Ongoing rallies frustrate retailers
It's a scene that has become commonplace on Friday evenings in downtown Portland: security guards and police officers posted at the nearly empty entryways of Pioneer Place mall as protesters go marching by.
But there was a variation on the theme last Friday night in the aftermath of Thursday's large antiwar protest that led to the arrest of more than 150 demonstrators.
This time, a dozen police officers Ñ dressed in full riot gear Ñ were lined up for action on each side of the Southwest Yamhill Street light-rail line, lying in wait for any marauders who might try to vandalize Pioneer Place or Saks Fifth Avenue.
The scene is just one indicator of the problems facing downtown retailers and restaurants caused by the sheer number of political protests that close city streets and keep customers away.
'People have a right to protest and we understand that, but at some point you have to ask, When is enough enough?' said Chris Finks, vice president of marketing for the Portland Business Alliance, which represents downtown business owners.
According to Finks, many downtown retail owners believe sales are down because shoppers cannot reach stores or simply have stopped coming downtown altogether.
'It is impossible to quantify how much the protests are affecting sales because the economy is down. But that's part of the problem, too. Downtown retailers just can't take much more,' he said.
Some protesters say they are intentionally punishing alliance members. According to activist Geoffrey McNamera, downtown has been targeted in part because they believe the alliance helped defeat a Portland City Council resolution against war with Iraq.
The antiwar resolution died on a 2-2 tie Jan. 19. Shortly before that, Kim Kimbrough, the alliance's chief executive officer, had sent the council a letter urging a no vote.
'We are trying to target the Portland Business Alliance, given its role in the vote. They say we are hurting businesses, but the war is hurting Iraqi civilians much more,' McNamera said.
The two commissioners who voted against the resolution said their votes were not affected by the alliance's position. Jim Francesconi said he decided that a council resolution would not be effective. Randy Leonard, a former Portland firefighter, opposed the resolution because of his sympathy for the New York police officers and firefighters who lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Permit policy arises again
Finks said the alliance does not blame the police for the problems. He believes Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker is trying to follow the policy the City Council set after the 2001 May Day controversy. The council waived the requirement for groups to get permits for such demonstrations after complaints that Portland police used excessive force when they clashed with marchers during the 2001 May Day parade.
Instead, police incident commanders must decide whether to let the marches proceed Ñ a decision that has to be made after all the protesters have gathered and listened to speakers urging them to take action.
'Kroeker was heavily criticized for the way the police reacted, even though protesters were throwing newspaper racks at police horses and things like that. Ever since then, he's been trying to avoid similar criticism,' Finks said.
But, Finks said, the time has come for the council to reconsider its decision.
'There needs to be a discussion about whether the city should continue to allow these unpermitted marches,' Finks said.
The council does not appear open to such a review right now.
Mayor Vera Katz 'would like to hear how the city should pay the additional costs of arresting and detaining the protesters,' said press aide Sarah Bott, adding that Katz has not yet heard directly from the alliance.
'I don't think the city has a policy of encouraging nonpermitted marches, and the ones that have occurred have not resulted in any significant property damage,' said Bob Durston, city Commissioner Erik Sten's chief of staff. 'If things change, if the protesters start engaging in vandalism, we might have to reconsider it.'
Two bills address protesters
Joe Moreau believes the continuing protests are scaring customers away from the Paragon, the restaurant he manages at 605 N.W. 13th Ave.
'I think we're still a little out of the loop even though we're downtown,' he said. 'But if you're in Beaverton and you're watching TV, we're downtown enough to where you're not coming down here. I've spoken with several other people, and their lunches are down and their dinner reservations aren't good either.'
The possibility of continuous protests concerns Adele Nofield, owner of Wilf's Restaurant & Piano Bar, 800 N.W. Sixth Ave.
'I don't think you should be disrupting businesses. That's livelihood, that's people. You're not just affecting one storefront, you're affecting a whole lot of people. Maybe I don't think that young people realize the ripple effect they're causing. Maybe they do; maybe I'm being terribly naive. (Maybe) they know exactly what their intent was (Thursday) É to disrupt businesses. They succeeded very well in what their intent was,' Nofield said.
Some retailers are so concerned that the alliance is lobbying the Oregon Legislature to strengthen state trespass laws, said the group's public affairs manager, Mike Salsgiver.
Senate Bill 46 was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 17. It would make it a crime to enter or remain in a building when ordered to leave by the person in charge of the building.
'Some protesters have entered businesses and knocked merchandise off the shelves and things like that. Under the current law, you have to give them a chance to leave, and you can't prohibit them from coming back,' Salsgiver said.
The bill could be voted on by the full Senate within two weeks.
State Sen. John Minnis, R-Fairview, has introduced an even stronger bill to punish protesters who interfere with businesses. Senate Bill 742 would make it a crime of terrorism to intentionally injure someone while disrupting commerce or traffic. The minimum sentence would be life in prison.
The first hearing on the bill was scheduled for Monday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, over which Minnis presides.
Finks said the alliance understands that protesters have the right to assemble and express their opinions. But, he said, demonstrators go too far when they intentionally keep people from entering or leaving town.
'What if there's a fire and people need to get out of town? What's going to happen then?' he asked.