PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Protesters shut down a major freeway in Portland, Oregon, Monday night, and unlike almost every one of the previous 10 nights of mass demonstrations here, police refrained from shooting copious amounts of tear gas into largely peaceful crowds.
The change in police behavior could have something to do with big changes at the top. Portland Police Chief Jami Resch resigned Monday, under criticism for her bureau’s violent handling of more than a week of citywide protests in the growing movement for black lives.
The big question in the city Monday was whether her replacement, a black lieutenant sworn in as chief at noon, would scale back the violence police have used night after night against largely peaceful protestors.
As far as Chief Chuck Lovell’s first day on the job, the answer appeared to be in the affirmative. Thousands of protesters claimed all lanes of Interstate 84 for roughly two dozen blocks without police interference, while hundreds faced off peacefully with police downtown.
Each night in Portland, thousands have been meeting in a field next to the concert venue Revolution Hall to protest police brutality epitomized in the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose heart stopped when a white cop kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. It’s often one of several daily marches, and it’s reliably the largest.
The group marches over one of the many bridges that cross the Willamette River running through the heart of the city, to fill Waterfront Park. Or they march north to Irving Park or to Northeast Portland’s historic Alberta Arts District. Whatever their destination, organizers set up makeshift stages where speakers describe many and varied experiences with systemic racism, including a mortal fear of police racial profiling and groundless, race-based accusations of shoplifting.
Other speakers, such as Jo Ann Hardesty, the only black member of Portland’s City Council, or Kent Ford, a 77-year-old founding member of the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party, propose changes and exhort the protesters to keep going.
If the city’s parks have emerged as a place for the movement’s ideas, the downtown Multnomah County Justice Center has become a front line in the battle between protesters and police. On May 29, the first night of mass protests here, activists broke the windows of the justice center and tossed in fireworks, starting several small fires that were extinguished by sprinklers. Afterward, the city erected chain link fencing around the building, which holds several hundred prisoners.
The nightly exchange has become routine. After dark, a growing crowd gathers around the fence. Some shake the fence and toss over plastic water bottles, half-eaten apples and other items police categorize as “projectiles.” The police announce over a loudspeaker that they will use force against anyone tampering with the fence. Soon, riot cops advance on the crowd, firing multiple rounds of tear gas, swinging clubs and pepper spraying people as they run.
On Monday, Chief Resch resigned amid criticism from the ACLU and others of the bureau’s increasingly violent response to the protests. Lieutenant Chuck Lovell was immediately sworn in as the city’s fourth black police chief.
“To say this was unexpected would be an understatement,” Lovell said at a news conference Monday.
Lovell signaled his sympathy for the protests that have so far resulted in the removal of police from schools in the metro area’s three districts, the loss of his former boss’s job, and calls for bans on police use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
“This is going to be hard,” Lovell said. “I don’t have any illusions about that. But meeting every day at Revolutionary Square and marching into downtown Portland — standing up against injustice, that’s hard too.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday he would likely ban police use of tear gas, as Seattle recently did for 30 days. But on Saturday he retracted that, issuing a directive that police can use it only as a last resort. But police continued to unleash copious amounts of the chemical weapon on protesters every night since — until Monday.
Monday night was a test of the change in leadership, and after midnight, the crowd surrounding the justice center tossed around a beach ball and chanted, after having stood in the rain for hours. For the first time in four days, police let the night expire without advancing on the crowd with the violence that has become commonplace.
Some community members said it wasn’t enough. Portland’s African American Leadership Forum and Unite Oregon, a social justice organization that fights for people of color, immigrants, rural communities and the poor, said in a statement Monday that their members “are not fooled” by Resch’s resignation and called for the dismantling of the Portland Police Bureau, similar to the move announced Sunday by Minneapolis City Council members.
“It does not matter who serves as chief of the Portland Police Bureau, because police are the problem,” the groups said in the statement. “Policing is and always has been a racist system. We are in the fight for abolition until it’s won.”
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