We are just beginning to fight for Jason

July 30, 2018

Nikki Williams and Melissa Rakestraw report on how the killing of an African American man by Portland State University police is stoking anger and protest among his co-workers — and renewing calls to disarm the police force whose officers shot him.

JASON WASHINGTON was a beloved member of the community in Portland, Oregon — a 45-year-old local who had married his high school sweetheart, helped raise three children and welcomed a 5-year-old granddaughter into the world. He was a Navy veteran, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier and a steward for his union.

Now, he’s dead — shot and killed by the recently armed campus police at Portland State University (PSU) as he was trying to break up a fight outside a bar.

Cell phone footage shows officers Shawn McKenzie and James Dewey passively watching while Washington intervened to de-escalate the brawl that began outside a bar on the edge of the PSU campus on the night of June 29.

At one point during the fight, Washington’s gun, which had been visible throughout the entire encounter, fell out of the holster on his hip. Washington was only a few feet away from the officers when he retrieved the gun and began walking away from them. Without hesitation, the officers shot him at least six times.

Jason Washington's family at a Portland State University vigil after his killing
Jason Washington's family at a Portland State University vigil after his killing

Oregon is an open carry state, and Washington had a valid permit. But the National Rife Association has been silent on this case, as it typically is when the victim is Black.

Washington’s murder has brought the issue of police murder into the spotlight in Portland, especially among his fellow members of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) — while PSU students and community members are reacting by reviving the call to disarm the campus police.

AT THE NALC convention in Detroit earlier this month, more than 30 carriers from Jason’s Branch 82 in Portland crowded to a floor microphone to honor him.

Previously at the convention, speakers had come to the mic to ask for a moment of silence to honor a fallen carrier. The Portland contingent took a different approach.

After telling the story of Jason’s killing, instead of asking for silence to remember him, former Branch 82 President Jim Falvey explained that his branch asked that everyone in the auditorium say, “Jason Washington,” after Falvey called out “Say his name.”

As tears poured down the faces of many union siblings, more than 6,000 assembled carriers responded to three prompts of “Say his name.” It was by far the most emotional and powerful moment of the five-day gathering as Jason’s name echoed out across Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Washington’s death is an obvious blow to his union. As current Branch 82 President David Norton said:

Jason was a larger-than-life personality. He was funny, boisterous, smart and always positive. If you had ever worked with him, or simply had met him, you would never forget him. I and everyone that I have talked to that knew Jason is devastated by his loss. It does not surprise me that Jason was attempting to de-escalate the situation that was occurring that evening. That was the kind of person Jason was.

The post office is the largest civilian employer of veterans and unionized Black workers, and Jason’s death further illustrates the need for organized labor to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement — and, in this instance, the Disarm PSU campaign.

Dozens of Jason’s family and friends came to the Disarm PSU action after his death, and offered their support for the student movement.

ALL OF the people who came to the memorial to Jason one week after his death could see and feel the impact of the out-of-control racist police.

The loss of this life was completely avoidable. “We’ve been organizing against this exact scenario — some people for six years,” said Olivia Pace, a PSU student and activist who is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU).

“As someone who’s spent my entire adult life fighting this type of violence on my campus specifically, to see it play out in such a disgusting way, it was horrible...We were right all along, and we knew we were. They didn’t listen, and now someone is dead.”

Former PSU President Wim Weiwel and the board of trustees began considering arming campus security in 2012. Students in PSUSU, a student group with the goal of autonomous student power that includes members of Socialist Alternative (SA) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), immediately began organizing to fight the proposal.

They asserted that armed campus police would only endanger students, especially students of color.

After the Board of Trustees voted in favor of the proposal in 2014, PSUSU students formed relationships with community organizations and created the #DisarmPSU campaign. “We were seeing so many situations like this — of Black people who were clearly innocent who were being gunned down by police officers for being a minor inconvenience,” Pace recalled.

Inspired by Black Lives Matter, PSUSU students educated the university and surrounding community about the proposal and the threat it posed, and brought more people into the struggle. They led direct actions such “die-ins” in meetings of the Board of Trustees, and gained media attention for the cause.

When PSU administrators began suspending students for speaking up, community members stepped in to participate in actions so that students wouldn’t get punished.

