of Contents
People's Police Report Index Page
Return to Copwatch home page