Four Things Mayor Ted Wheeler Can Do Today To Make Portland Less Racist

Does he have the will?
06/01/2017 11:22 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2017
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler,  who is also the Police Commissioner, speaking with police at Trump Free Speech Rally, April 29,
Joe Riedl
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the Police Commissioner, speaking with police at Trump Free Speech Rally, April 29, 2017.

Portland is on the brink. Will it be a livable, progressive city that presents an alternative to everything that is wrong with America or will it become another megalopolis ridden with police violence, racist attacks, unbridled gentrification and homelessness?

In the wake of the horrific stabbings of three people by a right-wing libertarian, Jeremy Christian, Portland is in a state of shock. The city is bracing for a confrontation between a pro-Trump group that has planned a rally for June 4th in the name of “Free Speech” and anti-fascists who have organized a counter-protest a block away. Multnomah County Republican Party chair has suggested hiring right-wing militia groups to provide security.

The “Free Speech” Trump group had organized a similar rally on April 29, at which Christian shouted racist slurs and gave the Nazi salute. A video shows Trump supporters at that rally telling Christian he was not welcome there and asking him to leave.

Mayor Ted Wheeler asked the federal government to retract the permit for the “Free Speech” rally that is to take place on federal property claiming “public safety” concerns as the reason. The federal government has declined to revoke the permit.

While the mayor’s heart is in the right place, his efforts to block this rally is clearly unconstitutional as no evidence has been presented that links the organizers to imminent direct threats against individuals. The activist response is divided, with the ACLU calling the Mayor’s demand for revocation of a permit unconstitutional, others demanding that Portland block hate speech given the recent acts of racist violence, and Rose City Antifa arguing against any state intervention at all.

The solutions to these problems will not be found by punching a Nazi, much as that might feel good in the moment.

Although this Sunday’s showdown between the Trump rally and counter-protestors has focused our attention on white supremacy, racist violence, and how to balance free speech with public safety, the solutions to these problems will not be found by punching a Nazi, much as that might feel good in the moment.

Revoking a permit for right-wing white nationalists to speak in a public square might seem like the appropriate response to the deadly stabbings, but the most effective response to white supremacy and racism would be to address the serious criminal justice issues facing Portland that are actually within the power of the mayor, who is Portland’s Police Commissioner.

Here are four things that the activist group Portland’s Resistance has proposed that Mayor Ted Wheeler could do today to make Portland safer and less racist.

1) End broken windows policing.

Police enforcement of low-level offenses like public urination, public transit fare evasion, and jaywalking was supposed to make our cities safer. The result of these policies across the country has been the disproportionate targeting of communities of color, leading to arrests, jail time, and mass incarceration.

The evidence of such racist targeting in Portland is overwhelming with black people being charged at 27 times the rate of white people for spitting, 8 times the rate of white people for jaywalking, and 15 times the rate of white people for failure to cross the street at a right angle. Furthermore, stops for these petty offenses often lead to charges for disorderly conduct, interfering with an officer, and resisting arrest.

In response to a December study by Portland State University that showed blacks more likely to face an escalated penalty than whites for the same offenses, Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said prosecutors would stop pursuing charges for fare evasion.

Police Commissioner Wheeler can stop these harmful practices today by telling his police to focus their attention on solving serious violent crimes and not waste their time on victimless low-level offenses.

This a good start, but Police Commissioner Wheeler can stop these harmful practices today by telling his police to focus their attention on solving serious violent crimes and not waste their time on victimless low-level offenses.

2.) Stop criminalizing the houseless.

Portland has one of the highest rates of rent hikes in the entire country, with some residents facing 30 to 40 percent increases. Housing prices have gone up by almost 10 percent since last year, the second highest jump in the country, just behind Seattle. Gentrification leads to housing unaffordability, which inevitably results in increasing homelessness. A stroll through any part of the city shows the extent of the housing crisis.

Until Portland can adopt meaningful emergency rent control measures and develop a plan to build more affordable housing, the city must make life easier and not harder for those who find themselves living on the streets. Criminalizing the basic human activities of houseless people like public urination and erecting a tent leads to arrest and jail time for people who are just trying to survive.

Mayor Wheeler can instruct the police to stop the routine sweeps of homeless people that merely shift them to another location, and often result in property loss, arrests and confrontations.

3.) Abolish the Gang Database

If the gang database has any purpose, it should be to alert the police to people who are likely to commit violent acts. However, the fact that Jeremy Christian was not in the database suggests that at its best, it is an ineffective tool. Christian was a public figure who repeatedly threatened people of color and assaulted a black woman with a bottle of Gatorade at a Trimet station the day before the stabbings. Yet, he was not considered enough of a threat to public safety to be placed in the gang database.

In essence, the gang database has become a list to criminalize non-white people and target them for enforcement.

Meanwhile, 64 percent of the people on the gang database are black and 81 percent are racial or ethnic minorities. The police use a guilt-by-association model to place people on the list for having a tattoo, wearing particular clothes or hanging out with people known to be gang members. In essence, the gang database has become a list to criminalize non-white people and target them for enforcement.

Mayor Wheeler can end this discriminatory policing practice today by abolishing the database.

4) Strengthen sanctuary protections for immigrants.

Portland’s City Council unanimously passed a sanctuary city resolution in March. While this is a good first step, many immigrants continue to be delivered into the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they are arrested for minor offenses. Furthermore, there have been repeated violations of Oregon’s Sanctuary statute with County jail officials cooperating with ICE agents or stalking immigrants who come into court for appointments.

Mayor Wheeler can strengthen protections of immigrants by ending broken windows policing through which people have been torn from their families and deported because they were arrested for petty low-level offenses. The city has already committed $50,000 to the Immigrant Protection Project to provide free legal services to refugees and immigrants, but we must do more if we want to give immigrants adequate legal representation.

It is easy in moments of crisis to forget the importance of protecting civil liberties. It happened during World War II when more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were locked up as enemy aliens. It happened after September 11th when Muslims across the country were targeted by law enforcement. And it is happening today in Portland as the City Council uses the horrific stabbings as the reason to try to cancel a public rally.

The most effective way for the government to fight racism and white supremacy is by doing the hard work of ending its own complicity in these ills by reforming criminal justice and policing.

Even if one could stop this rally from taking place in Portland, would that stop the racism and threat from white supremacists in our midst? No. The most effective way for the government to fight racism and white supremacy is by doing the hard work of ending its own complicity in these ills by reforming criminal justice and policing.

Making Portland a truly inclusive, livable and progressive beacon in this country is a long-term project that will require the city’s residents to confront their racist legacy as well as the racism that persists today.

Mayor Wheeler has the power to make Portland safer and less racist. Does he have the will?

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