When two of the founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, spoke at an event hosted by PSU, they asked the Board of Trustees to listen to students, and then handed the mic to a leading member of #DisarmPSU.

As the campaign progressed, a survey showed that 58 percent of the student body and 68 percent of the faculty were against arming campus security. Entire departments voiced their opposition to the proposal, including the Department of Social Work.

WHILE THESE efforts were successful in gaining support for the campaign and giving the Board of Trustees pause, a three-year plan to slowly create a PSU police force was passed in June 2015. The only votes in opposition were from the only faculty member on the board and from a community member who works for a children’s nonprofit.

The Board of Trustees, an unelected and unaccountable governing body, claimed that it was arming the police in the interest of campus safety, specifically citing the need to prevent sexual assault. In reality, armed campus police have been utilized to intimidate students protesters, including survivors who have come forward to protest PSU’s inaction in cases of sexual assault.

Campus police are also being used to remove homeless people, as PSUSU member Kaitlyn Dey pointed out. “It’s a continuation of the criminalization of homelessness,” Dey said. “They’re going to continue to harass people who Portland State believes doesn’t belong on campus.”

After Weiwel, who wrote the book The University as Urban Developer, was hired in 2008, businesses and new buildings have popped up all over PSU, which is located in downtown Portland.

Pace points out that the board of trustees is primarily comprised of CEOs and developers. “Their history is not in education,” Pace said. “It’s in development. This decision was not made by educators. There is no way to disguise it as a measure to create safety. It is a board of CEOs and developers making a decision that will protect the property of the institution, and that’s all it is.”

Since learning about Washington’s death, PSU’s only response has been an empty statement from current President Rahmat Shoureshi stating that they were waiting for facts.

THE CAMPAIGN to #DisarmPSU had been inactive for a year, but it has been reignited with Washington’s death. PSUSU members organized a vigil and march a few days after the shooting that was attended by hundreds of people.

Students spoke about feeling unsafe on campus. “My black skin is not a threat,” said Sophomore Brianna Henderson. “Jason’s black skin is not a threat. He did not deserve this.”

During the vigil, a large group of Washington’s family and close friends stood in the back, wearing black shirts with Washington’s image, and holding pictures and signs.

Washington’s older brother Andre Washington, a PSU alum, spoke at the vigil to say that his family was demanding that Officers Dewey and McKenzie be fired, and that PSU disarm its officers.

Washington’s loved ones marched on the sidewalk beside students who took over the street shouting “Say his name: Jason Washington” and “PSU we warned you!”

The crowd marched to PSU’s Campus Public Safety Office and covered the building with signs stating why PSU should be disarmed. Washington’s family and friends left their signs and pictures of Washington enjoying time with them.

This should not have happened to Jason Washington. It should not happen to anyone. Activists with Disarm PSU are determined to stop a similar tragedy from happening on their campus again.

“If campus security wasn’t armed, at worst, they would have had to tackle him to the ground and put cuffs on him,” said Alyssa Pariah, a member of SA who helped start #DisarmPSU. “He would have been booked. He would have been released. Instead, he’s dead.”

With this revitalization, activists are bringing in the lessons learned from the past. Eva María, a member of the International Socialist Organization and former PSU student and faculty member who was also one of the original members of the #DisarmPSU, believes the lessons learned over the past six years will help strengthen the renewed campaign.

“Movements sometimes lose in their goals,” Eva María says, “but the trace they leave can help the next step of the movement start from a stronger, more organized point. I think [#DisarmPSU is] already starting at a stronger point than when we initiated this. There are experienced organizers involved, and the outrage and passion of the new students is clear.”

“We need to continue to build coalitions,” said PSUSU member Kaitlyn Dey, “and work together on this issue, and continually come up with ideas for after the steam dies down. A lot of that is through coalition.”

María agrees. “For the strategy to be fleshed out collectively,” she said, “there will need to be ample space for debate and collective decision-making, so that we can be effective in pursuing the campaign.”

On July 19, activists who have been in the struggle from day one stood next to students who are new to this campaign and looked up at a billboard in downtown Portland that says, “Disarm PSU.” Washington’s brother Andre shared a picture of that moment on social media and commented: “This is only the beginning of what’s to come.”

Tess Carter contributed to this article.

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