Story by Pete Shaw
If there are guidelines for listening sessions on hot-button issues, clearly none were deployed during the February 21 event at NE Portland’s Maranatha Church that was hastily arranged by Police Chief Danielle Outlaw. The listening session was called due to reports in Portland Mercury and Willamette Week detailing a series of text messages between Portland Police Lieutenant Jeff Niiya and Joey Gibson. In the texts, it appeared that Niiya, the commander of the Rapid Response Team of PPB, had established a cozy and friendly relationship with Gibson, the leader of the white supremacist group Patriot Prayer, currently based in Vancouver, Washington.
The relationship of Patriot Prayer and the PPB comes as no surprise. Last August 4, when Patriot Prayer arrived at Portland’s downtown waterfront, the police provided protection for them. As they have done at other white supremacist rallies, Portland Police turned their weapons on Portlanders opposed to white supremacy. One officer shot a concussion grenade directly at an anti-fascist, piercing his helmet and nearly killing him in the process. Another was severely burned, and others suffered less severe injuries. Only a few days after the rally, Outlaw found the time to go on a local right wing radio show and gloat about how her police “kicked your butt” in reference to the crowd that had come out to oppose white supremacists.
In stark contrast to their treatment of the anti-fascists, it was revealed a few months later that at the time of the rally, the police had apprehended some of the white supremacists atop a parking structure with a cache of weapons and had released them with little trouble. Wheeler and Outlaw kept the public–including protesters–in the dark about it.
The City Council has been slow to catch on. It was only three weeks ago that the City finally got around to passing a resolution condemning white supremacy and white nationalism. That such a declaration needed to be made says a lot, but even more damning might be the fact that it was so long in the making. Mayor Wheeler has at times been seen as being too conciliatory toward the white supremacists, beginning back in April 2017 when he all but rolled out the red carpet in Montavilla as Gibson and his white supremacists marched through the neighborhood. One of the people at Gibson’s side was Jeremy Christian who would soon murder two people on a Portland MAX train.
Thursday’s listening session, which featured Outlaw, Wheeler, three Assistant Chiefs of Police and one Deputy Chief in the role of listeners, had all the trappings of a burlesque. It was a display of incompetence that was distressing, but hardly surprising.
Entering the house of worship prior to the 6 PM starting time, guests found their knapsacks being thoroughly searched, and many were subject to a pat down. That Maranatha Church felt the need for such security measures spoke loudly. The people checking bags, both of them Black women, were understandably on edge. The rigor of the inspection was greater than I have ever experienced at any airport, and I found my knapsack had numerous pockets that I never knew existed.
The two minutes allocated to each speaker was not enough to tackle issues of such gravity. Numerous people expressed apprehensions, worries, and disdain, regarding a police force that treats the people it is supposed to protect as adversaries.
Early on, a man named Luis, talked about how he and his family have been terrorized by white supremacists, particularly Gibson and Patriot Prayer. He claimed his six year old daughter was doxxed by Gibson and that Gibson also made a death threat against his partner. His house was firebombed, and he told Wheeler, “My daughter could have burned. I could have burned. Because of your police.”
He then asked Wheeler, “Do you want my daughter to die? ”No, I do not,” Wheeler replied. “You do,” Luis said. “You want me to die because you collude with white supremacists.” Luis made the point that because Wheeler has bent over backward not to confront white supremacists and has barely made an effort to reign in the police, he has normalized white supremacy.
One of the first rules of a meeting like Thursday night’s is probably that event organizers should make sure it takes place under conditions that allow people to express their views while feeling a modicum of safety. This was not an official City meeting. It was not required to be open to the public. Yet inside Maranatha Church, there was a clutch of white supremacists, perhaps 10 to 15 of them, who were not only granted entry, but given space to speak. In a meeting that was ostensibly called to listen to community members’ concerns about their police colluding with Patriot Prayer and other white supremacist groups–including some who had been terrorized by white supremacists–their presence mocked the idea that Wheeler, Outlaw, and the four assistant and deputy chiefs of police were there to listen and learn.
The white supremacists spent the majority of their time praising the police for attacking Portlanders opposed to white supremacy and fascism. At one point, one white supremacist, Haley Adams–who is not a Portland resident–rushed toward the table at which Wheeler, Outlaw, and Outlaw’s four underlings sat. It was already a strange look, the table mounted on the church’s altar, and those around it looking like six apostles who had arrived a couple of millennia late to supper. One had to wonder how Jesus would have received this half-dozen who have done their part not only in upholding the more acceptable forms of white supremacy, that is, those sanctioned by governing institutions, but also in clearly favoring out-of-state white supremacists of the more overt sort who have sometimes used their time in Portland to assault its citizens.
This, of course, was not Adams’s take. A few months ago, she organized what in effect was a mens’ rights rally in support of assaulting women. Like many of the white supremacists who spoke, she finds Portland to be a den of iniquity that its leaders are allowing to fester. Adams’s disruption resulted in the facilitator warning the audience that he might adjourn the meeting, as all the listeners save Outlaw abandoned the table. Adams was subdued and quickly cast out of the temple, however. Wafted along on a unified chant of, “Nazis suck!” she exited the church into the night to wail and gnash her teeth.
