Bring the Noise

Young African-Americans are leading the Portland protests against police violence. But can they make a real difference?

He marched 500 protesters into the downtown mall, pressed through groups of holiday shoppers and led them in a chant of "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Then the protesters raised their hands and marked 4½ minutes of silence in memory of Michael Brown.

Then Waco went out for cheeseburgers.

He sits in the Rialto Poolroom with four compatriots who since Nov. 24 have helped him lead protests of a St. Louis County, Mo., grand jury's refusal to indict a white police officer in the August shooting death of Brown, an unarmed black teenager. 

The protests—which at times have drawn as many as 3,000 in Portland—have also called out the failure of another grand jury to indict a New York cop in the choking death of a 43-year-old man, also African-American and unarmed, named Eric Garner.

Waco is accustomed to standing before a crowd. He's a 22-year-old rapper from St. Johns, a tall and magnetic performer who's gained a local following.

But he now finds himself a vocal, visible—and accidental—leader of a protest movement.

"This isn't just people screaming in the streets," Waco says over his bacon barbecue cheeseburger and fries. "We're organized. The mayor, Charlie, is shook right now. We need to get new officials elected who will represent us."

Isaiah Spriggs, a 23-year-old in-school mentor at Franklin High School, leans across the table: "A lot of people are like, 'What is marching going to do?'"

Waco replies, "What is doing nothing going to do?"

The failure of accountability in the deaths of Brown and Garner have set off protests nationwide. The marches in Portland have continued nearly nightly and show no signs of flagging. Yet the people leading the protests are also reaching a crossroads.

The local protest organizers want to turn their outrage into action by pressing City Hall for serious reforms of the Portland Police Bureau.

Their demands include more federal oversight of the bureau's use of excessive force. They want an end to the "48-hour rule" that allows cops to keep silent for two days after a shooting. And they want to strengthen the independent police review process—with the hope that more citizen control over reviewing excessive-force cases will mean a better chance of getting violent cops fired.

Yet the protesters are up against years of resistance. 

For decades, efforts at significant police reform have faltered in City Hall, even when the unarmed have been killed here in Portland. Mayors and city commissioners have done little to take on the entrenched police union.

Mayor Charlie Hales took office two years ago, promising to make reforms after the U.S. Department of Justice found a "pattern and practice" of police violence against the mentally ill. Hales, who oversees the Police Bureau, has made changes in how officers respond to tense situations. But he failed to keep his promise to do away with the 48-hour rule.

On Dec. 9, Waco and other protesters met with Hales in the mayor's office. Hales pledged to meet with them monthly for the next six months. 

Leaders such as Waco and other young African-American men have helped decide where the marches will go, and orchestrate the crowds' chants and hush the crowds in silent protests. 

But it's unclear whether Waco and his allies have the political clout and sophistication to create lasting change. 

Waco believes they can.

"It's not rocket science," he says. "Charlie Hales needs to realize that he needs to hold the cops accountable for their actions. All we're asking for is reality. We want real action."

On Saturday, Dec. 6, 500 people gathered in a light rain outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Facebook postings from an organization called Don't Shoot Portland had summoned them for a 1 pm gathering.

Handwritten posters read "Black Lives Matter" and "White Silence Is Violence." One woman held up a lid from a white Rubbermaid tub, with letters in marker: "Murder!! Murder most foul! Body cams now!"

At 2:15 pm, the protesters moved north against the traffic in the middle of Southeast 3rd Avenue. Cars froze as the protesters flowed past.

They were all following Waco, who was wearing a black hoodie and military jacket, standing nearly 6 feet and a half tall. He tipped a bullhorn up as he hunched his long, stubbled face toward the mic. "No justice, no peace!" he chanted. "No racist police!"

Waco was born Loren Ware. He grew up in St. Johns, attending Roosevelt High School and listening to the music of activist rapper Lupe Fiasco. 

His first encounters with police were frightening. While in middle school, he and friends walked to a roller-skating rink where he says a police officer confronted them, assumed they were gang members and threatened to unleash a police dog if they didn't answer questions.

"It fuels the anger," Waco says. "It motivated me to show people, I'm not this thug. Don't judge me by the way I look."

Waco started rapping when he was 13 and now appears at venues such as Holocene and Kelly's Olympian. He released his first record last November. His hip-hop name, Glenn Waco, is an acronym for "We Are Change Overall."

He had taken part in activism before, mostly to push back against Portland police shutting down rap shows (“Hip-Hop Stopped,” WW, March 12, 2014). 

The day of the Wilson grand jury verdict, Waco quit his job at a hardware store and headed downtown. 

