One of my first jobs after I got my undergraduate degree was professional protester. I worked for the Greenpeace affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., for about a year in the mid-1990s, until the national organization closed it down, citing budget cuts. By night, we canvassed neighborhoods collecting petition signatures and contributions. By day, we plotted ways to raise hell.
We had a weekly gig outside the downtown office of Rochester Gas & Electric, where we held signs and yelled slogans decrying the utility’s nuclear power plant. One day a pack of us followed Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds around his district, giving him grief about some issue I’ve long since forgotten as he held a series of public meetings with constituents.
The most memorable “action” I led was a surprise (rhetorical) attack on then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. His department had recently given the green light to a low-level nuclear waste site in an ecologically sensitive area out West. The call to harass Secretary Babbitt went out nationwide, so when he scheduled an appearance at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge upstate, a group of six or seven of us got up early (by Greenpeace-canvasser standards), piled into the canvassing van and drove out there. One of us was a young woman who was legally blind. Two others were — unbeknownst to me at the time — tripping.
We waited until Babbitt, standing at a podium outside with a raptor on his arm, was a few minutes into his prepared remarks about the value of wildlife or whatever. Then we hustled to the van, donned radiation suits and gas masks, grabbed our signs and snuck around to the edge of the modest-sized gathering, at which point we started shouting. I’ll never forget that moment. The TV cameramen and photographers on hand turned en masse away from Babbitt and toward us. The secretary shot us a look that conveyed a mixture of shock and contempt. Even the raptor (I want to believe it was an eagle) swiveled its head to see what all the fuss was about. After maybe a minute, point made, we hustled back to the van and returned to Rochester, where I later did follow-up interviews with the press.
I bring this up in light of last weekend’s protest in Portland against police brutality, an action that seems to have generated more heat than enlightenment.
Criticism that the organizers, the Portland Racial Justice Congress, failed to get a permit or coordinate with authorities prior to the action is absurd. Protest takes many forms, including civil disobedience, which is defined by the refusal to obey civil authority. I support and applaud the PRJC for engaging in civil disobedience to call attention to police violence against African Americans.
That said, some criticism of the protesters’ message and methods is also warranted. I get the distinct impression, largely from the firestorm that’s erupted on Facebook, that the PRJC and many of its supporters consider those who object to any aspect of last Friday’s protest a racist or an idiot or both. To be clear, name-calling is not criticism. And constructive criticism makes one an ally, not an opponent, of the cause.
In that spirit, I urge the PRJC to take a less heated, more constructive approach in its dealings with the Portland Police Department. If Portland cops are engaging in any racist behavior, word of it hasn’t reached my ears, and I routinely get an earful from citizens who feel some kind of injustice is happening. If the PRJC is aware of any incidents of police brutality or racism in Portland, they should publicize it immediately and meet with Police Chief Mike Sauschuck to get the problem addressed pronto.
Portland is lucky to have an open-minded, accessible and progressive police chief and a police force that upholds, and is held to, exceptionally high standards. When those standards are not met, then by all means, shout about it from the streets. But the cause of Black Lives Matter is not served by antagonizing or alienating cops who share the movement’s values. Doing so is strategically counterproductive and downright damaging to the effort to get the public on your side.
Body cameras may be a good idea for Portland’s police force. Let’s talk about that. The Police Citizen Review Subcommittee likely could be more accessible and accountable to the public. Let’s put that on the table, too. My advice to the PRJC is this: Before you demand action on those local issues by shouting in protest from the street, ask Chief Sauschuck to work with you on those issues in person. If he tells you to pound sand — which he has not, and I believe would not do — then please follow my example and go raise some hell.