Last Thursday saw rallies, marches and actions taking place in over 90 cities across the United States in solidarity with the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri. While the situation is ongoing, there can be little doubt about a few basic facts. Michael Brown, a black teenager, was executed by the police for absolutely no reason. Officer Darren Wilson used lethal force to stop the “crime” of jaywalking, continuing to fire round after round into Brown’s body after the teenager had put his hands in the air to surrender.
A cheap PR stunt by the governor of Missouri involving state troopers replacing St. Louis county SWAT cops proved predictably, absurdly Orwellian – high ranking officers marched alongside protesters – yet did nothing to halt the onslaught of police violence once the sun went down. Rubber-encased bullets and chemical weapons have been fired on civilians and reporters each night since Brown was killed. Marshal law has effectively being instituted in Ferguson by way of a constitutionally ambiguous ‘curfew’.
Regardless of how Ferguson plays out, this situation is but a microcosm of the militarized, racist institution that are the police departments of America. Every 28 hours another black man is killed by the police or private security. Racial profiling, stop and frisk searches, and vastly disproportional racial prison sentencing practices ensure that simply being a black person is a risk to liberty and life in this Land of the Free.
It was with these facts in mind that a mass mobilization of protesters came together outside the Portland Police Bureau’s north precinct headquarters on Thursday, August 14th, 2014. Organized less than 20 hours prior, anger and morality motivated hundreds to gather near the police station adjacent to the Boys and Girls club building on Martin Luther King Jr. blvd.
Reporters were everywhere. This was, after all, the local flashpoint of a national story dominating headlines and exploding on social media. By my own count, there were at least five major media organizations present, along with numerous other independent journalists.
Portland is, of course, a city widely known for its own racist history and numerous killings of people of color by law enforcement. Our own mayor refused to denounce the police violence in Ferguson, instead using the moment as an opportunity to praise a costly ‘white-males only’ diversity retreat he and other city staffers recently attended.
Having no appropriate public space available, the crowd stretched along the sidewalk. The now iconic chant of ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!‘ was constant. Marchers with megaphones paced up and down the block. Passing motorists slowed and honked approval, throwing firsts in the air and taking photos of the demonstration as they slowly rolled by.
After about an hour of build-up in numbers and energy, the call went out: it was time to march. With little pre-planning, much of the decisions of the day were made on-the-fly by organizers. Somebody had a flash of genius to use a striped pedestrian crosswalk to facilitate marching up and down the block via the sidewalk in a loop – legally blocking vehicle traffic for several minutes at a time as the procession took place.
This ‘slow-down’ effect fell in line with the ShutShitDown ethos of direct action while not being overly disruptive to the motorists in this historically black community. Regardless, virtually all driving through this neighborhood understood the action, and were wholly supportive of the crowd taking over.
After several loops up and down MLK blvd, the march rallied in front of the PPB precinct itself, where protestors wasted no time staging a die-in and drawing chalk outlines of ‘dead’ bodies while writing the names of numerous well known black men whose lives were ended by police. Several speakers addressed the crowd to speak to the significance of Ferguson and Michael Brown, and how these events illustrate the broader daily tragedies of institutionalized racism plaguing America.
With the precinct rally concluded for now, the crowd again returned to MLK Blvd, but this time the march left the sidewalk and took both southbound lanes. Everybody had their hands in their air, shouting ‘Hands UP, Don’t SHOOT!‘ louder and faster than before. Then, the word was given: we were going to take the intersection of MLK Blvd and Alberta St. – and we were going to hold it.
Arriving at the intersection, many protestors promptly sat down, while others turned to look out for incoming cars intent on pushing through. TriMet buses were allowed to pass unhindered. Private motor vehicles were directed to turn right away from the intersection.
No police arrived to clear the intersection, as it is normally PPB policy to not intervene if the action is timely, relevant, and nonviolent. Of course, this policy is unofficial, as PPB often attacks peaceful marches when the decision is made to use the immunity of law enforcement to brutalize the public.
The crowd held the intersection for roughly 25 minutes. Only one unhinged motorist insisted on blaring his horn and endangering lives by trying to push his SUV through the crowd. He was stopped by several protesters willing to risk their own safely by encircling his Washington-plated vehicle.
The day’s action a resounding success, the march cleared the intersection and returned to the precinct marching north on MLK Blvd, again allowing buses to pass freely. As the sun dipped below the horizon, there was a sense of satisfaction, but also frustration at a police state that operates without accountability, where cops can get away with murder, where simply having dark skin can be a death sentence.
As long as this system of policing continues without reform, more will die, and more will become disenfranchised with those sworn to ‘protect’ them. As the saying goes, ‘A few bad apples spoils the entire bunch‘.
Without a radical restructuring of law enforcement, communities will continue living in fear of armed cops surveilling our streets with a license to kill. Obviously, this is the way the police like it. Obviously, communities will no longer tolerate it, and they are beginning to build a powerful resistance.
See you in the streets!
All video and photographs copyright Hart Noecker.