After a long period of militarization of domestic police forces, and with draconian laws in place such as the USA Patriot Act, it seemed only a matter of time before overt and violent repression of civil dissent would begin. It began Thursday in Portland, Oregon.
A peaceful march estimated at upwards of 3000, including families with children in strollers and elderly in wheelchairs, gathered in downtown Portland. The march was organized to protest visiting President George W. Bush's new forest initiative, the impending war on Iraq and the administration's repeal of civil liberties. Police herded the marchers into a confined area near Bush's hotel, then attacked from at least two directions with batons, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
Members of the media were deliberately targeted. According to the website of Portland Fox affiliate KPDX, police working in coordination with the Secret Service pepper sprayed reporters, producers and photographers covering the march. According to an article on the KPDX website:
"Several of our own KPTV/KPDX employees were sprayed. One of them was photographer Beth English. Her tape shows that a police officer takes a dead-on aim at her face. Beth was treated and released."
Full report: http://www.kpdx.com/Global/story.asp?S=907583&nav=2cFk3gTHAqwk
Troy Pickard, opinions editor of the Panther Newspaper at Chapman University in Orange, California, said he was shot with a rubber bullet at close range. A picture of Pickard taken just before the shot was fired showed no provocation on the part of Pickard or the protestors at a barricade set across their path by police.
"I had come up for a few days and I stumbled into the protest, not even knowing one was planned," said Pickard, 20. "In the course of my photography, I was shot in the right shoulder by a police officer from a distance of 15 feet."
Protestor Hope Marston from Eugene, Oregon said it appeared as though police in riot gear were stealing for a fight before the attack.
"I actually watched a line of them, beating their black jacks against their boots in a Hitleresque rhythm," said Marston. "They were not police; they were paramilitary troopers."
Protestor Jason Maxfield was also at the front of the crowd and had a clear view of the orchestration of the attack by police.
"The police mobilization/attack seemed to be planned and orchestrated rather slowly," said Maxfield. "I watched an officer who appeared to be in command walking up and talking to each officer on the front line. Then one of them started lifting both arms and lowering them rapidly -- presumably some sort of signal -- and suddenly the whole line of them burst forward into the crowd. It certainly didn't seem like they were responding to any threat."
Activist Kyrstin Westwind, a self-employed organic baker who has worked with environmental and consumer protection groups around Portland and worked on Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, further described the attack by police.
"What began as a wounderfully peacful and respectful march turned suddenly into a police riot," said Westwind. "People were being hit with tear gas and rubber bullets at point blank range, riot police were striking people with no obvious provocation [and] squad cars were plowing through the crowd before folks had any opportunity to move."
Westwind, who has medical training, brought water and eyewash in case teargas was used. She said she witnessed and elderly man from her own neighborhood suffer an athsma attack because of teargas fired by police.
"This situation represented a clear medical emergency," said Westwind. "Trained volunteer medics repeatedly approached uniformed police officers (regular uniforms, not the ones in riot gear) seeking an ambulance/paramedics for this gentleman and the police repeatedly refused to make the call or allow access to phones."
Donald Joughin, who attended the protest with his wife and three small children, described how police attacked from the rear of the crowd.
"The march stopped at the intersection of 2nd and Alder,” said Joughin. “We could not see why from our position on the southwest corner of the intersection. Police quickly moved up behind us and a moment or two later sprayed pepper spray into the crowd from the northeast corner of the intersection. The crowd ran toward us to escape the spray."
Joughin asked a police officer how he could get out of the crowd with his small children, and the officer pointed in the direction of the northeast corner, where police were pepper spraying protestors. Seeing the situation getting out of hand Joughin yelled for the officer to let him through the barricade.
"He looked at me, and drew out his can from his hip and sprayed directly at me," said Joughin. "I was at an angle to him and the spray hit my right eye and our three-year-old who I was holding in my right arm. In the same motion he turned the can on my wife who was holding our 10-month-old baby and doused both of their heads entirely from a distance of less than three feet."
Despite the danger posed by pepper spray to small children, it took several minutes of pleading by protestors who were helping the family before an officer in charge finally let the family through to seek medical treatment.
"I yelled at them to let us pass for about two minutes and finally some officer up the line nodded me and the baby through," said Joughin. "They were not going to let my wife and other children out. But after a few minutes of pleading from the crowd and another signal from up the line, they let them out. As we passed, the officers were laughing and said something to the effect of 'that's why you shouldn't bring kids to protests.'"
KPDX also quoted Portland police saying that children should not have been brought to a protest, indicating an attitude on the part of police that violence is inevitable in any such demonstration. A police spokesman told KPDX that members of the media should not expect immunity if they cover a protest.
"There are people who have been apparently pepper sprayed and apparently a reporter or reporters," said police spokesman Henry Groeper in a statement to KPDX . "You get into the crowd, we're not here to control you. You're there to film. But if pepper spray is deployed, I'm sorry but you're gonna be a part of that."
[Buddy Grizzard is an independent writer, researcher and musician from Atlanta, Georgia. Buddy has worked as a volunteer on the campaigns of Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Georgia Green Party gubernatorial candidate Nannette Garrett, and publishes Authentic Press, available in .pdf format at www.authenticpress.net.]