City, protesters hone tactics
- Jim Redden And Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
• What comes next as demonstrations play out on Portland streets?
Activists involved in planning many of the most disruptive activities of the recent antiwar protests in Portland say they have adopted strategies that make it more difficult to hold them legally or civilly responsible for the consequences.
Although most of these protests have begun with rallies called by established peace, church and labor organizations, the events that snarled traffic were planned as informal gatherings and carried out by individuals or 'affinity groups' independent of the sponsors.
One activist said established protest groups 'are scared to death' of being charged with conspiracy under the USA Patriot Act, which gives federal law officials enhanced investigative tools to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States.
But Oregon FBI spokesman J.R. Hill said his agency has no Patriot Act investigations involving antiwar protesters who are planning demonstrations in the state.
'We have no such investigations under way,' he said. 'The reaction to the local protests is in the hands of local authorities. We might get involvement in looking at individual crime, depending on what they are, such as destruction of government property.'
There also is no evidence that local or state law enforcement agencies are investigating protesters for planning civil disobedience. While Portland police have arrested more than 150 protesters since last Thursday, none have been charged with a crime related to planning the illegal activities.
Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a police spokesman, would not comment on whether any such investigations were under way. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schrunk said the county is not currently investigating any protesters for conspiracy.
The demonstrations have been a nightmare for downtown commuters and shoppers. Recent protests have blocked city streets, county bridges and even area freeways at the height of the evening rush hour.
Frank Fromherz draws a line between what happens at the scheduled events and the protests that spin off from them. He said his organization, the Office of Justice and Peace of the Portland Catholic Archdiocese, has sponsored several of the recent large rallies but not the civil disobedience that has followed them.
'We have co-sponsored or endorsed the large events that give people a chance to gather peacefully and speak out about what is happening,' he said. 'The civil disobedience that follows them is more people acting out their anger over the government's illegal and immoral policies.'
Several demonstrations have been planned for this week:
• Portland Peaceful Response Coalition has added weekly 5 p.m. Monday protests to its existing schedule of 5 p.m. Friday protests in Pioneer Courthouse Square.
• A group that identifies itself only as 'concerned Portlanders' announced plans to block downtown streets this morning with two marches leaving from both the North and South Park Blocks at
8 a.m. A Monday morning news release said the march would be followed by a noon rally at Pioneer Square.
• Participants in Critical Mass, the monthly bicycle event, now plan to ride at 5 p.m. every Friday in protest of the war.
Rumors were circulating through City Hall on Monday morning that police are changing their strategy for reacting to the growing number of downtown protests. Schmautz said police officials are reviewing last week's protests, but he would not comment on whether the bureau is changing its approach.
Thousands of protesters closed city streets, county bridges and even area freeways Thursday. Police did not make many arrests until the crowd thinned to several hundred protesters around 10 p.m.
Many citizens who watched events unfold Thursday think the arrests didn't occur soon enough. After protesters succeeded in blocking several bridges, highways and roads, Mayor Vera Katz's office received about 230 calls from people around the state who watched the events on television or heard about them. Ninety-five percent of the callers were harshly critical of the way the city was handling the event, according to Sam Adams, the mayor's chief of staff.
Speaking to reporters the next day, Katz and Police Chief Mark Kroeker said they had to balance the protesters' First Amendment rights with the police's responsibility to enforce even relatively minor traffic laws.
The sheer size of the crowd also made it difficult to keep traffic flowing. Thousands of protesters turned out. About 300 police officers were on duty from Portland, Beaverton, Clackamas County and the Oregon State Police.
'There are people who wanted us to arrest everyone, and those who didn't want us to do anything,' Kroeker said. 'Reality is somewhere in the middle.'
Oregon State Police Capt. Gerald Gregg agrees. Gregg, a former member of the state police Mobile Response Team, has helped train the Portland police in crowd control techniques.
'When you're dealing with a large crowd in an urban environment, you've got to be aware that people can scatter and run off in different directions if you move against them,' Gregg said. 'You can't begin making arrests unless you can assure the safety of officers and people you are arresting.'
Katz and Kroeker said the police response might be different in the future. That was the case Friday and Saturday nights, when large contingents of police kept much smaller groups of protesters off the streets, isolating and arresting those deemed to be disruptive.
Meanwhile, activists said they will continue planning civil disobedience in small, informal groups. The groups vary from meeting to meeting. According to activists contacted by the Portland Tribune, they are mostly from small, grassroots organizations Ñ such as the Black Cross Health Collective, the Pacific Green Party and Portland Peace and Justice Works.
One national expert on political movements said it makes sense for protesters to not be identified as responsible for acts of civil disobedience.
'That's smart of them. I wouldn't be surprised to see protest organizers prosecuted under the Patriot Act in the future,' said Laird Wilcox, author of 'American Extremists: Militants, Supremacists, Klansmen, Communists and Others.'
Wilcox said present-day protest organizers do not try to control the people who show up at their events:
'When the civil rights movement first started in the early 1960s, the protests were highly disciplined. The organizers knew they would lose credibility if they were seen as breaking the law. But it's not that way anymore. Organizers have no control over who comes to their rallies, and they don't even try to tell them what to do.'
That appears to be the case in Portland. The protests planned for this morning were organized Saturday afternoon at a Portland State University meeting room by a group that has no formal name.
'It's just a group of concerned Portlanders that are opposed to the war,' said Liz Samuels, who attended the Saturday gathering at PSU's Smith Center.
Even when established groups organize events, they refuse to take responsibility for illegal activities that occur later, said Will Seaman, spokesman for the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition.
'The Portland Peaceful Response Coalition is not sponsoring or advocating any illegal activity,' he said. 'At the same time, we recognize that unaffiliated groups may feel the need to protest this illegal and immoral war through other means.'
Seaman said his group decided against advocating illegal activities Ñ including nonviolent civil disobedience Ñ for legal reasons: 'We don't want to do anything that could justify an FBI counterintelligence investigation.'
Lawyers approach protesters
Local attorney Stu Sugarman said about two dozen lawyers with the Belmont Law Center have made contact so far with 90 of the protesters arrested since Thursday. He said he hopes there will be civil lawsuits filed.
'People were mistreated,' he said. 'A lot of them were held tightly with plastic cuffs all night, transferred from bus to bus. É We think that's abusive, and police wouldn't treat other suspects that way. We think the police went too far.'
In the meantime, the strategy is to fight the charges and cause work to pile up for the district attorney's office. Sugarman said the protesters' arraignments are scheduled for April 14 to April 24.
District Attorney Schrunk said he hopes to avoid a logjam by offering deals to protesters arrested for disorderly conduct and failure to obey a police officer Ñ both misdemeanors.
'If they show up, they'll be offered a citation unless there are aggravating circumstances,' Schrunk said. 'That's a maximum $600 fine. It's a good way for a college student to build up his rŽsumŽ Ñ he can get arrested for protesting and only get a fine.'