Following the Nov. 24 announcement that a grand jury had decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri Officer Darren Wilson on charges of murder against unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown, Portland community members convened on Tuesday in front of the Portland Justice Center.
Organized by the Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition, between one and two thousand gathered to protest what they deemed institutionalized racism with the observant buzz of choppers overhead and the watchful eye of police officers from the sidelines.
“We must use these moments of injustice as a movement—a movement that will raise social consciousness, a movement that will mobilize and organize citizens, a movement that will work to change laws, to change the system and to change the soul of America,” said Dr. LeRoy Haynes, chair of the AMA Coalition.
The night before, nearly 200 protesters took to the streets for a demonstration in solidarity with the Brown family and in opposition of the grand jury’s ruling. Beginning in the south Park Blocks, protestors blocked intersections and marched onto the steps of the Justice Center. The crowd quickly dispersed after some began chants of “All cops in the ground, justice for Michael Brown,” and a banner bearing the phrase “Fuck you, neoliberal fascist pigs,” was unfurled.
Mayor Charlie Hales also responded to the grand jury’s decision and recognized the community’s need to demonstrate.
“The situation in Ferguson did not occur in a vacuum,” Mayor Hales said in a statement. “We are fully prepared to support the people who choose to publicly demonstrate. We will work to facilitate safety for all demonstrations.”
The jury’s decision reignited longstanding frustration for racial marginalization of America, one that is not all-too foreign to the Portland community, Dr. Haynes said.
“Hopes have been crushed,” Dr. Haynes said. “Once again, we realize that the criminal justice system in America is painted with racial bias. We know from our own experience here in the city of Portland the brokenness of the criminal justice system and law enforcement.”
Dr. Haynes named Kendra James, James Chasse, Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis as he recounted the times that, in Portland alone, justice was denied to families of color, of the poor and the mentally ill. It has been more than 10 years since Kendra James, an African-American woman, was fatally shot in 2003 by law enforcement and a grand jury declined to bring her killing officer to trial.
“History is calling us once again as a noble people in America,” Dr. Haynes said.
When one speaker asked the members of the crowd who identified as white to raise their hands, audience members seemed unsure whether to feel surprised or not that the majority of the crowd was, in fact, white. Multicultural Affairs Director for the Associated Students of Portland State University Tony Funchess said he wasn’t necessarily surprised.
“There should have been a whole lot more from our community, but you have to understand what we’ve been through,” Funchess said.
“When we show up it’s not, ‘We’re gonna show up for a couple hours or it’s cute and it’s fun and we’re out here.’ It’s really a life and death scenario for us and our community,” Funchess said. “There is a level of safety we have [to] take to protect ourselves while we are pained with the injustices that are happening in our communities. So I thank each and every one of you showing up and holding space for someone who cannot be here, for someone whose voice was silenced.”
Funchess has been working with his colleagues within ASPSU to provide students with supportive space. On the night before the protest, PSU held a vigil for students. ASPSU also provided creative art space for students to express themselves and the Student Health and Counseling Center has been available to students as well.
“Folks are hurt. We all want to believe that this time will be the time and it’s very painful to be let down like that. It’s very painful to be let down over and over again,” Funchess said.
Despite speaker pleas for protesters to remain peaceful, the impassioned chants boiled over and protesters began to shout that they wanted to do more than gather.
“Don’t sing to Jesus, he’s dead!” one protester yelled out as Marilyn Keller, a Portland singer, sang a hymn.
“I don’t know why you guys don’t shut it down, right now!” another protester yelled at the AMA organizers at the podium. He turned to the audience, “You’re just going to march when you’re told?”
The organizing demonstrators maintained that the protest was to remain peaceful. When it was clear that some of the audience members were not going to settle for peace, Dr. Haynes addressed them: Those who wish to protest peacefully, move to the south side of the Justice Center; those who wish to exact violence, continue marching north.
Those who continued marching eventually disrupted traffic by entering and temporarily disrupting traffic on both I-5 and I-84, as well as the Morrison, the Burnside and the Marquam bridges. Police deployed pepper spray and seven were arrested. By 10 p.m. the crowds began to disperse.
Back at the Justice Center, Dr. Haynes shook his head and remarked that the blind could not lead the blind. Still, the crowd marched off into the dark and chanted, “No justice! No peace!”
Portland’s Ferguson solidarity demonstrations will continue on Saturday at 6 p.m., with protestors planning to convene at the Justice Center.