It was just after midnight on a September Sunday when several police officers, responding to reports of property damage, approached a small group of young black men walking down a street in north Portland, Oregon. Among them was 16-year-old Thai Gurule, a football player at Roosevelt High School, and his older brother Giovanni. Officers ordered Thai to stop. He kept walking.
Within minutes Thai would be tackled by several officers, forced to the ground, tased and handcuffed. Later, despite a judge’s ruling that the initial stop was illegal, he’d face charges of resisting arrest, assaulting a public safety officer and attempted strangulation. Giovanni would face similar, though less serious, charges. The Portland Police Bureau worked quickly to defend their officers, releasing a statement that explained that the Gurule brothers were “very hostile,” and that Thai demonstrated “active aggression, including his choking the female officer.”
Cell phone videos captured a different scene: Thai, slight of body, standing still between two officers. “Can I ask you a question?” Giovanni can be heard saying. “What did my little brother do? He don’t do nothing. He plays football for Roosevelt, come on now. He don’t drink. He don’t smoke.” Suddenly, the officers pull Thai towards the ground. His white hat falls off, and he reaches for it through the scrum. Officers bark orders, and bystanders shout: “Stop pulling his hair!” “Why are you punching him?” “That’s illegal!” “What’s the problem that he caused?” “Fucking pigs!” When they tase him, Thai begins to gasp, his high-pitched keening overlaid by the hoarser, panicked protests coming from his older brother.
Less than a month earlier, the Portland Police Bureau had reached a “groundbreaking” agreement with the Department of Justice to settle a case stemming from repeated incidences of police violence. There was the schizophrenic who was beaten to death by officers; the suicidal young black man who was shot in the back after concerned relatives called the police; another young man in a mental health crisis who was shot to death after cops pulled him over for driving “like a gangster.” The deal, as described by the DOJ, will put in place “innovative new mechanisms” for community oversight and requires reforms to training and use-of-force guidelines.
The bureau’s treatment of mentally ill people was the focus of the federal inquiry. The DOJ did also acknowledge “the often tense relationship between PPB and the African American community,” and that some Portlanders believe city cops are out to “protect the white folk and police the black folk.” But the feds didn’t dig for the roots of that tension. Portland is roughly 6 percent African-American, while just over 3 percent of the police force is. About 14 percent of the people pulled over in traffic stops are African-American, as are a quarter of people shot or shot at by police. Beneath the gloss of white Portland’s self-conscious progressivism are grievances related to this skewed use of force; to the rapid gentrification of historically black neighborhoods; the decline of black-owned businesses and public schools in those areas; and a deep history of state-sanctioned racism. “I live north of Portlandia,” a senior at De La Salle North Catholic High School put it at a forum on racial profiling in early March. “The one you know nothing about.”