One imagines the organizers might have reasoned that holding a meeting clearly destined to be a contentious, and likely doomed, endeavor in a house of worship might go some way toward quelling the audience. It would be an astute political strategy, particularly as the city’s television news outlets were covering the event, but it would also be the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football. Those who came to express actual concerns were in no mood to play games of feigned civility. They had seen the long riot police lines, all points on it facing them. They had witnessed one of Patriot Prayer’s white supremacists help a Portland police officer arrest a person. They had been attacked by police. They had been terrorized by members of Patriot Prayer and other white supremacists.
One had recently been beaten by a Patriot Prayer member, Tusitala Toese, an imposing man given to violence who goes by the name “Tiny.” On June 8, 2018, Toese punched Tim Ledwith in the face on Northeast Broadway, in broad daylight. Ledwith said Toese shouted homophobic slurs at him, and his assault resulted in Ledwith having his lip split open and suffering a minor concussion.
Toese has not been held accountable. In fact, he has been arrested three times and issued only one written citation, resulting in a grand total of one conviction. On Feb 20 the Willamette Week reported: MultCo County Circuit Judge Katharine von Ter Stegge signed a bench warrant for Toese’s arrest on Feb 11 due to his violation of a plea agreement he made a year ago. That breach included Toese’s failures to check in with his probation officer, appear for court appointments, and perform his mandated 40 hours of community service. Portland police have yet to arrest him.
In a December 8, 2017 communication with Gibson, Niiya advised Gibson on how to help Toese, for whom there was an active arrest warrant, avoid being taken into police custody. Niiya’s wisdom, according to a Willamette Week snippet of the acquired texts, boiled down to Gibson and the other white supremacists keeping Toese from committing a second crime:
“BTW, make sure Tiny has his court stuff taken care of. I was told on the radio at the Jamison [Square] event he had a warrant. I told them we would not be arresting Tiny right now. So please be sure he’s good to go before coming down.”
“Shit,” Gibson, the Vancouver, WA, leader of the group Patriot Prayer, responded. “He told me he was good.”
“Just make sure he doesn’t do anything which may draw our attention,” Niiya replied. “If he still has the warrant in the system (I don’t run you guys so I don’t personally know) the officers could arrest him. I don’t see a need to arrest on the warrant unless there is a reason.”
Ledwith spoke immediately following Mary Hollingsworth whose two minutes were spent praising the police and Patriot Prayer in tones worthy of Sunday mornings at Maranatha, while also placing onus for the violence that has erupted at Patriot Prayer events squarely on the shoulders of those opposing white supremacy. Her harangue became the subject of jeering, to which she responded by shouting back, “This is how you people are!”
The contrast with Ledwith’s two minutes was glaring.
At 7:50 a “Nazis go home!” chant emanated from outside the church. A large number of people left to see what was going on. Ten minutes later, the meeting’s allotted two hours were up. The facilitator was willing to press on, but the listening panel had apparently heard–or had–enough. It seemed they could hardly wait to leave.
The prominent theme of the night, at least from the vast majority of the nearly 40 people who spoke, was the need for varying levels of reform. Prior to the forum, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) of Portland held a rally demanding Wheeler hand over police bureau oversight to Hardesty. The group also called for greater solidarity among people and communities opposed to white supremacy, and urged people to continue pushing for the systemic change that will take far more work than getting Wheeler to reassign the police commission to Hardesty. Once inside, the large and apparently majority anti-fascist crowd amplified the DSA’s insistence that she be the new police commissioner, and as well pushed for clearing out the Portland Police Bureau and starting anew, or even abolishing police altogether.
The overwhelming feeling was one of disgust for Wheeler, Outlaw, the police, and the white supremacists who over the past two years have felt emboldened in coming to Portland with their hatred and accompanying violence. The DSA’s announcement of their pre-listening session rally read,
“In the past few years, the police have been given the green light to brutalize anti-fascist protesters, help coordinate the actions of far right street gangs, cover up for white nationalists who were setting up rifle caches overlooking protests, and harass, arrest, and kill black Portlanders. Mayor Wheeler ran on a platform of reforming the police, and his term as Police Commissioner has completely failed on this promise.
“Commissioner Hardesty ran on a platform of real police reform powered by a grassroots campaign, and won handily. The people of Portland have given her a mandate to carry out these reforms of the police. If Mayor Wheeler does not step aside and allow her to carry out these reforms as the Police Commissioner then he is actively blocking Portland voters demands to see real police reform.”
Wheeler for his part has proposed the police receive training in how to recognize white supremacy. It is a grossly tepid and insufficient response. As one of the final speakers of the night put it, “The police do not need training to identify white supremacists. They need to stop identifying with white supremacists.”