Emotions aren't always a reliable guide to truth, but often they indicate that a deeper truth should be sought.
Something has been bothering me about the nightly Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, just fifty miles away from where I live in Salem, but light years away in terms of how the community is handling police reform.
To offer up one example, in Salem the City Council has embarked on a months-long performance audit of the Police Department by an outside consultant. This will be a deliberative, fact-based look at how the department carries out its functions, including whether some of those functions would be better performed by people other than police officers.
By contrast, the reform mood in Portland is much more extreme.
Last night I watched a live Facebook feed of Mayor Ted Wheeler gamely trying to converse with Black Lives Matter protesters, both individually and also from a stage. He was booed, jeered, and talked over, though a protest organizer did have some success in getting the crowd to quiet down and listen to Wheeler, since he had been invited to the protest.
The clear impression I got was that many protesters -- maybe not a majority, but the most vocal of them -- wouldn't settle for anything short of dismantling the Portland Police Bureau and having Wheeler hand over to someone else the job of overseeing it (in Portland, the city council commissioners and mayor head up city departments, an unusual setup).
The Black Lives Matter protests in Salem, compared to Portland, reflect how different the two cities are. Early on a few protesters damaged some property, discharged fireworks at police, and disrupted the downtown area.
But this didn't continue to happen, seemingly in large part because organizers of the protests made it clear that violent acts by those protesting police violence didn't help the Black Lives Matter cause. My wife and I attended a large protest on June 6. It was peaceful and inspiring. The Salem Police Chief spoke at it with no problem.
As I wrote about recently, I find the "Wall of Moms" who have been appearing at Portland protests to be a breath of fresh air. Which is an apt phrase, because just about every night for the past 50+ days, there's been an aggravating tear gas sameness to the Portland protests.
A large crowd shows up. They chant as they walk to the Justice Center and federal courthouse. All is peaceful for a few hours.
Then late at night troublemakers, who I call anarchists because their actions don't seem aimed at achieving any outcome except stirring things up, shoot fireworks at the buildings, light fires, tear down portable fences, throw things at police, and generally do what they can to provoke a police response, which now means mostly federal agents Trump has sent to guard the courthouse.
There's nothing inspiring about the resulting use of tear gas, flash bang grenades, pepper spray, batons, and such. I watch videos and news reports with a feeling of aggravation at everyone involved: police/federal agents, anarchists, Mayor Wheeler, Black Lives Matter leaders -- everybody who could be deescalating the violence at the protests, but isn't.
At least, not effectively.
I haven't been able to understand why this is happening until I read a great piece by Nick Budnick today, "Rough Justice: Portland police and protesters are locked in a vicious circle. How did we get here?" Budnick cites protesters, police, criminal justice professors, Mayor Wheeler, and others in an informative analysis of what's been going wrong in Portland.
You should read the whole piece. Below are some excerpts to whet your appetite for the full journalistic meal.
My take on the piece basically is this: Everybody is partly right, and everybody is partly wrong. The problem is that the people who are most wrong won't listen to the people who are most right, because they wrongly believe they're completely right. And if that confuses you, read the entire piece and Budnick will clear things up.
For nearly two months, a small portion of downtown Portland has smelled like tear gas. Nights are filled with the sounds of explosions and drums, police warnings to clear the area, and the shouts of protesters. Outside the Multnomah County Justice Center — now blanketed with graffiti calling for the abolition of the police or death to cops — riot-control police square off against citizens wearing gas masks and homemade armor.
...The chaotic situation in Portland, although contained to a tiny area of the city, has already led to more than 400 arrests and cost the local government millions of dollars. And now the arrival of federal officers has made a bad situation worse, galvanizing protesters and reportedly drawing reinforcements from places like Washington state, Texas, and Arizona. It has also led to second-guessing among the local protest community and the Portland Police Bureau alike: How did we get here? Could it have been avoided, and are there any lessons to be learned?
...On May 29, the second night of protests over Floyd’s killing and, more generally, police brutality, a vigil in North Portland was followed by a march downtown. A small group of protesters broke into the Justice Center, setting a fire inside the ground-floor lobby. Looters also ransacked downtown businesses, and dozens of people were arrested.
Since then, protest gatherings have continued at the Justice Center almost every evening, often culminating in nightly violence. At the same time, the large peaceful protests that took place on the east side of the Willamette River have mostly faded away.
Even before federal law-enforcement agents arrived, the PPB’s [Portland Police Bureau's] reliance on conventional crowd-control tactics — namely tear gas, riot munitions, and intimidating bull rushes down city streets — simply wasn’t working. For every city block cleared, protesters dug their heels in further, while video footage of police tactics only served to reinforce the conflict.
...According to experts on mass demonstration and crowd control, central to the PPB’s failed approach is a focus on crowd, instead of individual, behavior. When police use force on an entire group of protesters, many of whom haven’t been committing crimes, “you’re essentially radicalizing the crowd,” said Edward Maguire, professor in criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University. “There is a psychological change that occurs [among more moderate protesters]: Their views get more extreme. Their perception that violence and disruptive behavior is warranted tends to increase.”
Instead of focusing on tactics of overwhelming force that only serve to anger people, Maguire said police departments like Portland’s need to step back and think about the longer view. “We need to rethink our strategies,” Maguire said, “and that’s not happening.”
...Two Portland police officers, speaking under condition of anonymity, say the sheer intensity of the protests, in combination with protesters’ late-night tactics specifically, created a seemingly untenable situation. “They’ve challenged the traditional method of crowd management, and that’s the unique factor here,” one longtime officer said. “This is very different than all the other demonstrations that we’ve seen over the years because of its sustained level of aggression.”
The officers say a small, organized group of anarchist-identifying agitators have set more than a hundred fires downtown. This subgroup of protestors is also setting off large fireworks and using slingshots to launch ball bearings, bottles of frozen water, and containers of urine and feces — all deliberate and repeated attempts to injure officers.
...The result is an ongoing quagmire in which police use the same controversial tactics night after night — clearing masses of protesters in response to provocations by a few. This strategy has generated a cascade of negative publicity, while failing to stop the vandalism, arson, and attacks on police carried out by a small fraction of protest participants.
“They’re losing the PR battle,” said Jim Moore, a Pacific University government professor who serves as political outreach director of the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement. “Regardless of the reforms that [elected leaders] are talking about, when you fire tear gas and flash-bangs, it looks like an occupying army.”