In April, Westley Foster went to the downtown Safeway seeking spare change. Instead, he received a beating so severe that an ambulance took him to the hospital.
Four months later, Foster is suing the security company hired by the grocery chain for damages—saying Safeway's guards interfered with his right to free speech by interrupting his begging with a nightstick.
"The whole thing was just ridiculous," says Foster. "They didn't have any right to come out on the sidewalk and do that to me."
Few forms of communication generate more emotion in this city than panhandling—the closest encounter many Portlanders have with homelessness and poverty. For years, it's been the bane of local businesses; several mayors have tried and failed to restrict it. Foster and his attorney say what happened to him will serve as an important civil rights example.
They will soon take their argument into Multnomah County Circuit Court—in a case that cites rulings that panhandling on the sidewalk is protected by the U.S. Constitution. Foster, 29, a Portland Community College student who has been living on the city's streets for nine years, wants to use what happened outside Safeway's Southwest 10th Avenue and Jefferson Street location as an affirmation of his and others' rights.
"He was attacked because he was homeless and because he was asking for money," says Lake Perriguey, Foster's attorney, who says he will file a civil suit early next week. "He was exercising his First Amendment rights. And they attacked him because they didn't like his message."
Chris Turrey, who runs Signal 88, the Portland branch of the Nebraska-based security company contracted to guard Safeway stores, says the issue isn't speech but safety.
"It's a frenzy out there," Turrey says. "My guys, they're just trying to protect themselves."
The story of Foster's violent encounter with Signal 88 guards is told in police reports, court filings and his own words.
On April 5, he was sitting at the northeast entrance of the Safeway on 1010 SW Jefferson St., asking passers-by for a dollar. He was there for 15 minutes, when two security guards dressed in blue uniforms came out to confront him.
Chris Templeton approached Foster and told him he couldn't stay in front of the store. Foster says he responded that he had a right to be on the public sidewalk and shouldn't have to move.
During this conversation, a second security guard, 19-year-old Ibrahim Seraphin, walked up to Foster. He says he thought Foster was being too aggressive with Templeton, so he shoved him, pushing him off the curb and into the busy downtown street.
Foster says he threw up a hand in defense, as a reflex to being shoved. Templeton told police that Foster punched Seraphin in the face.
Foster says he turned to pick up a backpack he uses to carry his school books. That's when Seraphin allegedly started beating him with a baton. The police report from April 5 says Seraphin hit Foster with the baton just twice, but Foster says it was more like five times. Seraphin says he hit Foster "two or three" times.
Seraphin and Templeton handcuffed Foster. In a video taken just after they put the handcuffs on Foster's wrists, Seraphin can be seen dragging Foster across the sidewalk and slamming him against the wall. Foster sinks to the ground and waits for the police to show up.
Seraphin, wearing blue latex gloves, grabbed Foster's backpack and dropped it next to him. When Foster asked him to grab some papers that were left in the street, Seraphin kicked them over to where Foster sat handcuffed.
A Portland police officer who arrived on the scene called an ambulance. Foster had bruises on his ribs and back from being shoved and beaten. He said it took almost three weeks to fully heal. He said he still sees a therapist more than four months later for panic attacks that started after the alleged assault.
"I'll just be sitting somewhere and doing something normal and I'll have a panic attack," Foster says. "I feel like it's really messing with my life. I could be doing anything and I just have to leave so I'm not crying like a baby."
Foster was born and raised in Salem but has lived in Portland for most of his adult life. A self-described "free-love hippie," he says he spends most of his time in the library studying or in the street skateboarding.
Nine years ago, Foster landed on the streets of Portland. He's been homeless ever since, going through bouts of heroin addiction, though he's enrolled in classes at PCC now and says he's kicked the habit. Over the years, he's had run-ins with law enforcement for misdemeanor drug possession, for fighting and for a robbery charge that was later dismissed.
But Foster says his most common interaction with Portland police is an officer asking him to move his panhandling.
"I've had the cops called on me several times in different places," he says. "When the cops respond, they basically take the side of whoever calls them there. They've made me leave a public sidewalk several times just because they're like, 'We don't want to keep getting called out here.' They don't really care about my rights."
Foster's lawsuit will seek damages from Security 88 and will assert he was exercising his First Amendment rights when the guards tried to stop him from asking for money on the public sidewalk.
Safeway says that it isn't responsible for the confrontation because it uses a security contractor.
"The security guard in this video works for a company who provides uniformed coverage for Safeway," says Safeway spokeswoman Jill McGinnis in a statement. "Our primary concern is customer and employee safety, and this falls outside the guidelines of how we request our third-party security vendors to handle such situations."
Seraphin no longer works at the Safeway and hasn't since April, McGinnis adds.
Templeton still works for the security company, but declined to answer questions about the confrontation with Foster.
Seraphin says he was fired from Signal 88 after Safeway asked the company not to send him to provide security services a few days after the April 5 incident. He says he thought Foster was acting aggressively as soon as his partner approached him. He says he was afraid.
"He's a transient, I didn't know what was in his pocket," Seraphin says. "It could be a knife. In my experience, 85 percent of the transients in this area carry knives. I do my job exactly as I'm supposed to do in order to keep myself safe."