Police arrest Black man driving to work near protest, he says

Multnomah County

Sekou Sumaworo, 23, believes he was racially profiled and charged with four crimes for nothing more than commuting to work

Portland police and protesters face off in this 2017 file photo. (PMG/Jonathan House)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Sekou Sumaworo says he was just trying to get to work.

But as the 23-year-old caregiver drove into downtown Portland a little before midnight on Saturday, June 6 — the 10th night of demonstrations — his commute entered a warzone.

Thousands of protesters were dispersed from the fenced perimeter of the Justice Center after authorities broke a siege using smoke bombs, flashbangs and impact munitions.

The crowd, mostly white, slipped away.

Sumaworo, who is Black, says police singled out and tailed his vehicle, pulled him over, smashed his window, dragged him from the car and charged him with four crimes — for doing nothing more than unwittingly approaching the protest area.

The West African immigrant believes he was racially profiled and unlawfully arrested.

“I’m not stupid. They do a lot to Black young men. Just because he’s Black, they think he’s going to commit a crime,” he said in an interview. “There’s nowhere I’m going to go in America, as a Black man, thinking I’m safe.”

The Portland Police Bureau said that officers driving near Southwest Fourth Avenue and Washington Street were forced to slow down to avoid a collision with Sumaworo, who they visually estimated was driving 50 MPH and allegedly blew a red light.

“There were hundreds of people in the proximity due to the demonstrations,” police Lt. Tina Jones said in a statement. “Other cities have experienced pedestrians who have been struck and injured and sometimes killed near or at demonstrations.”

Sumaworo denied the narrative provided by officers. “That’s a lie,” he said.

Sumaworo didn’t seek out the spotlight, and requested that the Tribune not publish a photo of him. A reporter first contacted him while reviewing the voluminous court records generated by the 400-plus arrests made over 40 days and nights of confrontations between police and rallygoers.

Weeks later, he’s telling the same story that was typed up that night by a Multnomah County corrections deputy sitting in the basement of the Justice Center: wrong place, wrong time.

Portland police officers stand guard during a downtown demonstration in 2017. (PMG/Jonathan House)

‘They wouldn’t listen’

A devout Muslim, Sumaworo grew up immersed in the language and culture of the Mandinka ethnic group in West Africa. He emigrated here nearly ten years ago, later graduating from Jefferson High School.

Sumaworo supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but says he’s never been to a protest. It’s just him — caring for a mother with chronic illness, paying the bills — all while studying business administration at Portland Community College.

“My mom and my sister, and my family back home in Africa,” he explained. “My responsibility is too much to get into trouble.”

On the night of his first, and only, arrest, Sumaworo says he was driving his uncle’s van toward the downtown group home for seniors and people with disabilities where he works.

But the road was blocked by squad cars and officers shouting “go home!” at crowds dressed in black, Sumaworo recalled, so he turned away from the police line. Another police car got behind him and initiated the traffic stop.

Intending to step out of the car, Sumaworo says he instinctively started to roll up the driver’s side window. A group of four or five officers smashed it and, with Sumaworo still strapped in, tried to drag him out, he said. Police confirmed they broke the window, alleging that Sumaworo locked the car door.

Sumaworo says he eventually got his seat belt undone. He still remembers the touch of another officer’s hand on the back of his neck.

He was taken to the Justice Center processing floor, an often fetid-smelling area where compliant prisoners watch TV and the unruly bang on secure cell doors.

“It was terrible,” he said. “You should never put another human being in a place like that.”

He says he asked for private space to pray, a daily religious duty for Muslims, but officers only shrugged. “I told them repeatedly, I even begged them,” he said. “They wouldn’t listen.”

After making a fuss, Sumaworo says officers twisted his arm and led him to an isolation cell. A spokesman for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, disputes this.

“While Sumaworo was in open holding, a deputy provided him a blanket. He engaged in prayers in open holding, not in an isolation cell,” said MCSO spokesman Chris Liedle. “Shortly after, he met with the Classification Unit to identify appropriate housing” inside the detention center.

Jail records show that Sumaworo was held in the lock-up for 24 hours before posting $1,000 in bail. He says he later paid $500 out of pocket to repair the broken window and to retrieve the car from a tow yard.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has not dropped the charges of resisting arrest, reckless driving and two counts of reckless endangerment. A spokesman for the District Attorney said, “we have no comment on criminal matters pending review.”

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