How a deadly protest shooting deepened distrust of Portland police

Activists are calling for an investigation into the city’s police bureau for spreading misinformation following the killing of activist June Knightly, Abe Asher reports

<p>Police at the scene of the shooting in Normandale Park in Portland, Oregon</p>

Police at the scene of the shooting in Normandale Park in Portland, Oregon

On the evening of 19 February, a group of four women were standing in an intersection of a residential neighborhood in northeast Portland, Oregon, working as traffic safety volunteers for a demonstration in a nearby park to demand justice for Amir Locke – a 22-year-old Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers earlier in the month.

As the women stood directing traffic, a man walked out of a nearby house and angrily confronted them “about protesters in the neighborhood”. Then he opened fire, killing beloved community activist June Knightly and sending five other people to the hospital.

All four of the volunteer women were allegedly unarmed. The shooting only stopped when someone from the protest ran forward and shot the gunman in the hip. He too was wounded.

The gunman was identified the following day as Ben Smith, a 43-year-old man who lived across the street from the park and who, according to roommate Kristine Christenson, had been radicalised against the Black Lives Matter movement, Covid-19 mask and vaccine requirements, homeless Portlanders, and the demonstrators who had been gathering for years in his neighborhood park for years for a recurring racial justice protest in honour of Patrick Kimmons, a 27-year-old man killed by Portland police in 2018.

Ms Christenson told The Oregonian that he collected guns and had talked about wanting to use them against his perceived political enemies. Mr Smith was reportedly a follower of the far-right activist Andy Ngo, commenting, “This is why you arm yourselves folks” on one of Mr Ngo’s YouTube videos earlier this year.

“He talked about wanting to do this for a while,” Ms Christenson said.

The result was that Portland lost Knightly, a 60-year-old queer activist who distributed hot meals to the city’s unhoused population, helped organise Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 while battling cancer, and frequently worked as a volunteer who helped block traffic to allow demonstrators to march safely down city streets.

Her death appears to be another devastating loss in line with the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. But that was not the narrative that Portlanders got in the hours after the shooting.

Far from it. In a press release, the Portland Police Bureau said that the incident that led to the shooting began with a “confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters”. At that point, no arrests had been made.

Some immediately latched onto the homeowner descriptor as questionable, identifying it as an attempt to craft a particular narrative of the shooting.

“They said it was a homeowner, which is the word that everyone glommed onto, because that insinuates a class differentiation between people on the ground protesting and someone who disagrees with it,” local attorney Kat Mahoney said. “And it would have created a sympathetic narrative towards the person.”

Not only was the “homeowner” descriptor of questionable relevance, given that Mr Smith allegedly advanced into the street to confront protesters, but he was actually a renter.

Asked why his bureau had identified Mr Smith as a homeowner, Portland Police Bureau chief of police Chuck Lovell said he “didn’t know”. A Portland Police Bureau spokesperson told The Independent that the chaotic nature of the crime scene and clamor for information led to an error on the bureau’s part.

“We regret using the term homeowner and it was never our intended to mislead anyone or create some kind of false narrative. I am not sure how and when that term reached our on-duty PIO,” the spokesperson wrote. “I believe the intent was just a reference he was given by a supervisor at the scene initially to indicate that one of the persons involved was not part of the demonstration.”

But for Teressa Raiford, executive director of the local nonprofit organisation Don’t Shoot Portland, the homeowner language and length of time it took police to arrest Mr Smith sent a clear signal to the city.

“I believe that it was [done] to entice vigilantism,” Ms Raiford said. “I can’t think of anything else that could occur from that type of misreporting or misinformation.”

Mr Smith was eventually arrested days after the shooting and charged with nine counts, including murder and attempted murder, but not before the police bureau blamed protesters for being “uncooperative with responding officers” and leaving the scene without talking to police.

