Story and photos by John G. Mellor
In a shocking turn of events late yesterday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that he would be taking steps to abolish the Portland Police Bureau and called upon Portland’s citizens of conscience to burn down the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prison on Southwest Macadam Avenue. Speaking before a backdrop of Black Lives Matter and ICE Out of Portland signs arranged against the pillars outside of City Hall, Wheeler asked, “How many more people of color must be murdered by police before we actually do something substantial instead of just wringing our hands? How many more of our friends, neighbors, and community members must be kidnapped off our streets and torn from their loved ones? When do we step beyond words and take action?”
While Wheeler admitted that abolishing the police and replacing it with a completely different form of policing would be challenging, he was confident the City could achieve the goal in a manner that respected communities of color who have historically borne the brunt of police brutality. “Look,” Wheeler said, “we all know the police as an institution have always existed in this country to keep a lid on certain groups of people–particularly those of color–and it is time we changed that. Portland will lead the way, and we will be led by those communities of color who best know what a just police system should look like. And no, unlike that ridiculous Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB), there will be absolutely no police input. Their violence as an institution makes them unsuitable for any form of civilized society, and they will have no say in their future. Period. It’s time we started listening to communities of color. We white people need to step back and let them take the lead on this.”
When asked about how he would deal with ICE agents snatching people without documentation and perhaps setting them up for deportation, Wheeler calmly replied, “We’re gonna torch that motherfucking building and dance a whipsong on its ashes.”
When Ted Wheeler took over the reins of Portland from Charlie Hales, he perhaps expected the job to provide him with a nice place to spread his name around for the 2018 Oregon gubernatorial election. As a placeholder, it is hard to figure a better position for a moderately liberal fellow who has greater aspirations than being the leader one of the country’s most prominent liberal bastions. Attend some council meetings, hobnob with the movers and shakers, and just settle into the easy life. After a year or so, tout your achievements and then put your name on the ballot to run against Governor Kate Brown in the primary. Or maybe cruise along until 2022. Whichever, take it easy and burnish those credentials.
But City Hall has been a strange place to be these days. Things have not worked out so conveniently for Wheeler. Council meetings have been disrupted on a regular basis by activists demanding police be held accountable for their actions. Most recently, Quanice Hayes’s murder by Officer Andrew Hearst on February 9 has proven a spark for that angst, and the protests have gone beyond the council chambers with activists camping outside Wheeler’s home, sometimes creating enough of a din that one night the mayor was forced to find rest in a local hotel.
Wheeler has taken steps to make sure City business gets done, but those steps have included closed-door meetings and, at least until yesterday’s press conference, giving police even greater freedom to dispense violence, which have only further tarnished his image. While law and order may play well in some circles, the sight of Portland’s police toting tear gas and rubber bullets–and using them as they did during a protest on the day of Republican Donald Trump’s inauguration–has not sat comfortably with many, and now Wheeler finds himself stuck between a rock and hard place, his ratings in precarious balance.
Possibly attempting to regain his balance, Wheeler also declared Portland a city of sanctuary for people without documentation (and Brown has done the same for Oregon), theoretically pitting the police against the ICE. His thinking, it seems, was that he could come across as a man of law and order while at the same time a man in defiance of the same when that vision of law and order emanates from Donald Trump and a Congress in Republican hands.
It all demanded a delicate calibration, and it seems to have fallen apart, taking a toll on Wheeler. But if it has all but destroyed his future electoral ambitions, it seems to have emboldened him in what at least for the moment seems a quixotic quest for justice.
In fact, Wheeler alluded to this in Friday’s press conference, saying, “I admit it is an odd sight for a mayor to take these steps, but how long can we look at what is going on with our police’s record of brutality and murder, and ICE’s destruction of families and communities and not say, ‘This shit is fucked up, and we are going to put an end to it.’ For God’s sake, we have an actual Nazi fetishist on the police force who gets along swimmingly with his co-workers, and we have a Republican proto-fascist in the White House. This is not the time to act like a typical Portland liberal and just talk about how bad things are, but do all you can not to actually try and change the system. That reform crap is just a soft-pedal form of racism. Did you see that weird shit at the Women’s March in January? Christ, one day after I sent the police to fuck up those protesters–sorry guys, my bad–you had all these white women mugging with the cops with complete disregard for the feelings of women of color taking part in the rally. Now, that may have been due to ignorance, unrecognized white supremacy, conscious white supremacy, or just clear, unchecked, callous stupidity. I don’t know. But nonetheless, it happened. It was disgusting.”
When a reporter asked Wheeler if he understood that the police would sue the City to retain their jobs, Wheeler replied, “Did I mention that I have a lot of money? I am willing to take up the fight. And by the time those communities of color have drawn up the guidelines for a policing system that will truly respect, value, and cherish their (sic) lives, we will have gotten enough council members on board that will vote on a contract for the current police that will have only one line: your services are not only no longer required, but no longer desired.”
This may be an uphill battle for Wheeler. Portland bills itself as a liberal stronghold, and following the mayor’s press conference, a few apparent stalwarts expressed shock and even displeasure at the thought of actually doing something that might affect real change.
“I understand that the police situation is bad,” said William Wortley-Smith, wearing a “Clinton 2016” button on his jacket. “I mean, don’t get me wrong–I don’t like when the bad apple of a cop kills or brutalizes someone. But does that really mean we need to change the entire police? They’re always nice to me. Always. Aren’t they entitled to have a say? We have that COAB or whatever commission it is that has been meeting a lot. Surely they came up with some great solutions. And what about my opinion?”
Gerard Goren, wearing a sticker showing a donkey shitting in an elephant’s mouth said, “You know, this is the same oppressive un-American attitude toward the police that we have seen toward Nazis. Don’t take this the wrong way–I hate Nazis as much as anyone, but why do people want to limit their right to free speech? We need to preserve that right…well, I don’t want them saying those things in front of my children and partner–that’s off limits. But these things hurt all of us. If all lives truly matter, then we must hear all voices, not allowing some to drown out others. Likewise, why don’t we ever hear from the police about their side of the story? If things are so bad, why is it that police are almost never punished? If they were doing wrong, wouldn’t they be held accountable?”
People were a little more circumspect–at least at first–about dealing with the ICE building. “Well, it is ugly,” said Elizabeth Windsor. “But isn’t there a kindergarten through 8th grade school about 30 feet away from it? Wait! What the hell? If these people are as dangerous as Trump and ICE are saying, why are they being kept so close to our children? These people are more full of shit than I thought. Yeah, burn that motherfucker down.”
By the end of the press conference, a large crowd of at least 1,500 people clearly looking for some righteous action had gathered and flowed out onto Southwest 4th Avenue. To a loud cheer from the throng, Wheeler held up a copy of the contract Hales had covertly negotiated with the Portland police. “Mayor Hales didn’t bother consulting the public about this piece of shit,” said Wheeler, “and that gang of white supremacist creeps in the White House…well, I don’t even want to talk about those assholes.” He then folded up the contract, stuck it in his pocket, and said he would use it in the bathroom later on.
Then, while grabbing one of about 200 torches that had been laid out on the steps leading up to City Hall, Wheeler said, “It’s a beautiful Spring evening in Portland, and I’ve got some marshmallows. So let’s roll. S’mores party at 4310 Southwest Macadam!”