As Portland police clear an uprising from downtown streets on a nightly basis, protesters and their attorneys say cops are putting low-level arrests and unnecessary detention ahead of public health.
Take, for example, the saga told to WW by Jesse Swordfisk. After Portland police arrested Swordfisk, 30, for disorderly conduct as he fled a downtown protest on June 6, he says an officer crowded him into an elevator, along with two other arrestees and two more police officers.
As the elevator lifted its six passengers to the 13th floor of the Multnomah County Justice Center for processing, one protester mentioned they weren't quite socially distanced in the confines of the tight space.
"Yeah, that's kind of out the window at the moment," Swordfisk recalls one of the officers responding.
"But all the protesters were 6 feet apart, right?" another officer joked.
At 1:40 am, Swordfisk called his wife to let her know he'd been arrested. For the next eight hours, he remained in the jail, which at one point became so crowded with protesters, he says, there was standing room only left. At its peak, there were about 30 to 35 people in the communal room, waiting to be released. About a third of the 50 law enforcement staff he interacted with throughout the night wore masks, Swordfisk says.
"Social distancing—whether possible or not—no effort was made there," Swordfisk says. "I would certainly characterize it as a willful disregard for COVID-related guidelines."
Representatives of the Portland Police Bureau did not respond to a request from comment from WW about whether officers were wearing masks or keeping arrested people apart. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office says the agency is committed to fighting the public health crisis, and that all adults in custody are given face coverings upon entering the booking area of the jail on the 13th floor.
"Because of these processes and physical distancing, to date, we have not had an outbreak, and no adults in custody have tested positive for COVID-19," said Chris Liedle, the communications director of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.
But Swordfisk's story matches the accounts of two other protesters arrested on misdemeanor charges. All three spoke on the record. They described a booking process and jail stay that adhered to few of the health guidelines recommended during the pandemic.
That's a danger to the health of both officers and protesters. Yet as COVID-19 intersects with an uprising against racism, health experts warn that mass arrests of protesters in cities across the nation could further spread the virus.
In four U.S. cities— New York, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.—civil rights groups have sued police departments for keeping protesters locked up without protecting their health.
Protesting is a tradition in Portland. But demonstrating during a pandemic is something new.
The intimate, often violent clashes between police and protesters raise questions about how to balance an uprising of anguish that stems from decades of police violence against black Americans, and directives from public health experts to practice social distancing.
At points during the demonstrations, social distancing has all but disappeared. Thousands of protesters mourning the killing of George Floyd have chanted, "Stay together, stay tight!" as they marched across the Burnside Bridge, and again as they braced for riot cops to charge them on downtown streets. The chant, intended to protect stragglers from attack and arrest, contradicts public health guidelines.
Police tear gas has also caused protesters to tear off their masks, to cough, sneeze, spit and rinse their faces. City Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly last week called for a tear gas ban. "It is sadistic," Eudaly said. It also spreads bodily fluids on which the virus can hitch a ride.
Months ago, Portland police tried to lower jail populations to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Then-Chief Jami Resch announced March 20 that the bureau would continue to arrest suspected felons but would halt most misdemeanor arrests during the pandemic. That policy would protect officers and citizens from needless contact.
Yet since May 29, Portland police have arrested more than 150 protesters, nearly all on misdemeanor charges. During that same time frame, 111 people have been booked in the Multnomah County Jail on misdemeanor charges related to the demonstrations, according to the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.
Kenneth Kreuscher, a veteran Portland civil rights lawyer, says it looks like business as usual—including exposing arrestees to each other and holding them unnecessarily.
"In general, the process that the police and the jail have been following has not been changed to accommodate concerns related to COVID," Kreuscher says. "They should be changed and they easily could be changed."
He says police should apply the practice of cite and release—arrest protesters but issue them a citation, like a ticket, with a scheduled court date.
"There's no reason why people need to be processed and booked and held in jail for eight hours for a misdemeanor," Kreuscher says. "What's probably happening is, they're getting people to jail to get them off the streets, and so they can punish the people they're arresting."
When asked when the moratorium on misdemeanor arrests was lifted, Portland Police Bureau spokeswoman Lt. Kristina Jones said the bureau included a specific exemption for public safety risks.
"The executive order related to this included a provision for booking instead of citing if there was an identified ongoing public safety risk," Jones said.
The bureau did not respond to a public records request for a copy of the executive order, and WW could not verify the existence of such a provision in the bureau's press releases or in media coverage about the moratorium.
Jonathan Langvin, 29, is another protester who says police aren't following health guidelines when making arrests. Langvin was arrested June 6 after walking up to the fence surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center to confront police officers about their tactics.
He says he observed several officers covering their badge numbers. "Are you hiding your identity so you can commit war crimes?" he recalls asking the officers.
Police then arrested him for disorderly conduct and interfering with a peace officer. He was placed in the back of a squad car with another protester, sans masks, and driven to the Justice Center, where he was booked on the 13th floor and then taken down to the jail in the basement.
"They were strict about masks for a while, but as the night got going it kind of seemed less of a thing," Langvin says. "Once you're arrested, they're not doing anything to protect people from the lethal virus that's killed 100,000 people in this country."
Langvin says he had to weigh the risk of joining a crowd of thousands of protesters with the threat of the pandemic. He says the human rights issues outweigh the risk to his own health.
Nicholas Barlow, 27, was arrested June 1 while filming the arrest of another protester. The cops told him to move away, and he called them terrorists.
"To me personally, I would feel selfish if [COVID-19] stopped me from trying to go out and do my part and be an ally," Barlow says. "That being said, I understand being in a crowd of thousands of people, masks or no masks, is a dangerous setup. But that just seems like a small risk considering what we're fighting for."
Barlow says he was thinking less about the pandemic and more about his bloodied face and the zip ties tightly squeezing his wrists as police escorted him into the Justice Center on June 1.
As he and two officers rode the elevator to the 13th floor for processing—the same way Swordfisk would do five nights later—Barlow noticed a sign on the wall that reminded people to maintain social distancing.
Someone had written "LOL" on it.