Portland Protests Declared Riot But Is This Rooted In Racism? The city has seen nightly protests for about three months. And police have declared riots or unlawful assemblies about half the time. But some argue the meaning of riot is too vague to be useful.

Police Declare Portland Protests A Riot But This Definition Could Be Rooted In Racism

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Portland, Ore., has seen nightly protests for about three months, and police there have declared riots or unlawful assemblies about half of that time. But the laws governing that declaration are vague, and as Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson reports, they have roots in the state's racist history.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) No cops, no prisons - total abolition.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: On a Saturday night in mid-August, the 79th consecutive day of protests in Portland, a couple hundred demonstrators marched to the Penumbra Kelly Building, a building used by both the city police and county sheriffs.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Your friends hate you. Yes, they do. I said your friends hate you.

LEVINSON: In addition to the marching and chanting, a couple of protesters also spray-painted the building and threw water bottles. Police said protesters also threw rocks. Three hours in...


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: This is the Portland Police Bureau. We're declaring this a riot.

LEVINSON: Moments later, a line of riot police rushed straight into a group of protesters.


LEVINSON: And for a few moments, police and protesters were engaged in hand-to-hand combat, the police grabbing at the protesters' homemade shields and swinging their batons. Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Chris Davis recently explained how police officers come to a moment like that, how a protest in Portland becomes a riot.


CHRIS DAVIS: A riot is when six or more people engage in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly create a grave risk of causing public alarm.

LEVINSON: In the video posted on Twitter, Davis said before dispersing the crowd, officers provide warnings.


DAVIS: Ideally, those engaged in the event would follow the lawful orders given and peacefully leave, and no force would be necessary during a dispersal.

LEVINSON: But that definition of a riot is subjective, and the dispersal inevitably affects hundreds of nonviolent protesters. On the first two nights of protests in May, police declared riots and used tear gas to disperse the crowds. But then for nearly a month, they didn't declare a riot but still used tear gas. So state lawmakers called an emergency session. They hoped to raise the bar by passing a law requiring a riot declaration before tear gas could be used. State Rep. Janelle Bynum sponsored the bill.

JANELLE BYNUM: We were hearing that people were getting caught in these tear gas deployments, and they felt like they didn't have any warning. They felt they were trapped.

LEVINSON: It was signed into law on June 30. That evening police declared a riot for the first time in a month and blanketed a neighborhood in north Portland in tear gas. The police have since declared numerous riots.

BYNUM: What I didn't expect was for the bar to be so low.

LEVINSON: And Bynum says the history of these laws is particularly relevant.

BYNUM: A lot of the riot and crowd control philosophy and statute was developed around the '60s and '70s, when protests around some of the very same things - rights for Black people - were taking place in the state and particularly in Portland.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Quit your job. Quit your job.

LEVINSON: On some nights, police have declared unlawful assemblies as soon as protests begin.

FOLASADE OGUNFIDITIMI: But then the riot part - who knows? Like, half-empty water bottle or nothing or, like, someone could walk on their property and, like, they declare it a riot. It could be anything or nothing.

LEVINSON: Folasade Ogunfiditimi says she's been protesting since the end of May because she says black lives matter and policing is a fundamentally corrupt institution. She says the way the police are treating protesters amounts to excessive force. She likens it to psychological warfare.

OGUNFIDITIMI: They're very finicky. They're very emotional. They show that in their actions. They don't care what they do.

LEVINSON: And she says it's the police presence and their actions that are the real provocation. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Levinson in Portland.


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