Police Attack September 26 Street Gathering

In the latest installment of the Portland Police Bureau's saga to end public assembly, 100 officers mobilized to attack a peaceful -- albeit unlicensed -- street party on September 26. The Reclaim the Streets (RTS) event coincided with similar actions all over the globe in protest of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings in the Czech Republic.

Police presence was light when revelers gathered with drums, banners and dancing shoes at the Skidmore Fountain. The group marched to SW Second and Stark, where they cordoned off the block with safety tape and plastic barricades. When the sound system arrived­thumping techno music­ about 100 people had filled the street with laughter, dancing and high spirits. Police maintained a low- key presence, with four bike cops observing.

When two hours had elapsed and the crowd continued to grow, Commander Larry Findling insisted the party move to Pioneer Courthouse Square and join a scheduled labor rally. Followed by a dozen squad cars, a fleet of bike cops and the Mounted Patrol, the jubilant crowd made its way to the Square only to find that nothing was happening yet.

Once there, people decided to occupy an adjacent street and resume the party. Almost instantly, the Mounted Patrol and a throng of riot police arrived, turning what had been a pleasant, mildly disruptive gathering into a tense stand-off that degenerated into indiscriminate police violence. "Less-lethal" shotguns and military-style tear gas launchers were brandished. Police attacked RTS participants and bystanders alike with horses, pepper spray, and clubs. The crowd responded with taunting chants and by lobbing several plastic water bottles at the cops. By the end of the night over 29 people were in jail and dozens of others injured. At least two people suffered concussions. Still, the crowd proved unwilling to let the cops bully them off the street.

As the hours stretched on, the size of the crowd grew. By 7:30 PM the cops were reduced to standing in two back-to-back skirmish lines, unable to effect any meaningful action. At around 8:00, the crowd, now over 300 strong, moved across Pioneer Square, again took to the streets, and wound its way through downtown, with the police struggling to keep up. The crowd proceeded through the city without incident and dispersed of its own volition at Portland State University.

It was clear that the cops had learned a couple things since May Day (see PPR #21), but neither restraint nor strategy are among them. Rather, they learned first that a large number of commanders are required to keep weary cops fighting useless battles. In this case, Chief Kroeker himself was giving orders from a nearby SUV. Secondly, they learned that as long as they show off but don't use all their fancy toys, they can achieve the appearance of "restraint" no matter how many people they needlessly hurt.

One may well wonder what exactly the cops were trying to achieve on September 26. A casual observer might assume that the cops were there to enforce the law, disperse an unruly crowd, prevent violence, and open the streets. But police tactics were poorly suited to any of these aims and often had quite the opposite effect.

True, 29 people were arrested, but it is not clear that all of them had broken any law; at the same time, there were a couple of hundred other people blocking the streets who the police were unable or unwilling to arrest. Police actions also did little to disperse the crowd; rather, they solidified the group's resolve, drew bystanders into the demonstration, and prolonged the event. By the same token, the cops responded to an entirely peaceful action and by their own violent behavior prompted a militant response from the crowd.

Finally, the disruption of downtown traffic resulted primarily from the actions of the police themselves. While the crowd originally occupied one block of Second Avenue (being careful to stay out of the intersections), the police moved the group to the busier area of Pioneer Square. There the crowd occupied one block of Broadway, again leaving the intersections clear. But the cops blocked off the intersection of Broadway and Morrison, stopping MAX light rail service in the process. Police then proceeded to force the crowd back onto Yamhill, and around the block to Sixth. There, the crowd blocked the other MAX line and one half of the bus mall.

The extreme police response to the RTS action seemed to be partially a result of the crowd's demographic composition. Reclaim the Streets was led by and comprised mostly of young poor people. On the other hand, while mobs of consumers associated with the Portland Brewer's Festival, Rose Festival, and First Thursdays regularly impede traffic and make a general nuisance of themselves, they are never attacked by the police.

Copwatch is assisting the legal defense of those arrested on the 26th. Lawyers have volunteered to defend arrestees, but have not been able to contact all of them. If you or someone you know was arrested on Sept. 26 please call the Copwatch Incident Report Line at 503- 321-5120.

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