PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Local police in Portland are disproportionately arresting Black people at ongoing protests against, among other things, racial inequities within the criminal justice system, according to numbers obtained by Courthouse News.
State and local police in Portland have arrested over 550 protesters since mass protests began in Portland on May 29, sparked by outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Black people make up 11% of those arrested — almost double the rate of Portland’s Black population.
And although it’s possible that Black people are attending protests in the movement for Black lives at rates higher than their portion of Portland’s population, criminal justice experts say that factor alone doesn’t account for their increased likelihood of arrest.
“It is highly unlikely that a disparity this high is a result of composition of the protestors or criminal activity,” Dr. Mark Leymon, professor of criminology at Portland State University, said in an interview. “Research shows that people of color are not more likely to commit crime, especially in this context.”
According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 37,975 Black people living in Portland in July 2019. That’s 5.8% of Portland’s nearly 655,000 people. White people number approximately 461,592, or 70% of the city’s population.
At protests between May 29 and Aug. 13, local police arrested 429 white people, 61 Black people, 36 Hispanic people, 11 Asian or Pacific Islanders and one Native American, according to numbers provided by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. Police did not categorize thirteen of the arrests made during that period.
Comparing the arrest numbers for Black and white people with their population numbers shows Black people are 1.73 times as likely (nearly twice as likely) to be arrested at Portland’s protests than white people. That calculation, called the relative rate index, is a common way of showing racial disparities.
Said another way, in order for the arrests police made to be distributed equally among Black and white people, there would have to be 173 Black people present for every 100 white people at Portland’s protests — if Portland's population was equally split among Black and white people. Exact data showing the racial breakdown among protesters is unavailable. But the ratio described above doesn’t match the overwhelming presence of white people in over 80 nights of protests attended by crowds ranging from the hundreds to the thousands.
That means racism is likely in play, according to Leymon.
“We know from research that people of color, especially Black individuals, are much more likely to be perceived as dangerous,” Leymon said. “And so they are more likely to be arrested for low-level criminal activity — frivolous things — or for no criminal activity at all.”
“No accountability,” Demetria Hester, a prominent protester said upon hearing of the disparity in arrests. “This is exactly what we’ve been talking about for years.”
Hester survived an assault on a MAX light rail train by a white supremacist who went on to kill two men and seriously wound a third the day after assaulting Hester. She said she took the disproportionate arresting of Black people at protests as a warning from police.
“They’re trying to make an example of us and say ‘We’re arresting all these Black people for coming out and protesting to keep others from coming out,’” Hester said. “Like, ‘If you protest, this is what’s going to happen to you.’”
Newly elected Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced on Aug. 11 that his office would not prosecute the vast majority of protest arrests, and would instead focus on charges involving intentional violence like arson and assault.