Forceful Arrest of Student Climate Protesters Draws Condemnation From Portland Civic Leaders

“It was shocking to see police officers push into a group of children, and toss two boys to the ground to be handcuffed,” Nkenge Harmon Johnson tells WW.

September 20, 2019 | Climate Strike | Portland, OR. (Justin Katigbak)

The president of the Urban League of Portland is among the observers condemning the forceful arrest of two students during Friday's climate strike.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the Urban League's president and CEO, says she's troubled by videos showing Portland police officers shoving their way through a crowd of white teenagers to pull a black teenager from their midst.

"It was shocking to see police officers push into a group of children, and toss two boys to the ground to be handcuffed," Harmon Johnson tells WW. "There was no emergency requiring that use of force. No matter which sidewalk rule police claim to have been enforcing, it was not acceptable behavior from public safety officers toward our young people."

Harmon Johnson's comments come in the wake of several videos that have been viewed more than half a million times on social media and have drawn widespread ire.

The first video shows officers trying to yank two teenagers down from a metal railing on the Hawthorne Bridge. The second shows the officers later pushing through a group of student protesters to arrest one teen—apparently one of the two who was earlier standing on the railing.

The officers' actions have drawn denunciations across social media, including from Sarah Iannarone, a candidate for mayor. "I've said it before and will say it again: the Portland Police are out of control and need to be reined in," she wrote Saturday.

The Oregonian examined both these videos on Saturday, and provided a third showing police handcuffing two teens—one black, one white—on the pavement of the bridge as cars passed.

The Portland Police Bureau issued a statement Friday evening explaining its officers' actions. The statement said police saw several teenagers standing in a divider between car traffic and the sidewalk, but that only one refused to leave.

"After numerous requests, orders, and warnings that he would be arrested, the marcher still refused to get down," the statement says. "He was observed leaning out into the traffic lane causing vehicle drivers to abruptly apply their brakes. Officers were concerned about the extremely unsafe circumstance and saw arrest as the only option."

The statement says police waited to make an arrest until the teenager was in a safer location. That's when they pushed through the crowd—and arrested the teenager along with a second teenager who tried to stop the arrest. Police say neither teenager was injured, and both were "returned to the custody of responsible adults."

Mayor Ted Wheeler's office says the mayor will wait to comment until he sees the results of an internal review.

"The Mayor's office is aware of the incident and has been in touch with the Police Bureau regarding it," says Wheeler's spokesman Timothy Becker. "We look forward to learning the results of their thorough review."

The arrests came midway through a march by students demanding action from City Hall and others on climate change. The protest was part of a worldwide strike calling for policy change in the face of a rapidly warming planet.

The students are the second group to march across the Hawthorne Bridge in a month. On Aug. 17, a group of Proud Boys and other right-wing protesters walked across the bridge, with the permission of police who wanted to keep them separated from antifascists.

Harmon Johnson noted that juxtaposition.

"The use of force and arrests against the youth are especially troubling because we've seen the same police department act with deference and calm when facing rallies packed with adult white supremacists," she says. "In fact, officers work together to shut down roads and bridges to keep those haters safe from even approaching other individuals and vehicles. The police are adept at helping them move safely across the city. Why didn't PPB ensure the same for our children during their peaceful civic action?"

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