Last Saturday, dozens of Portlanders took to the streets in opposition to police violence, and in opposition to the idea of police all together. Titled ‘A Cop-Free Christmas’ the event included creative acts of traffic blocking, as well as some equally creative remixed Christmas caroling up and down festive Peacock Lane, a wealthy Portland holiday institution.
Full disclosure: I helped organize this action insofar as I published an event page with an agreed upon time and location. Beyond this, my involvement on the ground was that of documentarian. All decisions about minute by minute direction were up to other individuals. I claim no responsibility for anyone’s actions, nor do I necessarily condone or condemn them.
From the action’s press release, co-written by multiple organizers: “As city leadership continues to fight against police reform, and PPA president Daryl Turner blames protesters for the deaths of two officers in NYC, it is time to continue a series of autonomous escalating actions. Near Ferguson on Christmas Eve, police gunned down another black teenager. This nonstop violence begs the question, what would Christmas without cops look like? What would a WORLD without cops look like? Let’s celebrate the season by marching for a 2015 free from killer cops and racist legal systems. Come envision a future where no family suffers the holidays missing family members lost to police violence.”
Saturday’s action wasn’t unlike many previous Ferguson solidarity marches in its tactics of shutting down traffic and shouting group chants meant to grab the attention of bystanders. Indeed, this escalation began with a similar group of organizers in August at an event that was well attended and conducted safely and peacefully. The only real difference this weekend was the size.
While some view small numbers as a detriment, many actions require a smaller, more directable group. With only several dozen protesters, the march was able to pull off a couple tactics I’d personally never seen before.
Covering the distance from Moda Center to Peacock Lane wasn’t difficult, especially with the help of mayor Charlie Hales’ much beloved Eastside streetcar loop. The few riders already aboard were a bit startled to suddenly have 35 new riders join in signing no-cop Christmas carols.
Exiting the streetcar near Belmot ave, the group fanned out, taking up as many lanes as possible. Surprisingly, only one driver backed up in the slow-rolling procession behind the march honked enough to force their way through. A sympathetic passenger in the vehicle flashed a peace sign at us. The march proceeded unhindered.
Rain started to fall as the march arrived at Belmont and 39th/Caesar Chavez. From the sidewalk I chatted with an Occupy Boston organizer who’d joined us while protesters took the middle of the intersection. After a few moments, the command was given to clear the street and allow cars though.
With a smaller crowd, this was easily done in seconds. Then something few of us expected happened. Just as a TriMet bus was gingerly rolling through another order was suddenly given to retake the street – stopping the bus mid-intersectin – effectively creating a roadblock far more efficient than mere human bodies. Tactically, the move was brilliant.
Now there was absolutely no getting through via motorized vehicle. A clarion of car horns gradually grew louder. Some aggressive motorists attempted pushing their vehicles through the crowd, using their cars as weapons, but each time this was attempted the crowd would rush to block them, refusing to compromise the space they held. At one point somebody flung open the door of one driver as he was accelerating into human bodies. After a brief, tense exchange, he stopped the vehicle, then retreated in reverse.
A short time after this altercation an order was given to clear the street and move to the sidewalk. In seconds it was all over.
The crowd proceeded along the sidewalk to where the Occupy Bat-signal was set up projecting images and text on the wall of a local Walgreens. Store managers were reportedly unpleased.
From here, the march again took the street, moving up Peacock Lane – which is normally already shut down to motor vehicles. Tonight, slow-idling gas-guzzlers mixed with the march, who’d began singing carols again, all ironically repurposed to wish for a world free from the racist brutality and lethal violence of law enforcement.
Again, most onlookers were supportive, with only a few out-of-town drivers becoming aggressive and attempting to use their vehicle to batter the people marching. When threatened, the march responded accordingly, asserting their right to be in the street and loudly and clearly letting motorists know they have no right to hit people with their cars.
Exiting Peacock lane, the march encountered four PPB officers, a first for the evening. As the march self-dispersed down the sidewalk in several directions the police watched, but did not move to make any arrests. Truly, the action was proof of how unnecessary police are in such situations.
The chants and horn-honking concluded, the marchers disappeared into the night. By accounts of those participating, this small action had been a success.
UPDATE: Several days after this action, video from the right-wing blogger ‘Laughing At Liberals’ was released in an attempt to frame this action as promoting violence, claiming protesters called for the deaths of law enforcement officers. KATU ran a piece shortly after featuring this blogger’s video with little context or verification. When pressed for comment, I did finally reply to KATU, “I was one of four organizers for this march, and I do not recall that chant happening. Regardless, we enjoy freedom of speech and anyone is entitled to say what they want as independent individuals.”