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Was Anything Accomplished By Racial Justice Protests In The Pacific-Northwest?


We are nearing the end of a year that will be known among many things as a year of protest. Some of the most intense and sustained protests against police misconduct came in two big cities of the Pacific Northwest - Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash. Now the protests are smaller and less frequent, which gives us a chance to take a serious look at how they progressed, how they declined and what, if anything, they achieved. NPR's Martin Kaste is in Seattle and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson is in Portland. Welcome to you both.



INSKEEP: Jonathan, what sticks in your mind from these months of protests?

LEVINSON: Since the end of May, we've had nights with over 10,000 people in the streets. We had weeks of federal law enforcement officers firing less-than-lethal munitions, commonly called rubber bullets, and firing tear gas on groups of mostly nonviolent protesters. Protesters have received major head injuries from police. This week, we learned from a Portland police audit that the department has used force against protesters more than 6,000 times this year. That figure includes tear gas use, impact munitions, baton strikes, you know, pushes and shoves. And that's just what was documented. Because of the way these are tallied and recorded, that's likely an undercount.

INSKEEP: Wow. A new number that gives us at least some sense of how intense these protests were. And of course, at one point, President Trump's administration sent in federal law enforcement officials. It made a lot of headlines. What, though, did people want?

LEVINSON: Portlanders have had a fraught relationship with the police for a long time. In May, protesters initially called for a 50 - five zero - million dollar cut to their budget. And in June, the city passed a $15 million cut, which eliminated a few controversial police programs. More recently, attempts to make further cuts to the budget, however, did not succeed.

INSKEEP: OK. So how do things look on the streets now?

LEVINSON: The number of people taking to the streets has dwindled recently. In August and September, they were showing up in the low hundreds, and more recently, it's even smaller than that. And there are some divisions as to what they're protesting. Some activists in the city say what had been a focus on anti-racism has morphed into general anti-establishment protests and sort of directionless vandalism for its own sake. And their tactics have changed a little, too. On two occasions now, they've gone to the home of a city commissioner who was a key vote on a police budget cut. They went to his house in the middle of the night to pressure him to vote for the cut. And then they went back after he voted against it and vandalized his home.

INSKEEP: Wow. So the protests have become less widespread but also the remaining protests a little less mainstream, a little more extreme. Now, that's Portland. What about in Seattle, Martin? How have things evolved where you are?

KASTE: Well, Steve, yeah, I think that dwindling is happening here, too. I mean, people often tend to kind of confuse Portland and Seattle when they're talking about this issue. And there are some similarities, like the city government here has also cut the police budget in response to protests. But there are some important differences, too, between the cities. I'd say there's more community pushback here in Seattle against some of the more extreme aspects of the protests. You might remember that protest zone in the heart of the city, the sort of anti-police zone in June. Well, the businesses in that zone sued the city for abandoning them. And they got a lot of sympathy when they did that. There's sort of just a general anger about the more extreme groups that go out at night and direct action-type protests and break windows, people in black hoodies. And even the lawyer for Black Lives Matter here in Seattle says he doesn't like those people. David Perez is the attorney on some federal litigation against the police about their crowd control tactics. But he says the protesters who go too far make his job so much harder and he calls them bozos.

DAVID PEREZ: Bozos ought to be arrested. So they should be charged. You have no right to break a window. I don't care if it's Starbucks or mom and pop coffee shop. You don't get to break their windows. And when you do, you ought to be held accountable.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear, that is the lawyer for Black Lives Matter.

KASTE: That's right. I mean, he is still suing. He's part of this lawsuit against the police department about their crowd control tactics. But he says under pressure from lawsuits like this, the police have gotten better, in his opinion. You know, you don't see the use of tear gas and flash-bang grenades. You see them shadowing protest groups, looking for lawbreakers, people obstructing traffic on important streets or breaking windows and plucking them out, arresting them specifically, but letting the bigger protest go on. Here's a little video that the police department itself uploaded during election week sort of capturing the tone they're trying to set when talking to crowds blocking a street.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We ask - we please ask that you'd move and continue to move. We're hear to support your rights to free speech and assembly. We're here to assist in the demonstration. We ask that you continue to move. I apologize to the community that we've had to make this announcement.

KASTE: Now, it should be pointed out that the police did arrest people that night for specific charges like property damage. And it should also be noted that these crowds are smaller, so this tactic might just be more doable.

INSKEEP: Jonathan, I wonder if there's another factor in the decline of these protests. The election is over and, of course, there was a lot of tension over it.

LEVINSON: Yeah, but, you know, these aren't homogenous groups. They're deliberately leaderless. So it's tough to identify a single issue that influences their numbers. I think there's a combination of factors that have led to smaller turnout. People are exhausted. These protests can be dangerous. It's been more than five months now of protests and really violent nights with law enforcement. Many protesters have been arrested multiple times, and it's often for very low-level offenses, like interfering with a peace (ph) officer. But just getting arrested, spending the night in jail, is traumatic. I think the election results may have provided a sense of relief for some people in the city. The weather has changed. It's starting to rain here. The governor just instituted a new shutdown order, but up until recently, people were slowly starting to go back to work, and that likely impacted turnout also.

INSKEEP: What comes next?

LEVINSON: Well, there are a lot of Black activists who were organizing protests early in the summer who are now working to advance policies, to cut police budgets, to strengthen police oversight, invest in the community. And overall, the protest message resonates with voters here. The mayor was widely seen as being an ineffective leader during the protests. He just won reelection but didn't win an outright majority. So he's coming into a second term without a clear mandate and with a majority of voters supporting some of these really substantial changes to policing in the city. Eighty percent of voters just supported a new police oversight board.

INSKEEP: Wow. What do the police think of that?

LEVINSON: Well, they're not happy. The police union has filed a grievance over the new board and has promised to challenge it in court. But their union contract is up for negotiation in January. And the hope among city leaders is that voter sentiment will help win some concessions. The city council is already backtracking on some of these additional proposed police budget cuts. Perhaps ominously, Jo Ann Hardesty, who's currently the only Black commissioner and the driving force in city government behind these cuts, said she knew that Black lives wouldn't matter for long.

INSKEEP: A sense of what's changed and what has not in Portland and Seattle from Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland and NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Thanks to you both.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE'S "VOID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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