Portland is a White city, overwhelmingly so — African Americans account for just 6 percent of the population. But it is Black people such as Yoakum, an aspiring union electrician, who are dying at near-historic rates and filling churches with grief.
On May 12, Yoakum, a father of two young boys, became the city’s 30th homicide victim this year. That is five times the number recorded during the same period in 2020, a frightening pace that could see more slayings here by the end of the year than in the past four decades.
This was not how the year following George Floyd’s murder was supposed to end, not with Bishop Garry Tyson, of the General Baptist Convention of the Northwest, telling mourners that “Jalon didn’t die. He was killed. His life was taken.”
After months of social-justice activism that made Portland a vivid, sometimes violent focal point for a nation debating the same issues around police accountability and reform, the movement here has splintered into bickering groups, at odds over tactics, goals and an overall direction for how to make the city safer, with the police force still at the debate’s bitter center.
The sharpening conflict between rising violent crime and efforts to reduce the size of police departments has played out across the American West throughout this pandemic year. Now cities such as Portland, considered among the most ambitious in moving to reshape its police force, have retrenched. So have Oakland, Calif.; Berkeley, Calif.; Los Angeles and several other influential cities on the issue.
The nightly confrontations with police and federal agents deployed here by President Donald Trump have been replaced by a kind of generational hopelessness, a tenuous sense of security across an under-policed city and a return to an old-school style of gun violence reminiscent of a tit-for-tat cycle of deadly reprisals, almost always among young men of color. Through April, the police reported 348 shootings, more than double those recorded over the first four months of last year.
“There is a lot of anger, a lot of frustration out there, a lot of feeling that there should be a life for a life,” Twauna Hennessee, Yoakum’s mother, a church elder resplendent in white, told the congregation. “We must make sure that we have forgiveness in our hearts. Because that’s where I am at. And we may not all be there. And it may take some time, and that’s okay, but it may never come.
“But I know for me, my prayer is that we have forgiveness in our hearts and that we’re mindful of what we do because of the lasting effect that it has on those of us that are left behind,” Hennessee continued. “Jalon is not suffering anymore. But what you see here is a family of people that are suffering, and we’re going to continue to suffer.”
A history of liberalism and anarchy
A city of about 650,000 people, Portland has long experienced the push and pull of its stridently felt politics. By many measures, particularly on social issues such as marijuana legalization, the environment and gay rights, the city has been at the vanguard.
But there has also been a historical strain of violent independence in some of its residents, a trait that has helped small groups of self-described anarchists overwhelm the year-old push for police reform and social justice.
From the assessments of the White mayor, Ted Wheeler, and the Black police chief, Chuck Lovell, this smaller faction comprises mostly White, middle-class students and others, who have made places such as churches, public libraries, small Black-owned businesses and a Boys & Girls Club the confounding targets of their vandalism.
Last Tuesday, police declared a riot when one of two groups that had gathered to mark the anniversary of Floyd’s murder broke windows, set fires and threw objects at police. Five people were arrested; all were White.
“We’re a city of two populations. Even though we’re not in the 1950s anymore, many of the people leading us seem to think so,” said Teressa Raiford, director of Don’t Shoot Portland, one of the largest long-standing civil rights groups in the city.
Raiford’s nephew, Andre Payton, was fatally shot in 2010, at 19 years old. In his memory, she founded Don’t Shoot as a “nonviolent, direct action” movement to bring community members and police together against gun violence.
But Raiford, 50, said there is so little trust right now between the social-justice movement and the police that it is nearly impossible to make progress. She believes that some of the vandalism is caused by police informants — plants paid to discredit the wider movement.
“I think I’ve led my people into a burning house,” she said, echoing a quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “There’s not enough work that we can do to beat the machine.”
A generation struggling, a city debating
Portland’s once-vibrant downtown, the heart of a world-class food scene, is still marred by boarded-up windows and closed businesses, the aftermath of a year of pandemic and fear of random assault and vandalism often committed under the name of the police reform movement.
