If Joe Walsh has his way, March 29, 2009, will be a day the city of Portland remembers for a long time.
That date, about three months after Israel invaded Gaza, was when the Mittleman Jewish Community Center hosted a banquet sponsored by powerful national lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
On the guest list inside the Southwest Portland Jewish center were U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Secretary of State Kate Brown, Attorney General John Kroger and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Outside, Walsh was among about 100 people protesting. He was arrested about 5:30 pm for using a public sidewalk to cross the driveway against police orders.
Now the city is defending itself in court this week against what could be a costly and embarrassing lawsuit by Walsh, one of the city's most committed and confrontational antiwar activists. Jury selection in Multnomah County Circuit Court began Aug. 17 on Walsh's civil suit, which seeks $250,000.
Walsh, a 68-year-old Navy veteran and retired longshoreman who ran in the 2008 Democratic primary for Congress, claims in the lawsuit he was subjected to unlawful arrest, battery (he says his handcuffs were unreasonably tight) and malicious prosecution. (See video of his arrest at wweek.com.)
In court filings, Walsh questions whether cops that day "acted as law enforcement officers or hired political police." Portland police and the city attorney's office declined to comment on pending litigation.
The day of the AIPAC dinner, the Mittleman center hired Portland police officers John Fulitano and Mike Leonard to work security, paying the city $64 an hour for their overtime wages. Such moonlighting is longstanding practice for Portland cops. Then-Chief Rosie Sizer cut back on some of those gigs last year (see "Sizer Matters," WW, Dec. 9, 2009), but police continue to earn overtime at Trail Blazers games, film sets and other events.
The sidewalk protest outside the AIPAC dinner started out peacefully that Sunday afternoon. But about 5 pm, according to police reports and depositions, some protesters started blocking traffic turning into the community center. Officer Jerrold Higginbotham, who was observing the event on city time in plainclothes for the police Criminal Intelligence Unit, called Central Precinct for backup.
Sgt. Kyle Nice arrived and ordered protesters to stay off the sidewalk crossing the driveway. But police say Walsh—wearing a Grim Reaper robe and pulling an oxygen bottle due to complications from pneumonia—repeatedly crossed what one cop called the "line of scrimmage."
"It's fundamental to being an activist to have freedom of assembly," Walsh said in a deposition when asked why he crossed the driveway. "It's second only to my oxygen. It's fundamental."
He was arrested without incident, booked and released for interfering with police and disorderly conduct. The DA's office pressed charges, but Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Larsen found Walsh not guilty in a bench trial last year.
In his police report, Fulitano wrote that a Mittleman employee "directed us" to keep protesters off the property. Walsh's lawsuit argued that such instructions showed the city's police were under control of the community center. But Judge Henry Breithaupt disagreed and dismissed the center in June as a defendant in the suit.
Walsh's lawsuit also points out that police allowed Ismail Khaldi, Israel's deputy consul in San Francisco and the dinner's main speaker, to cross the driveway and block traffic on a public street while photographing protesters.
"What is a jury to make of the fact that a high AIPAC official—the keynote speaker for the event—was allowed to violate the police orders with impunity?" writes Walsh's attorney, Greg Kafoury, in a court filing. "There is great uncertainty about just what the police perceived their role to be, and whether they acted as law enforcement officers or hired political police."
Updates on the trial throughout this week.
Sgt. Kyle Nice was one of the cops involved in the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., whose family settled its lawsuit against the city for a record $1.6 million. Nice is now under investigation for drawing his gun on a driver in Washington County in April.