Mayor Ted Wheeler has authorized Portland police to use all lawful means to clear protesters from the site of the red house on North Mississippi Avenue and the nearly three-block-long occupation zone encompassing it.
But figuring how to clear dozens of people who have fortified the streets with makeshift barriers and piles of homemade weapons is a logistical and safety nightmare, public safety and policing experts said Thursday.
Activists since Tuesday have stacked wooden boards, corrugated metal sheets, nail-studded spike strips, tires, fences and accumulated an arsenal ranging from glass bottles to rocks in the tightly-packed residential neighborhood in support of a Black-Indigenous family who lost their house in a foreclosure.
That’s why a peaceful resolution demands intense negotiations between the city, the new owner of the house and the family, with help from any community leaders who might hold sway, the experts said.
All the parties also must recognize that allowing the occupation to continue isn’t safe for the activists, residents and businesses nearby, they said.
“It’s a combustible mixture,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent Washington, D.C.-based organization that does research on policing. “It is a no-win situation for the police, but police don’t have the luxury of walking away.”
City officials have been in talks with the Kinney family who used to own the house, as well as the new owner who has offered to sell the house back at cost and the separate owner of adjacent land.
“To try to have a negotiated settlement is critically important,” said Frank Straub, a former Spokane police chief and now director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies. “But they also have to recognize that the situation over time becomes dangerous from a public health and public safety aspect.”
If a resolution is reached, the family must urge the activists to leave, Straub and others said.
If a resolution isn’t forthcoming, city officials must speak publicly about what they’ve done to try to end the conflict and explain the need to clear the unlawful blockade of public streets, the outside experts said.
“They need to clearly articulate what they’re doing and why and what steps were taken to get to that point, and why they have to bring this to an end,” Straub said.
REMOVING THE BLOCKADE
If Portland police do move to clear the area, they must have adequate resources to go in and likely would coordinate with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. Police have said they want a public commitment from Multnomah County district attorney that he’ll prosecute those who they may arrest at the site.
If police are told to remove the blockade, they may seek an element of surprise to minimize the potential confrontation. Experts said what’s occurred on the avenue is not a crowd control matter, but is a barricaded occupation, which could activate Portland’s Special Emergency Reaction Team.
They likely would issue dispersal orders and possibly carve out an exit path allowing people to leave safely, the observers said.
If others refuse to leave, then police could start a coordinated attempt to remove barricades, while maintaining cover to avoid any threats or harm from the stockpile of weapons at the site, including spike strips and bricks.
Tactical officers, seeking protection behind heavy vehicles, could move up and “slowly, surgically … dissemble the blockade,” Straub said.
Police are likely to bring a range of tools, from box cutters to remove the plastic wrap blocking the avenue at several locations to potentially a heavy-duty backhoe or other truck to clear fortified fence and wooden structures, policing experts said.
Jim Fuda, who spent 33 years with the King County Sheriff’s Office and is now director of Law Enforcement Services for Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound, said he would expect police to have collected intelligence over the week on the protesters, including who among them sticks around at night and where and if they’re armed.
They also probably are diagramming the layout of the barricaded streets, he said.
To break up the 3 ½-week Capitol Hill Organized Protest, known as CHOP or the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, in Seattle this year, police brought in riot-clad officers with heavy tactical vehicles early in the morning on July 1 after that city’s mayor declared it an unlawful assembly the night before. They warned that anyone who remained would be arrested.
To ensure protesters stayed away after a sweep, police in Seattle rotated officers through to stand in lines blocking the area as a cleanup occurred, Fuda said.
The North Portland encampment “sounds like Capitol Hill, only a little bit smaller,” with a different vibe, he said.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, in a videotaped message on Wednesday, urged the activists to “leave the barricade,” saying police will enforce the law to restore “peace and order” to the neighborhood.
An occupation security patrol has formed inside the barricade, with some armed supporters seen on guard duty at the blockade’s intersections – such as one woman who stood at 6 a.m. Wednesday at the Northeast Skidmore Street intersection with Mississippi Avenue, a rifle slung across her shoulder, a handgun on her hip and a radio in hand.
While protesting an eviction, some protesters have aggressively escorted or ejected some members of the media from the blocked public streets or knocked cameras from their hands.
The militancy and Portland’s recent history of nightly protests that often turned into violent confrontations between police and some demonstrators make the situation more fraught than in other cities, said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“To make a physical intervention, that’s risky in a functioning city with strong leadership on the same page,” O’Donnell said.
“It’s a recipe for a potential catastrophe in Portland,” where the city’s leadership has been “equivocal and confused” in its direction to police, he said.
Without the political leadership and support from the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute people who commit crimes, police will be placed in an untenable position, he said.
“If they bring out an armored vehicle in Portland, it’ll be a propaganda bonanza,” with the protesters crying, “there’s your militarized police,” he said.
“There’s no such thing as a no-risk contact in this situation,” O’Donnell said. “This will be risky no matter how it’s undertaken.”
— Maxine Bernstein
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