PORTLAND — Walking through the streets of northeast Portland, the marchers cried, “No justice, no peace.”
They numbered a few hundred compared to the thousands who took a knee on a Portland bridge last June to mark the death of George Floyd under the choking restraints of a Minneapolis policeman.
This May 22 event was called a “March Against Murder,” and some wore T-shirts that declared “Black Lives Matter.” But they were not focused on police killings. They were protesting the lives lost in a huge escalation of gun violence in Oregon’s largest city.
“Everybody wants to burn the city down when the police do something, and by right, I’m not going to tell you that we shouldn’t,” said Herman Greene, a Portland pastor recently elected to the city’s School Board, in a speech at a rally before the march. “But what are you willing to do when we’re doing the something? Where are you at, when we’re killing one another?”
As of Sunday morning, 37 people had died in Portland homicides this year, a more-than-sevenfold increase compared with the first five months of last year, and a stark contrast to Seattle, a larger city, where 11 homicides had been recorded as of late May. So far this year, the victims have disproportionately been people of color.
In Portland, shootings that wound people also have soared.
By the end of April, 89 people had been injured by gun violence, which is nearly triple the number for the first four months of last year and nearly quadruple that of the same period in 2019.
In a May 17 incident, four people wounded in a shooting in north Portland were dropped off at Emanuel Hospital, where the action did not end as a large emotional crowd gathered at the emergency department and ambulance bay. Police from throughout the city then converged “to diffuse arguments and fights that sprang up,” according to a Portland Police Bureau statement.
This surge in Portland shootings gained momentum in the second half of 2020, and was part of a broader national spike in gun violence, which last year rose by 42% in the 50 largest U.S. cities over 2019.
Jonathan Jay, a Boston University researcher who analyzed the increase, said that the economic and other stresses of the pandemic likely contributed to increased violence, and support services were harder to deliver to people at risk.
In Portland, Police Bureau officials point to another factor. They cite a City Council vote to disband a gun violence reduction team in response to local racial justice protests.
The unit had drawn criticism in an audit for targeting Black drivers in traffic stops that the bureau could not demonstrate were effective.
Police say the unit put officers on the street to talk with youth at risk to head off violence, and that the response to gun violence has been further weakened by an increase in officers leaving the force, budget cuts and the demands of responding to protests.
“We’ve created this perfect storm,” said Acting Sgt. Charles Asheim, who previously served on the disbanded gun violence reduction unit. “Our custodies and arrests have gone way down. We lack the criminal intelligence we once had. We just don’t have the contacts in the community.”
In April of this year, the Portland City Council approved $6 million to reduce gun violence, with the money invested in grants to community groups and adding 24 more rangers to the payroll of the Parks & Recreation Bureau.
Greene says that tying the disbanding of the police unit to the surge in violent crime is “extremely simplifying what’s going on. It is so much bigger than that.”
He notes that violent crimes, even before the unit was defunded, were on a long-term rise. Assault of all types climbed from less than 7,600 in 2016 to 9,102 in 2019, according to Portland Bureau Statistics.
During the rally, Greene said that “I would love to stand here and tell you that somebody else is going to come and make sure that’s we’re taken care of. But history shows me that they’re not.”
“This park should be filled”
Royal Harris, the organizer of the May 22 march, focuses on what people out-of-uniform can do to reduce the violence.
He is a 52-year-old Portlander who came of age in the 1980s as Los Angeles-based gangs exported drugs and violence to many cities across the West, including Portland. That decade marked the harrowing start of a more lethal era, when fist fights were more often replaced by shootings over turf and drugs.
Through the years, Harris lost to gun violence two cousins and a brother, Durieul, an aspiring rap artist who in 2013, at the age of 30, was shot in front of a nightclub.
Today, Harris works for Multnomah County, which encompasses Portland, in an initiative to get fathers more involved in parenting. Speaking at the rally before the march, he urged people to focus on the young people who are most at risk of gang violence, and are steeped in video games, music and movies that often portray conflict being resolved with lethal force. All of this, he says, can help to legitimize gun violence.
Harris says that conflicts today often play out on social media, where insults relayed through video chat messages can rapidly escalate into real-world encounters. During the pandemic, with schools shuttered for months, there was a lot more time for young people to mix things up online, and events in this virtual world can then set the stage for shooting, when shooting someone may be viewed as a way of showing you are strong and won’t be pushed around.
“We really want to focus on the mindset … This is about the community,” Harris said. “This is about Black men who talk about this [gun violence] all the time. And now we have a chance to talk about … how we plan on fixing it over the next 20 years.”
Harris publicized the “March Against Murder” in a May 16 column in The Oregonian, where he wrote that a goal would be “to inspire community members to create the change they want to see.”
His speakers included his friends, young and old, many of whom had a common thread of overcoming the loss of a loved one, incarceration or past gang involvement to try to help make their community a better place.
They were disappointed by the small turnout for the rally at the starting point — Peninsula Park in North Portland.
“This park should be filled. Because if we were talking about a police officer shot a Black man, there wouldn’t be a space for anybody to stand,” Green said.
A gathering spot for change
The marchers, escorted by police on motorbikes, walked a little more than a mile. The route traversed North Rosa Parks Way and Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in an area that represented part of the historical heart of Portland’s Black community.
Along the way, they stopped for a few minutes of silence — fists raised — close by the sidewalk where Jordan Lee Louis, a 22-year-old youth, was gunned down. Louis died last July 28 when assailants stepped out of a car and shot more than 50 rounds.
Last year, his mother, Katie Louis, made a public plea to her son’s killers.
“I just want to know what happened to you,” Louis said as she met with reporters. “What traumas did you have to endure to be able to brutally murder my child in broad daylight in front of tons of witnesses? What happened to you?”
More than nine months later, no one has been charged in that homicide, according to the Police Bureau. And during the May 22 march, Louis’ mother was standing on the sidewalk where he died, holding a sign that read “our son, brother, father and soul mate was MURDERED here.”
The march ended a short distance away at Woodlawn Park, a tree-shaded urban oasis.
Harris hopped up on a picnic table and grabbed a megaphone to explain that he wanted to end up in this spot, which he described as a frequent gathering spot during his youth. Even as gentrification has reduced the number of Black people who live in this area, it still holds strong ties for residents. And, as people circle through, sometimes trouble flares — as it did the night that Louis died.
“This is ground zero for the problems … this is going to be ground zero for solutions,” Harris declared.