The delay allowed the original narrative of an armed confrontation spread to into a number of local and national media sources before more information about the shooting was revealed, playing into what Oregon Justice Resource Center Juan Chavez attorney called a “bunker-like mentality that we’re all under siege from a lawless, leftist protest menace”.

It is certainly possible that the homeowner descriptor was an honest mistake. But after a string of incidents in recent years, the bureau’s credibility is at a low.

In 2019, for instance, text messages made public through public records requests showed a warm relationship between a Portland police lieutenant and leaders of the far-right organisation Patriot Prayer. The president of the Portland police union last year leaked that progressive city commissioner and frequent police critic Jo Ann Hardesty was a suspect in a hit-and-run car accident, which was not true. Ms Hardesty is now suing. Several months later, the city published police training slides that paid tribute to an alt-right figure and appeared to promote violence against protesters.

“These are not isolated incidences,” Ms Mahoney said. “If you are paying attention and remember previous moments, you realize that there is a pattern.”

Now, civil rights and community organisations in Portland including Don’t Shoot Portland, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, and the ACLU of Oregon have called for an investigation into the misinformation the city spread in the aftermath of the shooting.

Ms Raiford said that she has been in contact with representatives from the office of Oregon Sen Jeff Merkley and would like to see the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice spearhead an investigation.

The Justice Department has been in frequent contact with the city over the conduct of its police department in the last year, including about the slides that appeared to encourage violence against protesters in January.

There is similar frustration among progressives in the city with mayor Ted Wheeler, who, under Portland’s anachronistic commission style of government, also serves as head of the police bureau.

Last spring, Mr Wheeler – an ally of the city’s business community frustrated with vandalism by a small group of protesters – asked Portland residents to help “unmask” those protesters and “hurt them a little bit”.

Mr Wheeler bristled when asked by a reporter in the aftermath of the shooting whether he regretted his comments, and responded in part that his only regret was that he “used a statement that could be used out of context for political gain”. His communications specialist Cody Bowman wrote in an email to The Independent that Mr Wheeler had been “taken out of context”.

But Ms Mahoney said that statements like Mr Wheeler’s signaled that protesters are dangerous and discussing hurting them is acceptable.

“I firmly believe that his words contributed to this incident at Normandale,” she said.

Ms Raiford said unequivocally that she thinks Mr Wheeler – who was re-elected with just 46 per cent of the vote two years ago and faced an unsuccessful recall campaign last year – should resign.

“Ted Wheeler has shown that he’s just not the person for the job,” Ms Raiford, who ran against Mr Wheeler in 2020, said. “His own values, his personal bias, should not affect Portlanders — and it has, in a very vicious and violent way.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Mr Wheeler reiterated his desire to increase the city’s police force, and some frustrated with heightened levels of crime and homelessness exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic agree with him. Some 200 Portland police officers have left the force in the last two years, leaving the city with just 781 sworn officers — a number the bureau spokesperson said was “unheard of” for a city its size.

Whether or not additional police officers can help solve deeply rooted social problems, there is concern about the effect of the shooting and its aftermath on Portlanders who want to exercise their First Amendment rights at future protests.

Portland has long been known for the vigor of its protest scene, and that was especially true in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd – to the point that Floyd’s brother thanked the city for its activism after Derek Chauvin was convicted of his brother’s murder. Now, Mr Chavez said, people are being forced to reassess their ability to participate in demonstrations.

“Organisers have to take greater care in even thinking through whether or not they have protests like this, whether or not they organise people like this in these kinds of marches – it’s sad,” Mr Chavez said. “It’s absolutely having a chilling effect. I can’t foresee the future, but people are scared.”

Of course, as both Ms Raiford and Ms Mahoney pointed out, Portland has long been a centre of white supremciast activity and felt unsafe for people of colour. Now, in the aftermath of another incident of violence and loss, people engaged in the struggle for justice are being forced to regroup without significant support from much of the city’s leadership.

“It is exhausting work for people I know to continually keep going,” Ms Mahoney said, “and sometimes wonder – will we get somewhere?”

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