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Portland Riot Squad Resigns. What Now?
Dispatch from Portland - June 17
On Wednesday night, Portland’s Rapid Response Team, a group of 50 officers who specialize in crowd control, resigned in protest over the indictment of one of its members. Video from August 18, 2020 shows activist photographer Teri Jacobs being knocked to the ground by Officer Corey Budworth, who then pushes Jacob’s in the face with his nightstick. I’ve witnessed the bad faith tactics of both officers and activists, the latter of whom sometimes curate images to show them as victims or heroes only. But the pushing is pretty bald, and the indictment of 4th degree assault appears justified.
Today at 11am, members of RRT handed a list of demands to Mayor Ted Wheeler. The expectation was that the two sides would take a week to try to mediate some of the demands. This seems unlikely to happen, given the acrimony that exists between the Portland Police Bureau, the mayor’s office, and the office of district attorney Mike Schmidt, who’s also brought charges against a second RRT officer.
“I will not be surprised if mediation is not possible, and even if they do try, it’s going to be very messy,” a law enforcement officer with knowledge of the situation said today. And while he laughed at what a local journalist told me earlier in the week, that she saw the protest movement “fading into the background and becoming like an STD that flares up every once in a while,” both the officer (who’s asked to remain anonymous) and I wondered if the en masse resignation might prove the medium for the movement to reactivate.
Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
What might the resignation of RRT mean for Portland, and were you surprised?
“Was I surprised? No. But the indictment and mass resignation are not what people or the media perceive; it’s more the straw that broke the camel’s back. The RRT has had several earlier interactions and frustrated confrontations with the mayor; they’ve made demands; this has gone back and forth for the past 14 months.”
I didn’t know before today that RRT is a voluntary squad. How does that work?
“In a protest environment, you realize you need a better capability. How do you fill it? In the U.S. traditionally, RRT is how it’s done. RRT does not have the same emphasis on professional advancement as other forms of policing, where there are books and infrastructure and conferences, where you become a specialist in fraud or sex crimes or traffic. RRT is not like that. Public order policing is more a goofy-ass, pick-up basketball scenario. People do it because it’s interesting. It’s more complicated that you think. They’re very trained. You can’t replace them with normal resources. To address protest groups that go mobile, like they do in Portland and Seattle, you need expertise in maneuvering, in blocking and flanking and leapfrogging. If antifa and the Proud Boys appear in the Pearl District tonight, trying to keep them separate is going to be fucking impossible. I don’t care how skilled you are. You have to know how to command-and-control and work in synchronicity.”
Did you see the video of Officer Budworth pushing Teri Jacobs? It’s not good.
“It was a policy violation, no doubt. In previous times, you might have had a supervisor see that video and say, the guy needs a two-day suspension and he’s kicked off RRT. That’s not going to happen in this environment. The relationship between the Portland Police Bureau and the city is so toxic and dysfunctional, there’s so much enmity and bullshit, there’s going to be charges.
“Look, no PIO [public information officer] is going to see that video and say, that’s a good thing. It’s a policy violation. But that night you also had the squad attacked with Molotov cocktails, it was very violent and you’re in a position where you have to stop it, which means you have to push people back. When you hold the nightstick on either end with both hands [as Budworth did], you’re using it to push people not strike people. But then he pushed her in the head.”
How much fuel did the resignation of RRT give people who are prone to take to the streets and do harm to the city and potentially each other?
“We’ve been in meetings all day, trying to figure that out. We’d started to feel that Portland had turned a corner. We had some good arrests, including from last summer, and the DA and the US Attorney had made good convictions. And the protest movement was in disarray. It really felt like the wind had been taken out of their sails, and now you get this. There’s already word that they’re going to meet at 9:30 tonight in the Pearl, there are the flyers, ‘wear black, be water.’ If it’s 30 or 50 people [attacking] the window at the Starbucks, okay. If it’s more than 100 people, that’s a bad sign.”
I’ve been covering the protests for more than a year and I’m always amazed that participants do essentially the same thing every night, smash property and yell at the police.
“The issue with antifa, with all these groups, is that there’s no moral discipline; they’re leaderless with no one to control their members. It’s not like Martin Luther King’s organization or even the SDS, where there were some rules. This deal here is, you see a meme and show up and do whatever the fuck you want and who’s going to tell you to stop it? No one. There’s no way to make it go away. They grow up with these heroic ideas of being Katniss Everdeen or Luke Skywalker, on both the left and right, and then they try to live that reality, it’s a party and an intoxicant, regardless of whether you have a moral philosophy or not.”
What happens to Portland in the next few nights?
“What the real risk is, Portland has become the poster child for this type of dysfunction. In the next 48 hours, if the nation and the media weigh in; if the politicians are unhelpful, then you get someone like the Proud Boys coming in and saying, ‘If Portland can’t police itself, then we will.’ Then you get the antifa versus Proud Boys confrontations and a radically reduced force to control it. That is not an unrealistic scenario and a concern to everyone right now.”
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