"How could I miss out on this?" he says. "I don't want to have my grandchildren asking, 'Why didn't you do anything?' I'm just a man with a voice."

Waco's voice has the potential to marshal new supporters—and his music gives him a built-in audience. 

"Seeing me lead people actually inspired people in hip-hop to come out," he says. "People I never thought would even care have hit me up and asked when the next protest is. It's having a ricochet effect."

As the protesters marched up 3rd Avenue, a man driving a silver Hyundai who had been forced to stop decided to lean on his horn. It blared for two minutes as marchers strolled past, some waving their signs in front of his windshield.

The driver was Nick Zukin, the co-founder of Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen who now runs two Mi Mero Mole restaurants. Zukin later posted on Twitter that he agreed with the protesters' aims—but not their methods.

"[Ninety-nine percent] white PDXers protesting racial injustice & police brutality by blocking the 99% from working and holiday shopping," Zukin wrote.

The crowd was more diverse than Zukin described, but the majority of the people who joined in Saturday's march were white—like Nicole Leggett, who brought her three sons.

"They've been oppressing by race for years," Leggett said. "If you don't think you're next, you better get rich. We're all next."

The protest movement called Don't Shoot Portland began in August, after Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The protests, growing in size and frequency since the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York, recall the Occupy Portland movement that took over downtown parks in 2011. Many chants, marching tactics and even the protesters themselves are the same.

But public outrage over police violence in Portland stretches back much further. The city's black community has regularly taken to the streets after high-profile killings of African-Americans by police—including in 1985, after the city saw a chokehold death here.

That's when Lloyd "Tony" Stevenson, a 31-year-old off-duty security guard, went to a 7-Eleven to play video games on the night of April 20, 1985. He helped clerks collar a man who had shoplifted. But when police arrived, they subdued Stevenson.

One officer put him in a "sleeper" hold, also known as a carotid artery hold, that cuts off blood to the head. Stevenson died.

Those protests did not result in reforms. An inquest ruled Stevenson's death negligent homicide, but no one was charged or fired. On the day of Stevenson's funeral, two cops sold T-shirts stenciled with the image of a smoking handgun and the words, "Don't Choke 'Em, Smoke 'Em." They kept their jobs, too.

Other police killings of unarmed African-Americans have ignited outrage and brought some changes in training—but not enough for many activists.

This new protest is organized by Teressa Raiford, a former City Council candidate, and supported by onetime state Rep. Jo Ann Hardesty (D-Portland). They believe they can succeed where others failed because national attention has finally turned to police violence, leaving City Hall little choice but to listen.

They are also placing their hope in the energy of young activists like Waco.

Waco was on the front lines of a protest Nov. 29, when police fired flash-bang grenades at the crowd. Three landed near Waco's feet and exploded.

That helped push him toward becoming a leader. So did Raiford, who encouraged him and other young men to step up.

"That leadership is in their DNA," says Raiford. "Hip-hop has everything to do with this movement. They're overcoming the fear that they'll be shot down—not literally, but that people won't take what they have to say seriously."

Minutes after leading the traffic blockade, Waco stood on the ground floor of Pioneer Place. 

The demonstrators around him chanted, "I can't breathe!"—Eric Garner's last words. They swarmed onto three stories of the mall's atrium.

Looking up at the mall's oversized silver Christmas ornaments, he declared the protesters' intentions to shoppers over a bullhorn.

"We're not looters," he announced. "We're not rioters. We're the American people exercising our right to free speech."

The crowd then stood silent for 4 minutes and 30 seconds, to commemorate the 4 hours and 30 minutes police left Michael Brown's body lying in a Ferguson street.

Moments later, they walked across the street to block the glass entrance to the Apple Store. When an Apple employee asked them to stop disrupting business, the demonstrators chanted, "We're trying to stop a murder!" Waco stood with his fist in the air and his head bowed, silent.

Later, at the Rialto, Waco acknowledges he still doesn't know many of the details of the Portland Police Bureau policies he wants changed. 

"I've been reluctant to step into a leadership role," Waco says, "because I don't feel I'm ready. I need to read more. I had somebody say, 'Yo, that's the trick: You're never ready.'"

Waco is constantly on Instagram, the photo-sharing app that's his social-media platform of choice. At the Rialto, Waco posts black-and-white photos of himself at marches.

"You look at these pictures in black-and-white," says one of the people at the table. "It looks like the civil-rights movement."

“It is the civil-rights movement,” Spriggs says. 

"This has been happening," Waco says. "Before Eric Garner, we had a Tony Stevenson in 1985. Portland had its own Eric Garner—on MLK [Boulevard]. This is what we need to stop.” 

WW intern Miller Resor contributed to this story.

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