Lawmakers and activists in Portland must now contend with local police reform, after 3 weeks of being united against Trump putting federal agents in the city

  • For three weeks this summer, a coalition of activists and establishment local politicians united against the presence of federal agents in Portland.
  • Federal officers have left, and the tensions between the state and local officials and activists are reemerging as activists push policymakers to reexamine local law enforcement policy with the same critical lens they viewed federal authorities through.
  • Protests have continued. Behind the scenes, though, local policymakers have been working on changes to policing. 
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PORTLAND, Ore. –  For three weeks this summer, a coalition of activists and establishment local politicians united against the presence of federal agents in the city.

Now that agents from the US Department of Homeland Security, US Marshalls Service, and Federal Protective Services are no longer clashing with protesters nightly, the tensions between the state and local officials and activists are reemerging as activists push policymakers to reexamine local law enforcement policy with the same critical lens they viewed federal authorities through.

Even as the national spotlight that arrived with the controversial deployment of federal agents to Portland drew a wave of citizens to oppose police brutality, some activists say it partially distracted attention from the underlying movement to address the local police failures and other racial justice issues in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody, after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

"It created a distraction that drew away from our focus on making sure that our own police were not harming us," said Candace Avalos, who chairs a citizen review board of Portland police. "Obviously, the whole federal occupation needed to be addressed. It created an escalation of an already tense situation, but it distracted us from talking about the problems that we have in our own backyard. So I hope we can get back to talking about that."

Still, she added, activists and political leaders continued conversations about how best to reform local law enforcement.

In the daylight hours between the protests near the federal courthouse downtown, city and state officials enacted several policies meant to curb police misbehavior.

The City Council cut the police bureau's budget and passed a resolution that created a ballot measure allowing voters to approve a new police accountability system. The state legislature passed six laws aiming to restrict the use of tear gas and chokeholds, creating a database of police misconduct, and other measures.

The protests, including those responding to the federal presence, created a political environment that motivated state and local leaders to act.

The conduct of federal officials – which included documented cases of seemingly unprovoked violence and legally dubious practice of detaining protesters in unmarked vehicles – galvanized support for the larger movement. Many of the newcomers were not Black, but their participation was important in a city that's more than three-quarters white. 

"That brought more people in," Avalos said. "I'm glad that many, many people showed up and spoke up against it. We've got to make room for people in this movement… The fact that they have come out, I think it does send a message."

But the new supporters often became the story themselves, drawing attention away from the underlying problems.

Teressa Raiford, a police accountability activist in Portland, said news media and outside observers paid more attention to the largely white demonstrators protesting the federal involvement than the issues for which she's long been advocating. 

Even when members of the Wall of Moms – a protest group Raiford was briefly involved with and whose members were easily identifiable at protests because of their bright-yellow shirts – tried to draw attention to the killing of 18-year-old Shai'India Harris on the city's east side, the group itself became the focus. 

"We're saying, 'Black lives matter, my kid just got shot, Black lives matter, my daughter just got murdered,'" Raiford said. "No one was listening to that. The world is like, 'Hey look, there's moms.' And the moms are like, 'Hey look there's Shai'India.' And the media is like, 'Hey look at you guys, you're wearing yellow shirts.' And that shit is weird to me."

Behind the scenes, though, local policymakers have been working on changes to policing. 

"It didn't shift my agenda," state Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Democrat and co-chair of a new joint committee on policing, said. "I think it shifted a lot of people who were comfortable sitting at home, busy throwing darts, that they realized that they, too, could have their rights stripped away."

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who sponsored the resolution to advance a ballot measure, said the demonstrations against federal agents didn't distract from the goals of Black Lives Matter supporters.

"I would not agree that the focus has changed, only that it has expanded to meet the demand of the moment," she said in an email. "Fighting for the dignity of Black lives and fighting for our democracy are not mutually exclusive. …What we are seeing in this moment right now is an evolution in a continuum of calls for justice for Black lives. Those calls can expand and contract to include fights like the overreach of the Federal government invading our spaces to protest."

But as the focus turns more inward, divisions are likely to form, complicating the path toward further reforms. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the commissioner of the Portland Police Bureau, joined protesters one night in July and was among those whom federal agents teargassed. 

When federal authorities and Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, announced the federal agents would reduce their role, it was seen as a victory for the state and local Democratic officials, but didn't meaningfully improve policing in the city, Avalos said.

"It gave an opportunity to have a seeming win without truly holding ourselves accountable," she said.

At a news conference a week after federal agents said they'd step back from engaging with protesters, Wheeler criticized some protesters who started fires near a city police station, saying they were providing footage for President Donald Trump's reelection campaign.

While Wheeler, who has never been popular with the city's police critics, and Hardesty, who has long called for more police accountability measures and led the local NAACP chapter before joining the council, voted together on the police budget cut and ballot measure resolution, they're somewhat regularly at odds with each other.

At the state level, Democrats created a joint legislative committee on police reform and got six bills through the legislature in their first special session this summer.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, has said the year's second session, which opened Monday, will only address the budget issues. Republicans say they support that approach and want to wait until the next regular session in January to consider any further bills on police accountability.

Sen. James Manning Jr., a Democrat and Bynum's counterpart on the joint committee, said he would seek to refine the bills passed in the first special session.

Republicans have already taken issue with the idea of more police reform measures in the next special session.

"I agree with Sen. Peter Courtney that this should be a budget-only session," House Republican Leader Christine Drazan said. Her Senate counterpart, Fred Girod, said "policy bills should be off the table."

Republicans, who are a minority in both chambers of the legislature, are open to some reform measures, Justin Brecht, a policy analyst with Senate Republicans, said. But the protests created such urgency that the bills passed in their aftermath were rushed through that could create unintended consequences, he said.

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