Oregon Speaker of the House slams police action at Portland protest as 'unlawful'
In an open letter, Speaker of the Oregon House Tina Kotek lambasted the Portland Police Bureau for creating "unsafe" and "unacceptable" conditions while responding to a protest in her district on Tuesday night, June 30.
While police declared an unlawful assembly and later a riot after a crowd of perhaps 400 surrounded their union headquarters on Lombard Street — Rep. Kotek said neighbors told her there was "no risk to the public" until the dispersal orders were given.
Police backed up their commands with use of tear gas, formally called CS gas, as well as mortar flashbangs and crowd-control munitions.
"The declaration of a 'riot' was an abuse of the statute," Kotek wrote. "Therefore, the ensuing actions by the PPB were unlawful."
She continued: "It showed an utter inability to exercise restraint. Smart policing is when an officer can differentiate a minor provocation from a serious threat. Nothing about this was smart."
Kotek's letter also references the arrests of at least three live-streamers and freelance journalists during the night's tumultuous events: Cory Elia, Lesley McClain and Justin Yau. Another wire service photojournalist, Alex Milan Tracy, had his GoPro camera seized "as evidence," he told the Tribune.
"I continue to be disturbed that journalists and independent reporters are being targeted. These actions undermine our democracy," Kotek noted.
Rep. Kotek's district stretches from St. Johns to Kenton and includes Portland International Airport, as well as the site where police declared a riot.
Police used tear gas tonight at North Portland protest pic.twitter.com/7jblYkz65e— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 1, 2020
Her letter, posted publicly online on Wednesday, July 1, is addressed to Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner and oversees the bureau. The missive ends with Kotek asking for an in-person meeting with the mayor and new Police Chief Chuck Lovell.
A witness, Justin Jones, who watched the scene unfold from his apartment doorstep, also had described a heavy-handed response by police. "They were announcing that there was a riot going on even though nothing was happening other than people just standing and peacefully protesting," Jones said.
While not directly addressing her complaints, Wheeler's office said they appreciated Kotek's input.
"Our community values and supports peaceful demonstrations and demonstrators — that's how change happens," according to a mayoral statement.
Ron Herndon — a veteran civil rights activist in Portland with Black United Front who now is director of the Albina Head Start — said the confrontation went down three blocks from his house.
"These hoodlums are needlessly scaring neighbors and their children," Herndon said. "The police have shown more restraint than I could ever muster up."
Here is the full text of Kotek's letter:
Dear Mayor Wheeler,
The actions by police officers last night in North Portland were completely unacceptable.
Instead of managing the situation, they created an unsafe situation and a public health hazard with their use of CS gas, in a residential area (and near several gas stations, I might add). It was an unnecessary escalation by the PPB against people exercising their freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.
It showed an utter inability to exercise restraint. Smart policing is when an officer can differentiate a minor provocation from a serious threat. Nothing about this was smart.
As the Police Commissioner, I implore you to take action to keep this from happening again.
From the reports I've read and from what I've heard from neighbors — counter to what the PPB is officially saying — there was no risk to the public or to officers until the PPB decided to declare an unlawful assembly to permit the use of and deploy crowd control devices. What needed to be protected last night? An empty office building? Was this need more important than the health of neighbors, of children in a neighborhood, of people returning home from work? The declaration of an "unlawful assembly" did not seem warranted. The declaration of a "riot" was an abuse of the statute. Therefore, the ensuing actions by the PPB were unlawful.
Furthermore, I continue to be disturbed that journalists and independent reporters are being targeted. These actions undermine our democracy.
What is the plan to keep peaceful protests from escalating into these kinds of incidents going forward? Protests will continue.
Lastly, what I've heard is that when police presence is minimal and does not provoke a response from protesters, things are calmer and people disperse on their own. De-escalation starts with not escalating in the first place.
I look forward to discussing this with you and Chief Lovell.
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