Red-Pepper Blues

Last Thursday's visit by George W. Bush may have seemed like a return to the bad old days of cop-protester clashes, but it actually represented a significant escalation of the Portland Police Bureau's crowd-control efforts.

On at least two occasions, police used red-pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse a mostly peaceful crowd behind police barricades around the downtown Hilton, where Bush spoke at a fundraiser for Sen. Gordon Smith.

When police wanted the crowd to move back, they would order them to disperse, then start advancing. Many officers swept their red cans of pepper spray back and forth, spraying protesters and non-protesters alike--even some who were attempting to comply with the order to disperse.

This represented a break from past police practice, in which so-called less-lethal weapons have been used more discriminately, typically against specific targets. Crowds were pushed back with batons and intimidation--not pepper spray.

Assistant Chief Greg Clark, who was in charge of this operation, told WW that police first used the spray at Southwest 5th Avenue and Taylor Street in response to the crowd blocking the entry of several reinforcement units, with protesters even jumping onto the hood of a police car.

But according to multiple sources as well as media accounts, the hood-jumping incident did not occur until after the widespread use of red-pepper spray.

Denise Stone, a citizens' committee member for the city's Office of Independent Police Review office, and two IPR staff members were pepper-sprayed while standing off to the side, observing. The three have reportedly told IPR Director Richard Rosenthal that they saw no provocation by protesters for the mass spraying. Similarly, other non-protesters told WW the crowd had been festive and non-threatening.

Another point of controversy is the degree of warning given. Assistant Chief Clark maintained that each mass-spraying commenced only after the crowd was given three to five orders to disperse or risk arrest.

But at 5th and Taylor, numerous bystanders and non-protesters said they heard no warnings. "If there were any warnings, I did not hear them," says the IPR's Stone.

Beth English, a photojournalist with Channel 12, was taken to the hospital after an officer blasted her in the face from about a foot away. Speaking on her own behalf and not for KPTV, she told WW that she heard one warning, and only because she happened to be watching the commanding officer speak into the microphone. Others were hard-pressed to hear it thanks to a poor-quality police loudspeaker, she said.

"They were telling us to move--and there was literally no place for us to go," she says. "There was a throng of people behind us, and they were pushing us forward."

In 2000, after studying a clash between protesters and cops on May Day, Chief Mark Kroeker issued a report saying that less-lethal weapons, such as pepper spray and rubber bullets, should not be used to break up crowds. Thursday's tactics seemed to violate that policy.

Kroeker also formed a Rapid Response Team to employ state-of-the-art crowd-control training. One RRT member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told WW that Thursday's use of pepper spray ran counter to the unit's training. "I heard some guys saying, 'What is this bullshit?'" says the officer. "We had never trained with that tactic."

Among those pepper-sprayed were several kids, including the 10-month-old and 3-year-old children of protester Don Joughin.

Dr. Woodhall Stopford of Duke University, who has researched the hazards of pepper spray, told WW that pepper spray has been linked to serious injury and death. He says the danger is theoretically greater to children than to adults. "These sprays have never been evaluated for safety, period," says Stopford.

Because of its risks, red-pepper spray should not be used indiscriminately on a crowd unless officers are in jeopardy, says Lt. Col. Ron Madrid, who teaches a class in less-lethal weaponry for the Marines at their base in Quantico, Va. "It's not like you use it as a water cannon, hosing everybody down," he says.

Assistant Chief Clark defended the use of spray as a "highly effective tool." Asked about children subjected to pepper spray, Clark told WW it was their parents' fault for bringing them to the rally.

Still another issue was the use of rubber bullets, which appeared to be fired into the crowd as it retreated on Broadway near the Heathman. Clark, who initially denied the use of rubber bullets at that location, said the bullets are only aimed below the waist and do not bounce once they hit the ground, instead skimming along at street-level.

But, in reality, all rubber bullets bounce, and therefore could take out an eye if used in an "uncontrolled manner," says Madrid.

Thursday's crowd was not blameless, but almost all the misbehavior occurred after the first mass-spraying. Besides pushing one cop to the ground, scrawling graffiti and slashing the tires of an Oregon State Police cruiser, protesters locked arms to block an entrance to the Heathman.

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