“You have more and more African American leaders coming out to say that this is not helpful,” said Kris R. Henning, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University. “But when you look over the longer history of what’s been going on in Portland — there’s something else happening. It’s not just the protests. It is not just covid-19. There is something else going on in Portland.”
Henning and others say crime was rising in the city before the pandemic shut it down and before Floyd died in Minneapolis with a White police officer’s knee on his neck. From 2019 to 2020, the number of homicides nearly doubled, something Henning called “unheard of” in Portland. This followed years with some of the nation’s lowest crime rates for a city its size.
“So these perpetrators, my guess, were coming of age, were in elementary and middle school right around the Great Recession,” said Brian Renauer, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute at Portland State. “Now they’re in their early to mid-20s. So what we’re seeing is the outgrowth of a breakdown in the family, in the economy, in those neighborhoods they came out of, if this is very much a homegrown phenomenon.”
The rising gun violence, and for a time the downtown demonstrations, have stressed the police department and put it largely on its back foot, as a response unit rather than a force with resources to prevent crime. As one measure, police response time to emergency calls has more than doubled over the past eight years, to more than 40 minutes of wait-time before a call is even fielded by emergency dispatchers.
“Police are bailing,” Henning said. “We are losing our best, most experienced officers left and right, and calls for service are increasing every year.”
Most residents favor more police, not fewer
The Portland Police Bureau is authorized to have 1,001 sworn officers. At the moment it has about 900, a shortage that city officials blame on a lack of urgency in hiring and police leaders attribute to a lack of support and funding.
Lovell, the police chief, who took office in the hot early days of the demonstrations in June 2020, said more than 120 sworn officers have left the department in the past nine months.
The City Council last year cut about $27 million from the roughly $200 million police budget — about $11 million because of a pandemic-caused budget crisis, and $15 million as part of the “defund” effort to shift some police resources to other agencies that may be able to handle nonviolent calls more effectively.
But the police bureau also disbanded a unit last July that focused specifically on gun violence, a high-profile initiative that had been designed to make the agency less reactive and more attuned in advance to rising gang- and gun-related crime as the protests began slowly fading.
“What I know is that being chief, and being a Black chief in particular, this movement to really exclude police from some facets of enforcement or community interaction, it really bears the brunt on the African American community,” Lovell said. “These shootings have an outsized impact on people of color.”
The chief’s goal to reestablish a larger uniformed presence on Portland’s streets and in its most dangerous neighborhoods appears to be supported by many residents, who just a year ago were very much opposed to the city’s police practices.
Some of those practices have changed — in particular, mass arrests during demonstrations have eased — but the confrontations have persisted.
A poll conducted by the Oregonian newspaper this month found that three-quarters of Portland-area residents did not want police officer levels to decline more than they have. Just more than half said they favored an increase in the number of officers.
“They are trying to run a Cadillac with a Volkswagen engine,” said Daryl Turner, who retired after nearly 30 years as a Portland police officer to lead its largest union, the Portland Police Association. “You cannot defund the police and expect the changes they are seeking. Our public officials are not reading the data.”
Adjusting to an old issue — and a resurgent one
The data that landed on Mike Schmidt’s desk in early August 2020, when he took over as Multnomah County district attorney, was a carry-over from the early demonstrations and broad arrests. His predecessor had resigned some six months before Schmidt was scheduled to take office, so Schmidt stepped in before planned.
Most pressing were the 550 cases related to the protests that prosecutors hadn’t yet engaged during the rapid transition in the DA’s office. Nearly all involved first-time offenders charged with interfering with a police officer, which usually carries a public-service penalty but also results in a record.
Schmidt, who interned in the same district attorney’s office years earlier, did not see a public safety benefit in taking the cases to court, a move that he said would “simply throw fuel on the fire” of public sentiment against law enforcement. Only those charged with serious property crimes, among other major offenses, would be prosecuted.
“These were people who are out here in the streets for the right reasons, to have this system changed, to have their voice heard, people who had felt like the criminal justice system had lost their faith,” Schmidt said.
