March 9th, 2005 Philip Dawdy, Taylor Clark | Special Section Stories
 

1985

     
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"Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em"

BY PHILIP DAWDY

Four years after the opossum incident exposed the tense fault line running between Portland's black community and its mostly white police force, the death of Lloyd Stevenson at the hands of white police officers shook Portland to its core.

Stevenson was black, 31 years old, and known throughout the community as a good Samaritan. He worked at Fred Meyer as a security guard. On April 20, he dropped by a 7-Eleven in Northeast Portland to play video games just as white store clerks were confronting another black man they suspected of shoplifting.

The shoplifting suspect dashed for the doors. The clerks, with Stevenson's help, grabbed him in the parking lot. A crowd gathered to watch the confrontation while Stevenson tried to contain the melee.

Then Greg Cavic, a Shell gas-station attendant bearing a spooky resemblance to Kato Kaelin, walked over and started arguing with Stevenson. By the time police arrived, Cavic and Stevenson's dispute had grown heated enough that Officer Bruce Pantley stepped between them. To this day, exactly what happened next remains a mystery. But the upshot was that Officer Gary Barbour put Stevenson in a "sleeper hold" for 15 seconds, and Stevenson's heart stopped beating. None of the officers administered CPR, and Stevenson was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby emergency room.

That Barbour and Pantley overreacted was clear. So, too, was their violation of police rules that called for officers to apply CPR following use of the sleeper hold.

But the incident posed larger questions: Would the officers have reacted the same way if Stevenson had been white?

When District Attorney Michael Schrunk called a highly unusual public inquest, many questioned whether the panel would be anything more than a whitewash.

Against this backdrop of tragedy, two officers spat in the face of a city trying to grapple with these questions. On the very day Stevenson was buried, officers Richard Montee and Paul Wickersham sold as many as 30 T-shirts in the East Precinct parking lot, depicting a smoking gun and emblazoned with the slogan "Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em."

The black community was outraged.

"The opossum incident could almost be dismissed as a prank," says former City Commissioner Charles Jordan. "Now you're talking about something that was unbelievable."

Mayor Bud Clark fired officers Montee and Wickersham, but they were later reinstated by a federal arbitrator.

The six-member inquest found the cause of death to be criminally negligent homicide, but a grand jury cleared officers Barbour and Pantley of criminal charges. Pantley eventually left the force, but Barbour is still a police officer assigned to Northeast Precinct.

The New Plague

BY TAYLOR CLARK

See the chart that accompanies this story at www.wweek.com/photos/3118/aidschart.gif.

Sometime during the early 1980s, a merciless killer started on a death spree that would take more than 20 million lives in the course of two decades. It murdered indiscriminately, striking both the healthy and the frail, the young and the old, covering them with cancerous lesions and withering them to skin and bones.

The killer was AIDS, and back in 1985 the disease was still a complete mystery; no support groups, marches or symbolic quilts yet existed to buoy victims' spirits. For the casualties-typically gay men, intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs or, puzzlingly, Haitians-AIDS was a hidden terror that killed silently, from the inside.

Beginning in 1985, anxious Portlanders could take early screening tests for HTLV-III (later dubbed HIV, the precursor to AIDS), but many resisted. After all, what was the point? There was no treatment.

"Not only were people afraid of getting tested, but some health workers actively counseled them not to because of the devastating psychological effects," says Thomas Bruner, director of the Cascade AIDS Project. "People viewed the result as a death sentence, and not without reason. Life expectancy from diagnosis to death was very short."

But people didn't just fear the knowledge itself; they worried about who would have access to it. Because no one yet knew how the disease was spread, AIDS victims became pariahs. Victims lost their jobs and health insurance after a positive diagnosis, not to mention the friends who stopped calling and churches who deemed the ill unwelcome.

"There was a tremendous fear of contagion," says Bruner. "Could you touch someone who was infected? Could you use the phone after them or work next to them? Could you sit on a toilet seat after them? What if they coughed or sneezed?"

