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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > September

Peaceful Bush protest a success

Organizers say they achieved their goal despite police efforts to provoke violence. Witnesses say police actions at end of day seemed intended to target and intimidate young activists as they were attempting to leave Columbia Park.

By Dave Mazza

The “Portland Says No to Bush” organizers are celebrating what they are calling an enormous success. The Aug. 21 demonstration drew over 4,000 people to the University of Portland where Bush was attending a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser. The largely peaceful protest also helped educate the public about the Bush agenda and start bringing together disparate groups to revitalize the city’s flagging peace movement. The only sour note was what witnesses are describing as a deliberate attack by police on demonstrators as they were peacefully returning to Columbia Park, the starting point for the morning’s march.

“We certainly consider it a success when we get 4,000 out in the street on a work day,” stated Geoff McNamara, one of the organizers of “Portland Says No to Bush.” “We certainly consider it a success when we get 4,000 out in the street on a work day," stated Geoff McNamara, one of the organizers of "Portland Says No to Bush.” “We made it clear that Bush can’t show his face in this town without angry opposition and that Bush and those who support him financially have a Right-wing agenda of war and inequality that will not be welcome in this town.”

Organizers were anxious to accomplish more public education than has been occurring at recent protests. In particular, they wanted to avoid having the entire event framed by corporate media that only focuses on protester-police clashes and not the underlying reasons people are turning out into the streets. According to McNamara, “Portland Says No to Bush” achieved this through “poster campaigns, workshops and media campaigns working to make people in Portland aware of the attacks on their civil rights, loss of income and a variety of other issues.”

One of the most significant public education measures taken — and one sorely lacking in previous protests — was organized door-to-door canvassing conducted the day before the protest. In part, the canvass was a way to tell residents around the University of Portland what was going to take place and to assure them the protesters would respect their property — a markedly different message than the one put out by police the day of the event that warned homeowners to put their valuables in a safe place and to remove planters and other items from the front of their homes. The canvassing also gave organizers a chance to engage residents in a longer discussion about the issues. McNamara stated that more residents than expected voiced their own dislike of Bush.

The Aug. 21 action also showed a coming together of different elements of the movement. Black-clad anarchists and Code Pink members, for example, marched together. The former asked protesters to respect residents’ property and to pick up litter along the route. Code Pink members were on hand to support the anarchist youth when police chose to confront them, helping deter police escalation of the situation.

As organizers expected, Portland police were intent on making a show of force from the outset of the protest, even calling in assistance from Salem, whose police department sent riot police and an armored car. Multnomah County sheriff deputies and Oregon State Police were also on hand. The police, however, showed themselves unprepared for the decentralized march kicking off the protest. While most marchers stayed to the “permitted” route, others broke off from the starting point, rejoining the main body along the parade route. In most cases these “tributary marches” passed through the neighborhood unnoticed until they neared the march again, prompting police to detach squadrons of officers to “contain” them. At one point the main body of marchers split in two as the Radical Cheerleaders called out “Which way? This way?” The tactic again caught police by surprise, forcing them to scramble to ensure both groups were adequately covered.

Although these tactics were clearly causing police tempers to flare, no serious police encounters occurred until the close of the protest. Until then, one woman was arrested for crossing the police line at the Chiles Center, while another protester was briefly stopped and then released while marching through the neighborhood.

According to Kristian Williams of Rose City Copwatch - who along with pdxCOPWATCH and Portland Copwatch were on hand to observe police conduct — serious problems with the police did not arise until after 2:00 p.m., when people were converging back on Columbia Park. People were preparing to leave when word came that one of the buses transporting donors from the Bush fundraiser would shortly be passing the park. When the bus arrived, 20-30 protesters blocked its path but left the remainder of N. Lombard Blvd. unobstructed - as Williams noted, an ambulance came by at this point and had no difficulty proceeding past the blocked bus. Within a few minutes, the handful of officers on the scene were joined by dozens of bicycle police, riot squads from Portland and the Oregon State Police, and armored cars. Police were not only deployed around the bus but on both sides and down the center of Lombard, blocking all lanes of traffic. Protesters were advised to move or be arrested. One demonstrator was arrested before the rest of the crowd moved back onto the sidewalk and the bus was able to continue on its way.

At this point, police and protesters seemed to have reached a peaceful standoff. Protesters complied with police orders to move into the park. Lombard was open to traffic again except for the center lane, still blocked by a line of riot police. Police began leaving the scene squad by squad while protesters resumed their preparations to leave.

“The event seemed to be over,” stated Williams. “Then about five officers, including at least one sergeant, who were walking up Lombard past the crowd, stopped at what looked like a pre-determined point and charged the crowd, grabbing a young woman and pulling her into the street.”

As people moved towards the street to see what was happening, “dozens and dozens of cops” arrived back at the scene and rushed into the crowd, according to Williams and other witnesses. Pepper spray was used on some portions of the crowd. After a few minutes, the police announced the park was closed and people were ordered to leave — as they had been doing prior to the arrest. Although people were clearly trying to comply with the police order, that became increasingly difficult as lines of police boxed in the protesters, leaving an exit route that continued to shrink. Williams estimates that 50 to 70 people were caught in this police deployment. Most looked like younger people, but others were present, including attorney Stu Sugarman. Despite the obstacle presented by the police tactics, people managed to move onto the sidewalk and down the street before breaking up and crossing the street. This finally prompted the police to retreat to an opposite corner, where they remained until everyone had left.

Williams pointed out that the entire event after the tour bus left seemed bizarre, since during the entire time police were pushing protesters out of the park on one side of Lombard, another crowd of protesters stood on the opposite side of the street unmolested. He stated that protesters who were able to get ahead of the police and cross to the other side were left alone by the police, as if they had made it “home” to safety. The police action appeared to have little to do with public safety and much more to do with either targeting specific activists for arrest or trying to intimidate protesters the police viewed as more dangerous.

Between seven and ten activists were arrested during the course of the day. As this issue goes to press, the status of these arrests is unknown. No serious injuries were reported.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003