“I was faced with a bunch of competing priorities,” he continued. “Do I use the power of this office to essentially criminalize people who are showing up to criticize the criminal justice system and the inherent conflict in making that decision? If I had to do that, from a public safety standpoint, is there a good public safety case to be made for people being prosecuted for this conduct?”
But Schmidt, who was elected with 77 percent of the vote, said the “message I was sending got twisted,” and the public began to think that no cases associated with protests would be prosecuted. Vandalism and property crimes spiked — and at a time of rising violence against young men of color, Schmidt was making the rounds to explain that people who broke windows and burned buildings would be prosecuted.
So would police officers, a pledge he ran on. Within months, Schmidt will bring two cases involving shootings by officers to grand juries for possible indictments. He will hire outside counsel to present the cases, a change in policy designed to strengthen the public’s sense of independent accountability for police action.
“The work of this office is really ramping up to handle the surge in gun violence,” Schmidt said. “And sometimes, to be frank, it has been frustrating — when I’m at meetings and I’m talking about broken windows and I know that there are bodies in the street, Black and Brown bodies disproportionately, and there I am talking about broken windows.”
Schmidt continued: “Not that I can’t walk and chew gum. I can. And, you know, both things are true and were happening simultaneously, but the violence didn’t seem to be getting that same attention.”
A halting rebirth
Wheeler, the mayor, said he believes that the city has begun to recover, at least from the demonstrations that have left downtown largely empty on most days. Over the past year, he said, the city has recorded an 85 percent decline in downtown foot traffic. The result has been economic despair and more crime.
Now, the pandemic is easing, as are the intensity and frequency of the demonstrations.
“Portland has always had this great tradition of protest,” Wheeler said. “But the anarchists that joined into the demonstration really co-opted what had been a nonviolent message in favor of change. And now that group has gotten much smaller, but also much more blatant in the damage they are causing and the targets they are picking.”
Over the spring, the group of self-described anarchists, usually masked and dressed in black, has shattered windows at the Oregon Historical Society, at a Boys & Girls Club, at a public library, and at many small businesses, including some owned by Black merchants. Wheeler made a public plea for Portlanders to “take the city back.”
At City Hall, Wheeler and the rest of the council are debating ways to increase police resources, a shift for a symbol of the defund movement.
The mayor plans to triple the number of unarmed officers in the police bureau, from 11 to 33, to help manage reports related to mental illness and mounting homelessness while freeing up armed police for more serious calls.
“I think other people are just understanding that this is a really challenging time to be a police officer,” Wheeler said. “And we are finally putting racial disparity and institutional racism front and center in our society. This is an opportunity for us to be honest about its existence, to call it out for what it is and to change it.”
“The legacy of George Floyd is that he gave us this opportunity to address these issues that have been with us for hundreds of years,” he added. “What he gave us is the conversation, and we’re not going to waste it here.”
A call to stop the killing
In the large parking lot of Mannahouse church, five police vehicles, including an RV-size command center, took up positions a few hours before Yoakum’s funeral was scheduled to begin.
Their presence underscored the potential volatility of the event — Yoakum’s parents had called for no public gatherings other than the service — and the community’s uneasy relationship with a police force that can feel heavy at times and invisible at others.
Yoakum’s family wore mostly white; his oldest son, Jahyier, 10, was dapper in a new blue suit. He saw his father for the last time, surrounded by wreaths, behind glass, his eyes closed.
Yoakum was remembered by siblings, pastors and parents, co-workers and friends as dedicated, quiet with a quick smile, dependable, with a taste for Starburst candy. Ushers busily passed out boxes of tissue as speakers described the loss.
“Let this be the first step toward stopping this violence,” said Patricia Daniels, executive director of Constructing Hope, where Yoakum had been due to begin his electrician training the day after he was killed. “As Black people, we are killing each other, killing our brothers and sisters. This is a step to end this now that Jalon would want us to take.”