Long before the Trail Blazers warmed up in “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, another group of Portlanders wore a very different message across their chests. Thirty years ago, after a man died in custody following a police chokehold, officers designed shirts with their own catchy slogan: “Don’t Choke ’Em, Smoke ’Em.”

That's just one bit of history explored in Arresting Power, a new documentary charting nearly 50 years of police brutality in Portland. The film—co-directed by Julie Perini, Jodi Darby and Erin Yanke—reaches back to the late '60s to examine numerous police killings as well as robust community resistance. Perini spoke to WW about cycles of violence, the Black Panthers in Portland and what it would mean to abolish the police. 

WW: Because of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, police brutality has re-entered the national conversation. How did recent events affect you as you were completing the film?

Julie Perini: Suddenly, many more people want to hear what we have to say. We've been working on this for years. Police brutality in Portland, and in every city, is not a new issue. The fact that there's this sustained national attention is sad—it's a reality that a lot of communities feel unsafe around police—but it's good there's energy in a social movement that's been building for many years. There's a hunger for it, an openness to it.  

 

How do you sustain that hunger?

History shows us change is possible. It can feel like people are interested in an issue for a while and then it dies down and then a new issue comes up and then it dies down. But the energy doesn't ever just disappear. As long as there are police brutalizing communities, there will be people fighting back, whether or not it's in the nightly news. One thing we found in looking back as far as the late '60s is that it's a cycle. That can be depressing, but can also point to the fact that this kind of tactic of excessive use of force is not an isolated thing. It's a routine thing, just like giving out parking tickets. 


Have things changed since the '60s and '70s?

There are two big things. Police now are much more heavily armed, which you can see if you look at photos of protests in the '70s versus now. Now they've got riot gear on. There's tanks in some communities, like in Ferguson. The other thing is that many more people are documenting police misconduct. Those photos and videos play a role in why there's such a wider national response right now.


The film discusses the social activism of the Black Panthers in Portland, including their free breakfast programs and health clinics. What lessons can we learn from the Panthers?

One lesson is to question official histories. If the main thing people know about the Black Panther Party is that they were aggressive or threatening, that's really unfortunate, because it's a massive distortion of the truth. They were working to improve their communities by themselves, using the resources they had available. They recognized that black communities needed more health support, more education, more access to good nutrition. Since then, the government has kind of co-opted—in a good way—those ideas. Now there are breakfast programs for children at schools all over the country. That's directly inspired by what those organizers were doing for black communities. 


You interview some people who advocate for abolition of the police.

Some do talk about how a world without police could look. That doesn't mean there aren't other ways that communities are being kept safe—it just means they don't involve people armed as if they're at war. The idea of abolition might just mean abolishing the idea that we need to have constant surveillance and the threat of violence to feel safe.


In addition to the police killings, you also include accounts from individuals who've experienced police brutality in non-fatal ways.

The film began with wanting to tell memorial stories of people who've lost their lives at the hands of police, but we realized that much more common are these other stories of people who are intimidated by a police officer, or who are beaten up at a protest. That kind of thing happens every day—racial profiling, for example—and is what makes for the kind of tension we see between communities and police officers. The killings do that too, but also this daily adversarial type of attitude. We wanted to show there's a big range of things that police do to communities that constitutes excessive use of force and abuse of power.


As three white women, how did that shape your experience of making the film?

We might seem like outsiders, but in other ways we're insiders in the activist community. Jodi and Erin have been here almost 20 years. They're old friends with Kent Ford of the Black Panther Party. I've only been here seven years, but those two provided access to a lot of community organizers—there's a longtime trust built up. People would sometimes remark, "Oh wow, an all-woman film crew!" We never got up in the morning and said, "Today's our day to go be women filmmakers and break down the barriers."

But yes, the fact that we were white people making this film means we made a different film than someone from impacted communities. Poor communities, homeless communities, black communities—they would have made a different film. I would really like to see that film. It's not too late. 

SEE IT: Arresting Power is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Thursday, Jan. 15. $8-$9. Directors in attendance.