Last week's fundraising visit by President George Bush went smoothly because the Portland Police Bureau finally got tough--not with protesters, but with the White House.
The police were blasted last year after mass pepper-spraying a peaceful crowd protesting a Bush fundraiser ("Red-Pepper Blues," WW, Aug. 28, 2003). One big problem in 2002 was its location, the downtown Hilton--ensuring that protesters and Bush donors would come face-to-face on public sidewalks, with predictably bad results.
For this year's fundraiser, slated for the private University of Portland campus, police came up with an idea: forcing donors out of their cars and into chartered buses, minimizing contact with would-be monkeywrenchers.
When Portland cops floated this idea, however, White House operatives were aghast, says Commander Rosie Sizer, noting that Bush donors "were people of money and influence and wouldn't go for it." The Bushies were finally swayed after a meeting at the Lloyd Center DoubleTree Hotel two days before the event. There, Sizer and Lt. Marty Rowley delivered a not-so-subtle threat: If donors drove their cars and found themselves blocked or harassed, the Bureau would let the media know exactly whom to blame.
Sure enough, the Raz buses made it to the UP campus unimpeded last Thursday morning. As a result of the cops' foresight, the protest was relatively unmarred by cop-protester clashes, despite a show of overwhelming force that included armored vehicles and more than 400 officers hailing from eight different agencies.
The crowd was bigger than last year's (estimates ranged from 2,000 to 3,500) and, after a short 10 am march from Columbia Park on North Lombard Street, was limited by police to a "free speech zone," a stretch of Willamette Boulevard facing the Chiles Center, which hosted the fundraiser.
The "zone," penned in by barbed wire and barricades backed by lines of black-clad riot cops, offended some protesters. At one point a chant broke out: "Bring down the fence!" But a mostly jovial mood dominated the day.
There were dueling drum corps as well as creative costumes ("Concerned Alien Robots from the Future"), and the women's groups Code Pink and the Radical Cheerleaders (unified, in The Oregonian's coverage, as the "Pink Code Cheerleaders.") There was even a five-foot-tall inflatable penis wearing a police helmet and visor.
Protesters' signs included "Nobody left behind--as long as you're rich," "George: Stop lying. Stop invading other countries. Go to your room, now!" and "If prostitution is illegal, why do we let Bush screw America like a five-dollar whore?"
Only after Bush and his donors left the campus (to a chant of "Don't Come Back") did things start to unravel. One of the Raz buses returning donors to their cars stopped at a red light at Columbia Park, and about 10 enterprising protesters immediately sat down in front of it. Police responded and cleared the road.
Video footage shows that 15 minutes later, as protesters were sitting in the park or preparing to go, things got ugly again when one officer walked up to a woman from behind and, for reasons that are unclear, grabbed her by the wrist without warning and dragged her to the curb, screaming. Another officer tackled one of the protesters as he sat on the ground, and as the protester resisted handcuffs two other officers joined in, one of them repeatedly driving his elbow into the protester's ribs. Things quickly turned into a confrontation with the remaining crowd; pepper spray flew, with a dispersal order issued through a loudspeaker.
Still, the mostly mellow event amounted to an ebb in the cycle of Portland protests over the years, in which tension and confrontation fluctuate like a biorhythm. Assistant Chief Derrick Foxworth said the police had anticipated a larger turnout and more civil disobedience and property damage by so-called black-bloc protesters. He thinks it helped that it took place in a working-class residential neighborhood that is bereft of the classic protester targets, like Banana Republic. Still, he says, "If [the marchers] had taken an alternate route down Lombard, we would have had problems."
Foxworth, who oversaw the event's crowd-control, attributed the largely smooth operation to preparation and experience. He said a group of about 15 police and city officials had two-hour meetings daily over the course of a week beforehand. Foxworth has overseen several rallies over the years and says one of the keys is patience and "reading" a crowd. "The biggest thing," he says "was that we have learned a lot over the past year and a half, and we are continuing to get better and improve."