PORTLAND — In Oregon’s ultra-liberal city of Portland, where protest is a way of life, the new mayor is taking on the sacrosanct.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and the City Council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance Wednesday that would allow city leaders to eject disruptive protesters from meetings and ban them from council chambers for up to 60 days in some cases.
As they voted, commissioners said months of protests by a small group of people have shut down meetings, disrupted government business, caused stress to city staff, undermined projects and prevented other residents from appearing before the council.
“I don’t know why you’ve decided that your voices are more important than anyone else who comes to this chamber to give testimony,” said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who was elected to the Council last fall and called the interruptions “toxic.”
“The fact that I can’t singlehandedly and immediately satisfy your demands does not mean that we are not listening to you.”
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately condemned the ordinance as unconstitutional and protesters tried to prevent the vote by shouting down commissioners as they were polled.
People in the chamber held up posters with an image of Wheeler’s head that read “Gas the Peaceful, Let the Poor Freeze.”
The poster is a dual reference to Portland’s vast numbers of homeless and anger over how the Portland Police Bureau handled almost daily protests after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
In papers filed with the City Council, ACLU-Oregon’s legal director Mat dos Santos said city officials have the right to throw out disruptive individuals on a case-by-case basis, but banning a person from future meetings based on their current behavior is unconstitutional.
“People have the right to express unpopular, even offensive ideas,” he wrote. “The government cannot bar communicative acts … based on the mere fear of disruption in reaction to those acts.”
The vote came after nearly four hours of a city agenda that was largely made up of members of the public taking the floor to criticize Wheeler. Several commenters preceded their remarks by calling the day “Unconstitutional Wednesday.”
“Locally, we’re going to have the war on protesters, backed up now by a City Council ordinance,” said Charles BridgeCrane Johnson, a local activist. “Shame on all of you. I know you can see our attempts to communicate with you and you ignore them.”
Before the vote, Wheeler said the provision allowing people to be banned from the council chambers won’t be used until a federal court rules on its constitutionality.
“There is a difference of opinion among informed attorneys as to whether this is constitutional or not. It may not be constitutional,” Wheeler said, adding that passing it would allow the court evaluation to start.
A federal judge in 2015 ruled that the city acted unconstitutionally when it threw out a protester and banned him for 60 days. But the judge left open a window for the city to revise its ordinance and bring it back for review, said Michael Cox, a spokesman for the mayor.
The revised ordinance contains an appeals process and specifies the types of behavior that can get a person banned, he said.
Weekly or even daily protests are nothing new in Portland, but in recent months even this city has had more than its share — and Wheeler has seemed more willing than previous mayors to push back.
That approach, plus a constellation of highly charged events, has created an atmosphere of anger and distrust for some.
Police shot and killed a 17-year-old black teenager on Feb. 9 and the ALCU and others have strongly criticized police for crowd control tactics during recent anti-Trump protests that included the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets.
The city has also been panned for its response to its homeless crisis during an especially harsh winter. Four people have died of exposure and a stillborn infant was found with his homeless mother at a street side bus stop earlier this year.