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For over 50 days, demonstrators in Portland, Ore., have been protesting police violence against Black Americans. Now the protests have a new target: the federal officers the Trump administration has dispatched to the city over the objections of city and state leaders.
President Trump said Monday that it would continue to keep uniformed and unidentifiable federal officers in the city to round up “anarchists” and violent protesters. On Tuesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the use of the federal officers decked out in military gear to control the “well-organized” groups the administration insists are causing havoc in the city.
She also said the officers did not identify themselves to crowds because it would subject them to “great risk.” Legal experts, meanwhile, have said that the presence of the federal officers in the city over the objections of local officials was creating a constitutional crisis.
The uniformed federal officers have been criticized for fracturing the skull of one man holding a speaker last week and gassing protesters. Residents have also accused unidentified officers of picking up residents in unmarked vans while a New York Times reporter said he was punched in the head by federal officers during Monday night’s demonstration. For their part, the protesters have spray-painted the federal courthouse, torn up fencing and set fires in the area.
Dr. Sharon Meieran is a commissioner for Multnomah County, where Portland is located. She spoke to Yahoo News by phone Monday evening before the latest round of protests started. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You spent the weekend out among the protesters. What’s your on-the-ground report?
It was very interesting to be there in person. You read all the accounts in various media outlets, and I was worried I was walking into a war zone and it absolutely was not like that — it was not like that anywhere in Portland. There was a large group of protesters there, marching and protesting peacefully, and a lot of feeling that we’re in this together and we’re exercising our constitutional right to assemble and speak out.
I was there Saturday and Sunday and the crowd was by-and-large very peaceful, chanting. And then out of the blue there was, the federal forces came out, and without any warning, without any discrimination of targets, just started throwing canisters of teargas into the street. There was a lot of crowd dispersal but there was also regrouping, and I think Sunday there was an even larger crowd — seemed like there was even more of the teargas was used and even more people that dispersed with that and came back around and still gathered.
The Oregon Public Broadcasting story documenting federal officers picking up protesters in unmarked vans came out Thursday evening. Have the crowds grown since then?
I think what is happening is the protests were actually seeming to wind down. They had been getting smaller and smaller but the federal officers coming in with a seeming paramilitary force descending on us without warning, really fueled the fire and a lot of people were outraged and showed up to express that.
The position of President Trump and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is that they had to do this because officials in Portland and Oregon weren’t doing the job of policing. What’s your response to that position?
That is absolutely absurd and simply is not true. Portland has been and is a safe place right now and the portrayal by the Trump administration is just entirely inaccurate. There have been protests that have been going on which have been in many cities across the country and Portland has a reputation but has a very long and proud history of peaceful protest and community engagement.
This is a particularly historic moment and self-examination around racial justice, nationally and locally, so as a community we have to have the kind of conversations we need to be having. Thousands of people have been engaging, and we at the local level have been doing what our job is, and that is to address our public safety. We are in the process of — really, again, like many jurisdictions across the country — reimagining what community safety really needs to look like. We are doing that work locally, and the system is not going to change overnight, but we are absolutely addressing it deliberately and peacefully.
What are some of the things that have come out of the self-examination and conversations you’ve been having there?
I think there’s clearly a history of structural and institutional racism in our police force and throughout — not just the police force but throughout our entire system of public safety there are racial disparities along the continuum of the criminal justice system from who gets pulled over, who gets arraigned, who gets cited, who ends up going to jail and who has to stay in jail because they can’t raise the bail to get out — and even in the sentencing protocols.
This is a very long and sordid history we are confronting, and we are working with not only the police but with the judicial system, with our jails, corrections and our sheriff’s office, really across the board to address the root issues that have led to this system.
Things might not change overnight, but is there anything that could change in the near future that would be palatable to officials there and also something protesters are calling for?
Absolutely. There is the long-term dismantling of some of the deeply ingrained structural racist types of institutions that we need to be doing, but also there’s things we can be doing in the short and medium-term.
For example, the city cut its police budget and wants to reinvest and reallocate the money into systems that support people that meet people where they’re at and respond to issues with support, social services, rather than a police presence. At the county, we closed a jail dorm — that’s happening — and we’re looking at how we can reallocate our resources to support the systems we want to see.
What do you think these next few days look like with regard to the protest and the federal presence?
It’s so hard to say because I feel like so much is happening that I never would have imagined possible and happening in such a short time span that it’s hard to make predictions.
I am hopeful that there is such a clear standing up in solidarity expressed among individual residents and elected officials and community and artists and people and organizations across the spectrum that it will be clear this federal presence will not be tolerated in our city. And that they leave and everyone goes back to the baseline we’ve seen.
Not that you would wish for this, but it seems like the federal presence has had a galvanizing effect to bring groups together.
That’s exactly right. Ironically, the president has said that they had to come in with this force and restore order because it’s anarchy and chaos that’s happening in Portland, but the real irony here is that the opposite is happening. As Portlanders, we don’t necessarily agree on a lot of things but we do agree that we all have the right to free speech and free assembly. And we don’t know what all the steps need to be to get to our better system, but we do agree that we are in it together and this invasion has been truly a unifying force that’s brought together everyone in outrage to tell the federal forces to get out of Portland.
It’s a very proud history we have of peaceful protest and community engagement. This is something that we do a lot. We believe very strongly in exercising those particular constitutional rights of assembly and speech and we have engaged in that — this is an incredibly important conversation around racial justice and it needs to happen. We are having the conversation in the way we need to be having it. What the administration is calling anarchy we call democracy.
You’re an emergency room doctor. Is there any concern about these protests spreading COVID-19?
Absolutely. It’s a concern of the people that I talk to, it’s a concern of mine, it would be worrisome if people weren’t concerned about groups of people coming together for anything these days, and so I’ve thought about this very seriously for weeks since these protests have been happening.
And to me this really illustrates a confluence of two huge pandemics: One is obviously COVID but the other is we have the public health crisis that’s been going on for centuries of racism in our country and we’re trying to do the right thing in response to the COVID public health emergency, but things to respond to a public health emergency of racism are protests and speaking out and doing that kind of work. So how do we best reconcile those two things so we are mitigating the risk of transmission of COVID while allowing for the appropriate engagement, which is really the response to hundreds of years of racism in our country?
From what I’ve observed, people are doing a pretty good job — it’s hard to social distance, but it’s outdoors and mostly everyone is wearing masks, lot of people wearing respirators actually and given that this is the time that we’re in, the situation we’re in, we weigh and balance the risks and do our bests to mitigate the negative impacts.
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