The relationship between Portland’s Black community and its police force has been broken for as long as anyone can remember. Since the 1980s, Richard Brown has worked to mend it.
Brown, now 82, started attending Portland protests as a photographer—chiefly for African American newspaper The Portland Observer (although he freelanced for other publications, including WW). Soon, he found himself crossing over to join the activists—especially the Black United Front, which demanded an end to school busing programs that placed the burden of reintegration on Black children.
“I had taken my pictures and was still sitting around, and something was said, and I just said something,” Brown recalls. “It was like the dam broke, and I’ve been saying something ever since.”
Where Brown made his voice loudest was around the issue of community policing: the idea that cops needed to get out of their squad cars and become resources in Black neighborhoods, not merely threats to them. For 14 years, twice a week, he has driven to the police academy in Salem and offered advice to recruits.
In March, Brown released a memoir of his activism, This Is Not for You. The book couldn’t be more timely: It arrives after a year in which the tactics and aims of protesters for racial justice have been debated with unparalleled ferocity.
Brown discusses his memoir at a virtual event hosted by Broadway Books this Wednesday, June 16. We sat down last week for a conversation about what’s changed in the past 45 years in Portland, and what’s stayed the same.
WW: For the past 14 years, you’ve been driving down to the police academy in Salem. What do you do there?
Richard Brown: I go down there twice a week, and I get to talk to them about how what they’re being taught is being viewed by the community. Last week, I sat in a classroom where they were talking about the Constitution and all these great things the Constitution means to us. I let them know that when the Constitution was written, it didn’t apply to Black folks. I let them know: “Don’t be mad because people say they hate the police. Try to find out why they’re saying that.”
One of the things that really bugs me is how often I hear the statement “Folks want to get rid of the cops.” I don’t see many people on the streets that think we can function without a police force, but down at the academy, not a day goes by that I don’t hear that people want to get rid of the police. And I tell them that’s not the fact. The fact is that people are not satisfied with the way you’re doing stuff.
For years, you did ride-alongs with the Portland police. In your book, you talk about how hard it was to witness some of those interactions. What was the worst?
The worst situation for me was being in the police car and looking at the depths to which people go to survive. We don’t talk about those things. We think the worst thing that happens is that somebody gets shot or somebody gets hurt. The worst thing is that those people are in that situation to start with.
It seems like part of what makes you so effective as an activist is that you speak the language of activism and you also speak the language of police. How did that happen?
When I was younger, I’d just say what I had to say the way I had to say it and as loud as I wanted to say it. And eventually I learned that it’s easy to minimize and find something wrong with the messenger, and if all I’m perceived as is a loudmouth, it’s easy to minimize me.
During anti-apartheid work, South Africa had an honorary consulate here, and we decided that we were going to picket a couple times a week and stop them from working. We sat down with the police and said, “We’re going to do this, and they’re going to call the cops, and you’re going to come and arrest somebody. But we don’t have to have the confrontation. We will tell you who you can arrest if you need to arrest someone, and then everybody will leave.”
And we did that until the South African embassy closed down. We rode up the elevator with the cop, got on their desks, wouldn’t let them work, and when they decided they’d had enough, the cop arrested somebody. It was the same cop every time. It got to the point where we could laugh going up and coming down. That let me know that there were police who could deal with Black people just like they deal with white people.
What is your take on what’s happening now in Portland? The window smashing and vandalism?
It’s the same issue, only different times. We get up in arms about it, and then people go back to sleep and they wake up and raise hell, and then they go back to sleep and they wake up, and it’s just a rehashing of the same thing.
The reason there was so much destruction is because it was white people tearing stuff up. It was the children of the people running the businesses downtown, the people who live up in the West Hills, the people who go to the good schools. It was their children and their relatives fed up with this stuff and finally realizing that this was what Black folks were saying all the time. And if the cops go out there and shoot one of those [white] youngsters, they’ve got hell to pay for that. It wouldn’t have lasted this long if it had been Black people.
It pisses me off that it took that. And because the destruction hasn’t stopped, the emphasis isn’t any longer on Black lives. It’s on cleaning up downtown. It’s about getting the economy back together. I don’t care about the economy. I don’t care about downtown being torn up.
What accomplishment of your activism are you the proudest of?
In the mid-’90s, we went to the Police Bureau and asked them for the most dangerous area in the precinct. They told us it was Beech Street. The Black United Front decided we were going to do a foot patrol for five hours a night, seven nights a week. Every night for months, we walked. We had people come from Hillsboro, Multnomah Village, Gresham to walk the streets with us. Crimes decreased tremendously. Not only while we were patrolling, but all the time. And it had a ripple effect on other nearby streets.
How do you think policing has changed in the past 40 years in Portland, and what’s stayed the same?
The changes for me are like grass growing. I don’t notice it, it’s so slow. Are things better? Heck no. And it’s not just police. We don’t address all of the issues that create these problems. There was a riot, so we address the torn-up downtown but ignore the school system, jobs, housing, the ability to live a decent life. All of those things come into play, but we never deal with them, so nothing changes.
You’ve been doing this work for so long. How do you keep your morale up and keep showing up every day to do this work?
Because when I get discouraged, I sit down to look at the grass and see, “Oh, it did grow a quarter of an inch,” and if I can attach my fingerprint to that quarter-inch of grass, that gets me fired up.
GO: Richard Brown discusses This Is Not for You in a virtual event at 6 pm Wednesday, June 16. Free. To register, visit broadwaybooks.net.