PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Following three weeks of marches, protests and civil unrest in Portland and across the country, the Oregon Historical Society Thursday set out to address a few hot-button issues in a digital town hall.
Presented in coordination with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, The Racism, Protest, and Law Enforcement: Historical Context for Contemporary Times webinar was designed to discuss the role of police violence in the current Black Lives Matter movement, how it compares to similar movements in the past and how to improve policing in the future. It featured experts in the field of race, civil rights, economic justice, police and community relations and supremacist groups.
Moderator Mirasa Chappell, who spends her time as an associate history professor at Oregon State University, guided the hour-long conversation through a series of questions and topics for the experts, starting with how the panelists were reflecting on current protests and marches across the country.
All of them agreed that what Americans are seeing on the streets right now, has roots in our historical connection to slavery and the white supremacy movement.
“Slavery taught whites in the United States to discredit blacks,” said Dr. Angela Addea from the University of Oregon Law School. “[It] stripped them of the ability to empathize with blacks.”
UO Political Science professor, and expert in the White Nationalism movement, Joseph Lowndes agreed, saying that there is no political issue that race doesn’t touch.
“In this movement, there has been rising white nationalism and rising white supremacy,” he said. “On the other side, there is radical mobilization against police brutality, murder.”
When asked to compare what we are seeing now to the civil rights movements associated with the 1960s, Dr. Addea stressed both movements are rooted in a similar strain of racial violence.
“I think about the lynchings at the hands of white mobs, which included law enforcement,” she explained. “Even today, when we talk about police brutality, the way in which Americans communicate with black people is through violence.”
Professor of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, Judson Jeffries has spent a lot of time studying civil rights movements of the past. He said the modern themes are shared with previous movements, but he sees something that concerns him greatly.
“The use of extra-legal force against journalists and observers is something I haven’t seen,” he said. “This is as close to a police state as anything I have seen.”
Over the last few weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement and other, loosely associated protests here in Portland have pushed back on that “police state” and reintroduced the idea of defunding or outright demolishing police departments.
Jeffries says those ideas need to be fleshed out to better understand what the terms mean and what the results could look like.
“If one is talking about complete eradication of police agencies, I say pump the brakes a little,” Jeffries said. “Can we defund police agencies in such a way where it is punitive against them, but does not impede their ability to provide services the public deserves?”
Lowndes expanded on that point to explain that he feels modern police forces are being asked to do too much work that they are, generally, not the best fit to be doing. Things like social checks, school resource work and child welfare calls.
“What are the police there for?” Lowndes asked. “Why is armed law enforcement the tool we use to manage or resolve the multiple crises we have in society?”
“These are issues that police are poorly equipped to handle,” Dr. Addea added. “Policing was never meant to solve these social problems.”
One of the things Professor Jeffries called attention to was the longer-term cost to communities when police officers make mistakes, that most people don’t take into consideration.
“The overwhelming majority of Americans do not realize that when police officers are found to have used excessive force, what happens is, often times, that police officer isn’t charged but, the city ends up paying huge settlements,” he said. “Most Americans do not fully understand those settlements are coming out of our pockets. Those settlements are our tax dollars. We are essentially paying officers to misbehave.”
The historical role of police unions took center stage when Lowndes explained that such a structure allows police to operate with impunity and little fear of retribution. A point on which Jeffries quickly expanded.
“Police use of excessive force has nothing to do with lack of training, it is ingrained,” he said. “At the end of the day, the system will protect bad cops.”
As the focus of the webinar turned toward events that are specific to Portland, all of the panelists agreed that what is happening here, recently, is not unique to our area.
“Oregon is not different,” Dr. Addea explained. And, much like other, mostly southern states more associated with white supremacy and racist behavior, Oregon was designed that way. Addea explained it is a legacy that has lasted and contributed to what is happening today.
“Oregon is subject to the same ideology that is rooted in racism, racist at the foundation,” she said. “Oregon wasn’t initiated as a slave state. It was a state that didn’t want black people. Oregon was founded as a white utopia and we see the remnants of that today.”
As the event was nearing its conclusion, Chappell asked each of the panelists to weigh in on where the relationship between black Americans and the police community goes from here and how the message from this Black Lives Matter movement can resonate and lead to real change.
Lowndes said it starts with white people addressing racism as it arises in their everyday lives.
“White people have a lot to gain from anti-racism struggles,” he said. “Prison population, police violence grows from a white supremacist history, but affects us all. We’re all helped by the broader struggle of liberation.”
“This is a unique opportunity for us to think about how to undo racism,” Dr. Addae added. Even for black people. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m not racist,’ how about we just admit we’ve all been indoctrinated with the same ideology.”
She went on to say everyone needs to commit to making change in their corner of the world and then go to work combating institutional and systemic racism.
“This is going to take a lot of dirty work and we need to do what it takes,” she concluded.
For his part, Professor Jeffries feels that it is up to police agencies to look for a higher calibre of person to recruit as an officer and that people need to use all of their skills and tools at their disposal to “uplift the human race.”
“At the end of the day, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution,” he said.