Lights flashing, siren blaring, security guard Clayton Jasmin screeched to a halt on the southern rise of Mount Tabor and jumped out of the car. With his hand on his holster, he ordered the band of suspicious-looking individuals to drop their weapons.
Jasmin apparently believed he had thwarted a potential disaster. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the city contracted with Jasmin's employer, First Response, to protect city reservoirs on Mount Tabor and in Washington Park from acts of terrorism.
In fact, on Dec. 8 Jasmin had stumbled across not a sinister "sleeper cell" but a group of students engaged in tai chi, the ancient Chinese art of mind/body meditation that resembles slow-motion jazzercise.
Although the tai-chi group was separated from the reservoir by a distance of more than 100 meters, a large embankment and an iron gate, Jasmin demanded that Master Gregory Fong relinquish his wooden scabbard and insisted that student Michael Payne turn in an edgeless "practice sword," items commonly used in tai chi exercises.
Citing an obscure and seldom-enforced rule banning "blades" longer than 4 inches from Portland parks, Jasmin threatened Payne with arrest if he returned to the park with his sword.
"We couldn't believe what was happening," says student Anne Snyder. "We've been practicing tai chi at Mount Tabor for years. People up there had come to know us."
First Response expressed regret and described the guard's actions as "disturbing."
"This is an isolated case where one person clearly overstepped their authority," says Rich Rodgers, an aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten, who oversees Portland's Water Bureau.
This tai chi takedown highlights a major flaw in the city's policy of hiring contractors to patrol its parks. While First Response's upper managers have received training from the city on how to recognize and deal with potential terrorist activity, individual guards have not, according to Mark Knudson of the Water Bureau. "The expectation was that this instruction would be infused in the training of the guards," Knudson says.
First Response employees remain on the beat at both Mount Tabor and Washington parks, but the city is currently assessing whether armed guards are really necessary. Knudson noted that, in light of last weekend's events, "we're revisiting what we're doing here."
The tai-chi incident is hardly the first episode of post-
Sept. 11 hysteria on Mount Tabor. In the first few days of the anthrax scare, anxious citizens reported that the park's reservoirs had been tainted by terrorists. In fact, the mysterious yellow dust floating on the water turned out to be tree pollen.