Life for AIDS patients was nasty, brutish and short. Their mouths would fill with sores so they couldn't eat; they would lose bladder control; they couldn't walk because of the painful lesions covering their bodies-even the soles of their feet.

From Oregon's first AIDS fatality in March 1983, death rates spiraled exponentially, regularly topping 300 casualties a year in the mid-1990s.

The advent of drug therapy in 1996-the so-called "triple cocktail" of medications-sent death rates into a nosedive, for those who could afford the meds. At upwards of $2,000 a month, not everyone could pay to keep themselves alive. And still, the drugs only forestalled death, drawing out the excruciating process.

Luckily, the Oregon Health Plan covered the cost of the cocktail, and progressive local needle exchange programs helped keep Oregon's infection rates below the national average.

At last count, 5,709 Oregonians have been infected with HIV since 1983. The majority-over 3,000 so far-have died.

The death toll is bound to increase. Despite all we've learned and all the cash spent on prevention, public vigilance has waned in recent years and infection rates are climbing: Between 2000 and 2002, new cases in Oregon jumped 40 percent to 284.

"A lot of people have already forgotten about AIDS," Bruner says. "I think we're a society that loves to rally the troops and fight the good fight, address the crisis, pat ourselves on the back, have a victory party and move on to the next daunting issue. It's much harder to dig in our heels for the long haul."


* Finally, civilization comes to Portland-The New York Times starts up daily door-to-door delivery.

* Mayor Bud Clark whoop-whoops it up when he cracks open the crate containing Portlandia's immense visage. The 9-ton statue by sculptor Raymond Kaskey is a year late and thousands of dollars over budget by the time she arrives in Union Station en route to her final perch in front of the Portland Building.

* Julie Christofferson Titchbourne wins a $38 million lawsuit against the Church of Scientology for-she says-falsely promising to make her smarter and healthier and improve her eyesight. Titchbourne doesn't see a dime, however-the judge overturns the verdict two months later.

* Quarterflash records its third album in France for six figures. Public doesn't bite.

* Portland police crack down on cruising along Southeast 82nd Avenue after neighbors complain that the Happy Days fun has become a Mad Max nightmare of hookers, booze and baseball bats.

* Pro-life protests turn deadly when mail bombs are sent to four local abortion clinics. No one is injured. The bombs cap a string of increasingly violent actions by anti-abortion activists.

* Nu Shooz hits the big time with a catchy number, "I Can't Wait."

* WW hits the streets with its inaugural Best of Portland issue. Best Movie Theater: Cinema 21. Best Pro Athlete: Clyde Drexler. Best Head Shop: Head East on Southeast 82nd & Stark. Best Dumpster: Old Town Pizza.

* State medical examiner William J. Brady is suspended after he admits using money from the sale of body parts to fund Christmas parties and purchase office supplies. Two years later, Brady wins $300,000 in damages against the state for wrongful dismissal.

* A funny thing happened on the way to the slaughterhouse: A 600-pound pig falls from the back of a truck on the Banfield Freeway and blocks westbound traffic for two hours. The porker must suspect its destination; attempts to budge the recalcitrant swine end in failure. A state highway crew finally brings home the bacon by hefting the barnyard beast into the truck with a frontloader.

* The Oregon State Lottery kicks off its first ticket sales. Chances of winning the "Pot of Gold" are roughly 1 in 25 million; you're 10 times more likely to get hit by a train. Proceeds are expected to swell state coffers by $40 million a year.

* A new state law allows small breweries to sell beer on-site. The BridgePort BrewPub on Northwest Marshall Street wastes no time in turning on the taps as it becomes the first of a new breed of brewery public house, fueling a microbrew revolution.

* Rock-and-roll's most eligible bachelor, Bruce Springsteen, and local girl Julianne Phillips outwit vigilant paparazzi and tie the knot in a midnight ceremony in Lake O. They divorce in 1989.


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