Judge Restrains Portland, Oregon, Police From Using Tear Gas

Thirteen consecutive days of protests have led to the resignation of the police chief on Monday and a restraining injunction on Wednesday.

Protesters gather outside Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday in the 13th consecutive day of demonstrations against police racism and brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Mass protests continued Wednesday in Portland, Oregon, in the movement against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, and a federal judge issued an injunction restraining Portland police from using tear gas against protesters for two weeks, unless necessary to save lives.

As has happened every day for the past two weeks, thousands marched through the streets, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” and “Say His Name! George Floyd!” The largest group marched several miles from the concert venue Revolution Hall to rally at Unthank Park in northeast Portland. Another group rallied outside City Hall during budget hearings that will determine near-term policing in the city. And a group of skateboarders met at the Moda Center before rolling around the city en masse.

On Tuesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city would move enact a set of reforms long called for by civil rights activists and Portland’s lone black city councilor, Jo Anne Hardesty.

Wheeler said the city planned to do away with the Gun Violence Reduction Team, formerly known as the Gang Enforcement Team, and said the city will not renew a contract with transit authority Trimet that puts police on city buses and trains. Portland will also ban police use of chokeholds, but Police Chief Chuck Lovell said at a news conference Tuesday that such restraints are already banned, except in a potentially life-saving situation.

The police union, which has contract negotiations under way, immediately objected.

“This is a big mistake,” Daryl Turner, president of the Portland police union told the Oregonian of axing the Gun Violence Reduction Team. “This is jeopardizing the safety of Portlanders. What I’d like to know is, have the mayor and the commissioners taken into account the victims of gun violence in this city?”

Crews erected a plywood wall around City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. The Multnomah County Justice Center, one block away, has emerged as a locus of confrontation between protesters and police, but City Hall has not seen the same levels of vandalism as the justice center, where protesters broke in and started a fire that was quickly extinguished on the first night of mass protests, or the federal courthouse next door, where stone walls and marble steps are completely covered in graffiti. 

The plywood wall outside City Hall had vanished by Wednesday, when the activist group Don’t Shoot Portland held a rally attended by several hundred outside. The focus was a public hearing over the city budget. Two city commissioners have said they will introduce budget amendments intended to curb racist policing, but they will need a third vote.

Seven hundred and forty-two Portlanders signed up to testify.

Protesters march down North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday in the 13th consecutive day of civil rights demonstrations against police brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

Wheeler and superintendents for the three metro-area school districts have already pledged to end a program that put police in schools. On Monday, former Police Chief Jami Resch, a white woman, resigned amid widespread criticism for the bureau’s near nightly use of tear gas and other chemical weapons against crowds of largely peaceful protesters. Lovell was sworn in that afternoon, becoming the city’s fourth black police chief.

Tear gas was the subject of a court ruling late Tuesday, when a federal judge in Portland issued a two-week restraining order, partly granting Don’t Shoot Portland’s request to ban police use of tear gas. U.S. District Judge March Hernandez said police may use the chemical weapon against protesters only as a life-saving measure.

Hernandez found credible Don’t Shoot’s claim that police used tear gas indiscriminately against peaceful protesters.

“In some of these instances, there is no evidence of any provocation,” Hernandez wrote. “In others, individuals appear to have shaken fences and thrown water bottles and fireworks at the police. Either way, there is no dispute that plaintiffs engaged only in peaceful and non-destructive protest. There is no record of criminal activity on the part of plaintiffs. To the contrary, there is even evidence that some protesters were confronted with tear gas while trying to follow police orders and leave the demonstrations.”

The ruling follows on Mayor Wheeler’s recent directive limiting the use of tear gas to situations where “there is a serious and immediate threat to life safety, and there is no other viable alternative for dispersal.”

Portland’s African American Leadership Forum and Unite Oregon have called for a total ban on tear gas, among other major police reforms.

Hardesty said in a series of Tweets that the city’s immediate goal was to end programs that have “the most racist outcomes.” A city audit found in 2018 that traffic stops by the Gun Violence Reduction team skewed racist, with 59% of stops against black drivers, though the city is only 6% black.

Hardesty said that more reforms should follow, such as reinvesting money the city saves on policing in black and brown communities. During Wednesday’s budget hearings, Hardesty said she plans to introduce a new amendment: a $1 million fund for the development of black leadership, to be led by young black Portlanders.

“What I want to say is that tensions are high,” Hardesty said at the public hearing. “We are immersed in a pandemic and we have all become aware of just how institutionalized racism is. And that system includes our police system, but in no way does it limit the inequality to policing in our community.”

Organizer Marceau Michel leads protesters in chants at a rally in Portland, Oregon’s Unthank Park in the 13th daily protest in the movement against police brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)
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