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A legacy of suspicion

When the police intelligence unit cast its spy nets, the wider black community got caught

Ron Herndon thinks the Portland police spy on him.

Why?

Consider these facts, gleaned recently from Portland's secret political-intelligence files. Police spied on Herndon:

• In 1968, when, as one of the few black students at Reed College, he persuaded the college's administration to adopt a Black Studies program.

• In 1970, when he founded the Black Education Center, a now-defunct independent school, and the Talking Drum Bookstore in Northeast Portland.

• In 1978, when he set up the Portland chapter of the Black United Front to save schools in primarily black areas of Northeast Portland.

• In 1982, when he organized a one-day boycott of public schools by more than 4,000 black students to force the school board to keep Tubman Middle School open.

• In 1984, when he led 300 Portlanders on a peaceful march in support of Nelson Mandela and against the racist government of South Africa.

And Herndon believes that police spied on him throughout the 1990s, when he spoke out for low-income housing, fair policing and higher achievement for minority and poor students in Portland's public schools.

During his three decades as an activist, Herndon was arrested just once Ñ for trespassing the offices of South Africa's honorary consul in 1984 to pressure the racist South African government to move its diplomats out of Portland.

Every intelligence file in the bureau's possession has been audited by the city attorney's office to make sure that nobody is being targeted by the police based on politics, race or religion, says Sgt. Brian Schmautz, the public information officer for the Portland Police Bureau.

'We are not engaged in gathering information on people who have no criminal nexus or terrorist nexus,' says Police Chief Mark Kroeker. He says past abuses have been dealt with.

Herndon doesn't buy it. He notes that the city's role in the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force is as secretive as was the surveillance of the past. 'I can see this file-building easily occurring' now, he says.

The evidence of earlier spying on Herndon was not disclosed by police. It came to his attention via the Tribune's examination of police bureau intelligence files compiled from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, which recently were obtained by the newspaper. The files show that for two decades police built dossiers on hundreds of peaceful organizations, often in violation of bureau policy.

'There's no doubt the police overreached,' says Charles Jordan, former city commissioner in charge of the police bureau from 1971 to 1981 and now director of Portland Parks & Recreation.

Jordan says that the scars from those earlier times remain today.

'It makes it harder for us to convince people in the black community that if they are law-abiding citizens they will get a fair shake,' he says.

Activism earns respect, suspicion

Herndon, now 56, was born in Coffeyville, Kan. He came to Portland in 1968 to attend Reed College, where he graduated with a degree in history in 1970.

His activism during the years brought him public respect and accolades. He currently is chairman of the board of the National Head Start Association.

It infuriates Herndon that intelligence officers considered him dangerous.

'We always prided ourselves on the fact that no one was ever hurt at one of our demonstrations,' Herndon says. 'We provided security and told the police ahead of time exactly what we were going to do.'

Herndon's civic and political work brought him frequent attention from police bureau intelligence officers.

The files show that undercover officers maintained surveillance of Herndon's Northeast Portland home in the early 1980s, recording license plate numbers and running checks on visitors.

Police officers also took down the license plate numbers of people attending a series of controversial school board meetings in 1982. Herndon and dozens of other members of the Black United Front demonstrated at the meetings to demand that Tubman Middle School in North Portland be kept open. The protests were loud and passionate and caused one board meeting to end abruptly, but there were no injuries or arrests.

Nowhere in the two folders stuffed with material on the Black United Front are there reports of criminal wrongdoing. There is, however, plenty of personal information about Herndon.

One example: A 1980 newspaper clipping tells of Herndon being elected secretary of the national Black United Front. Someone has scribbled a note to veteran intelligence officer Winfield Falk, who handled political surveillance: 'Win, this should confirm your suspicions Ñ National Organization.'

Then there is the photograph in the files of several black children playing music. On the back of the picture someone wrote a note tentatively identifying one of the musicians as Herndon's son.

The identification turned out to be incorrect, but the idea still angers Herndon.

'They have no right to follow and hide behind bushes and peek into people's lives when those people weren't breaking the law,' Herndon says. 'Why would they even think of collecting pictures of people's children?'

Herndon says that he asked for his FBI file in the 1970s. The file was revealing. It said he was a member of the Black Panther Party, although he wasn't. It also said he traveled to Lebanon, although he hadn't.

He didn't ask Portland police if they had a file on him.

'My feeling was that they never would admit to it,' he says.

Herndon says he is outraged at the extent of the police bureau's spying campaign on Portland's political groups. 'It is a horrible stain on the history of this city that people in some of the highest positions in government either knew about this or looked the other way,' he says.

The surveillance of Herndon's home occurred while Jordan was police commissioner. Jordan says he and other elected officials knew very little about what the city's intelligence officers did.

Jordan points out that while he was a city commissioner, he fought for citizen oversight of the police. The full transcript of his debate over the issue with the head of the police union remains intact two decades later, in an intelligence file labeled 'Police ÐÊAnti.'

