Civil rights teams elevate alarms about Portland mayor’s harsher stance on protesters

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler ushered in the new year – and a new term – by assuring tougher attitudes to those who commit violence and vandalism at demonstrations.

The mayor’s office said Monday that staff are starting to kick off the protest-related proposals Wheeler first announced over the weekend. These ideas include giving police more opportunities to videotape and gather information on protesters, to impose tougher sentences on protesters charged with multiple crimes related to protests, and to urge people to destroy businesses to meet with shopkeepers. The mayor’s office said Wheeler plans to meet with law enforcement as early as Friday to discuss how to move the proposal forward.

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But while the mayor’s office promised a new approach to property destruction that came with some demonstrations, some civil rights activists said they believe Wheeler’s proposal would keep the city on the same volatile path and antagonize the protesters without their bigger demands in Regard to meet racism and white supremacy.

“The Mayor totally misses the point on this point and puts us back in a position where we will continue the cycle over and over,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “We need leaders who can understand how to disrupt this cycle.”

At the weekend, the mayor made it clear that the demonstrations were far from their roots in racial justice. After a New Year’s Eve demonstration where protesters break windows, light small fires and throw fireworks at buildings, the mayor said the protesters, whom he described as largely white and young, were acting at “the height of selfishness”.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a file photo dated Aug. 30, 2020.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

“There are some people who just want to see the world burn,” said Wheeler.

Singh’s nonprofit had been one of several left-wing civil rights groups that asked Wheeler to resign last fall because they had no leadership.

Singh said he believes the mayor’s call for stricter sentences for crimes related to protests goes against the stance of Multnomah’s new District Attorney Mike Schmidt. Schmidt, who was officially sworn in on Monday after completing the final months of former District Attorney Rod Underhill’s tenure, declined to bring charges against low-level protesters and vowed to break away from harsh criminal policies such as the mayor’s seemed to advocate.

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“There are already severe penalties for property crimes – too harsh indeed,” said Singh. “And what we generally see with property crime is that a lot of it is driven by factors other than the desire to commit property crimes – whether it’s drug addiction or mental health. In this case, we see communities ready to face these challenges of white supremacy, racism and police brutality. “

Kelly Simon, interim legal director of Oregon’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, echoed Singh’s concern, noting that Oregon had already improved its penal laws for repeat offenders.

“We know that tough solutions to crime like the ones called for here simply don’t work. We tried that, ”said Simon. “It is already a crime to do many things about which the mayor has expressed his anger.”

Regarding expanding law enforcement surveillance capabilities, Simon said that such an idea would surely raise alarm bells within the ACLU.

“The expanded power to monitor the public is a practice that we know is disproportionately used against color communities in both Portland and across the country.” She said. “Asking for tools or answers that we know will harm black people that we know will harm people of color is not the right call right now.”

“It wasn’t the right call yesterday. It was never the right call. “

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