Some violent protests, starting in Minneapolis and rapidly expanding to cities all over North America and abroad, have challenged local governments’ ability to keep the peace over the past two weeks. It was unsurprising that chaos erupted in Portland, Oregon.
How did Portland, a smallish Pacific-Northwest city in a state that was once known for its moderate politicians, become an epicenter of radical activism and inadequate governance?
Starting with the Wobblies in the early 20th century, a thread of radicalism began in the city. John Reed, a journalist and activist who became the leader of the Communist Labor Party, was born in Portland. Speeches were hosted in Portland in the 1920s by such luminaries as “Mother” Bloor, a temperance advocate and socialist feminist, and Trotskyist James Cannon.
The situation we see today, however, began in earnest in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Portland was transitioning from a late-stage timber town to a high-tech and professional services center. Frequent anti-capitalism protests in the downtown area that had previously been mostly small groups walking down sidewalks, only occasionally crossing against traffic signals, grew larger and more organized.
Mark Kroeker’s Effect on Portland Police Practices
On May 1, 2000, a large May Day street demonstration was met with a forceful response from the Portland Police Bureau. The chief of police was at that time a man named Mark Kroeker, a veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a conservative Christian.
In Los Angeles, as deputy chief, he had been at the forefront of introducing community policing into the force after the 1992 riots, winning him widespread praise. However, after what seemed to be overly aggressive tactics against protesters, he quickly became a target for Portland’s increasingly influential activists.
In a fairly early example of cancel culture, an alternative newspaper, the Portland Alliance, located several decade-old audio tapes in which Kroeker had, in some addresses to a Christian police organization, made disparaging comments about homosexuality and promoted several other socially conservative views from a religious perspective. This sparked outrage in local media, and was the beginning of the end for Kroeker’s tenure in Portland.
In 2002, Kroeker gave medals to two officers who were involved in the fatal shooting of a patient at a psychiatric hospital. The patient had experienced an epileptic seizure on a bus, but had been misdiagnosed.
Also in 2002, another large protest broke out — this one anti-George W. Bush — in which participants were met with pepper spray and rubber bullets. A young African American woman was shot and killed in a stop to arrest another person for outstanding warrants. The woman had jumped from the back seat into the driver’s seat, and the officer said he felt the car move while he was partially inside. Kroeker suspended, but did not fire, the officer.
It was all finally too much, and Mayor Vera Katz finally accepted Kroeker’s resignation. She denied having asked for it.
Whatever the validity of the complaints against Kroeker, it was clear future chiefs would have to pass an intense examination and be continually challenged by the media and community watchdogs. Few can withstand the scrutiny for long. Portland is now on its ninth chief of police since Kroeker’s resignation in 2003, including three women and three African Americans.
Why Unlawful Actors Run Wild
Community activists have since kept up the pressure, no doubt emboldened by successfully running Kroeker out of town. The political environment has grown increasingly hostile to the Police Bureau, in part likely due to migration of like-minded people from across the country due to Portland’s reputation as an ideological haven for leftist activism.
Under Portland’s unusual city commission form of government, the mayor directly oversees the Police Bureau. Policing tactics and procedures, as a result of that mayoral oversight, have continually been scaled back in aggressiveness.
While few would argue with the need to be sure deadly or overwhelming physical force be used only when absolutely necessary, this environment has also resulted in a hesitancy to use almost any force to protect people and property against violent protesters.
This means un-permitted protests are simply contained, even when illegal activity occurs, such as blocking streets, vandalizing property, or even street fighting. The role of the police is mostly limited to minimizing violence, which often results in increased policing against non-protesters to keep them from “provoking” protesters by doing things like walking or driving nearby.
By 2016, these demonstrations became more and more destructive. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, downtown rioters caused at least $1 million in damage over several days. The mayor at the time, Charlie Hales, cautioned protesters that walking onto freeways and blocking light rail lines is dangerous.
Also that year, during a “Don’t Shoot Portland” march, which opposed police using deadly force, blogger and photojournalist Michael Strickland pulled out his pistol when advanced on by several protesters, but did not shoot anyone. He was convicted of 20 gun charges (based on the number of protesters), sentenced to 40 days in jail, banned from owning firearms, and banned from video reporting for nearly a year.
In 2018, protesters camped out in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility just south of downtown, blocking Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees from entering. Mayor Ted Wheeler refused to allow Portland police to arrest or remove the protesters, who remained for eight days, until federal agents arrested nine of them and cleared the area.
This year, Wheeler, who has upheld the recent tradition of treating protesters with kid gloves despite vandalism, looting, and repeated violent outbursts from Antifa and local right-wing counterparts, is running for reelection. Because he did not get 50 percent of the vote in the May primary election, he will face off against the second-place finisher, Sarah Iannarone, who is perhaps best known for proclaiming “I am Antifa.”
Don’t expect changes any time soon.