A covert war

The surveillance of Portland's black community had its roots in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, when legendary FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover labeled the Black Panther Party the greatest threat to the security of the United States.

That characterization incited a covert war that played out in every city in the nation.

'It was like you were being hunted,' recalls Kent Ford, who served as captain of the Portland chapter of the Panthers and now is a weight training coach at Matt Dishman Community Center in Northeast Portland. 'There were nights you'd just sit up all night long at the front door with a shotgun, waiting for a raid.'

The Black Panthers warranted scrutiny. They were an armed, militant group advocating revolutionary struggle.

In the early 1970s, the police files show that several Northeast Portland business owners complained that the Panthers were shaking them down to fund free clinics and a breakfast program. The Panthers were sending in a squad of tough-looking youths to solicit money in an intimidating manner as 'fire insurance,' business owners complained.

The Portland Panthers were never prosecuted for extortion.

Ford went through three trials in 1970, two criminal and one civil. He was acquitted of inciting a riot but found guilty of disorderly conduct for insulting a police officer with profane language.

Ford also won a $6,000 settlement from the police for a beating he received during a demonstration.

Blatant racism

Floyd Cruse, another veteran of the Portland Panthers, says racism was the reason blacks received such intense police scrutiny in the 1970s.

Cruse, formerly the minister of information for the Portland Panthers, now is a human services case manager for the state of Oregon. He says the police cast their net way too wide in their political investigations and 'just scared the hell out of people with allegations and innuendo.'

The police bias against 'militant,' 'revolutionary' or 'mouthy' black people can be found in many documents within the various 'Black' files kept by Portland's intelligence unit.

In a 1971 intelligence report, officer A.F. Zornado, working with a property developer to evict tenants for a new housing development, says of one of the homes to be evacuated: 'There are approximately ten people living in this residence, one of whom is black. This is a potential trouble spot.'

Zornado retired from the bureau long ago, and the Tribune was unable to contact him.

In a 1972 special report about the security of the Rose Festival Center, then Sgt. Wayne Inman writes, 'An abnormally high percentage of those attending carnivals are blacks and a substantial portion of those blacks are normally involved in criminal activity É

'The Carnival provides an excellent opportunity for these undisciplined blacks to gather and perform their antisocial acts within the anonymity and safety of the crowd.'

Inman, who now works for the Crook County Sheriff's Department, chose not to comment on the report in a recent interview: 'I can't recall details from that long ago. A lot of things have happened since then.'

Herndon argues that racism led the police to target not only black militants but also 'anybody who knew them or was friends with them. Before long, they were just keeping watch over black people, period.'

The intelligence files are full of long lists reeling off every 'militant' suspected of being involved with the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets and the Nation of Islam. The lists contain dates of birth, addresses and license plate numbers.

'Sneaky, but a good idea'

The files contain hints that Portland intelligence officers tried to disrupt legitimate programs and to set up black activists to commit criminal acts.

A June 1970 letter to the police from a dentist disgusted with the free Malcolm X Dental Clinic run by the Panthers states: 'Here is the listing of the dentists who work at the Malcolm X Clinic. There is a way, I believe, to get additional men to quit working there. É This should be very interesting information to the U.S. Secretary of Defense É or even the FBI, that such men are actively supporting a subversive group.'

There follows a list of the dentists who volunteer at the clinic, with handwritten stars next to the names of all those who had quit.

A May 1971 report describes a phone call from black activist R.L. Anderson's mother. She had just listened in on a telephone conversation in which a caller had tried to sell her son dynamite. She said she thought the call was a police setup.

Clipped to the report is a note from officer Mike Salmon of the North Precinct to Lt. Melvin 'Corky' Hulett, head of the intelligence unit: 'I'm sending this direct to you, bypassing records, and I'll let you decide what to do with the report. For all we know what Mrs. Anderson says is true (it sounds sneaky, but a good idea).'

Salmon, who retired from the bureau in 1990, says he didn't think police were behind the setup. 'I sent it over to Hulett so he could be aware of what was going on. If it was going on, I didn't like it.' Asked about the 'sneaky but a good idea' note, Salmon said: 'I can't come up with a logical answer on that. É That's not my way of doing things. É

Scars remain

Portland's black leaders say the effects of selective surveillance remain and that the practice continues.

Former state Rep. Jo Ann Bowman points to how young black men are labeled gang members when they have never been convicted of a crime.

State Sen. Avel Gordly, who represents Northeast Portland, says she expects some responses from city leaders: 'What policies or procedures are in place to prevent this from ever happening again?'

Herndon doesn't think the city has learned history's lessons yet.

'I've seen what happens when the country says, 'Our national security is imperiled.' Whether it's from the communists or the black nationalists or whoever,' he says. 'There are a lot of innocent people who are going to get caught up in this. It always happens.'