The campaign to #DisarmPSU steps up

October 18, 2018

A movement at Portland State University is putting pressure on the Board of Trustees after campus police killed a community member in June, writes Michael Mullinax.

STUDENTS and community members have mounted an escalating campaign at Portland State University (PSU) in response to the lack of any charges being filed against two campus police officers who shot and killed Jason Washington in June.

The 45-year-old Washington was trying to break up a brawl outside The Cheerful Tortoise, a popular pub on campus, when two officers — Shawn McKenzie and James Dewey — fired a combined 17 shots, killing Washington less than 30 seconds after arriving on the scene.

Frustration mounted in early September when a grand jury chose not to criminally charge the officers. From September 24 to October 4, activists from the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU) and other community members and organizations occupied the steps outside the Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO). They then turned their attention to packing an October 4 PSU Board of Trustees meeting to keep the pressure on.

While some aspects of this occupation mirrored that of #OccupyICEPDX earlier this year, its character was different. Activists set up tents, stayed overnight and built a candlelight memorial for Washington, but the goal of the occupation was not to shut down the office.

Students march against violence by campus police in Portland, Oregon
Students march against violence by campus police in Portland, Oregon (Portland State University Student Union | Facebook)

“What we want to do is to say that any time you come to CPSO, if you think you’re going to come here and feel safe or be protected, you’re not going to,” said Olivia Pace, a PSUSU activist and member of Socialist Alternative. “You’re not safe on this campus...We don’t want people to be able to pass into the space without being reminded of that and without being reminded of Jason Washington.”

Over the summer, PSUSU revived its #DisarmPSU campaign, which had been started in 2014 in response to the decision by the unelected Board of Trustees to arm campus police. A PSUSU poll at the time found that 58 percent of students and 68 percent of faculty opposed arming campus police.

The #DisarmPSU campaign has put forward these demands to the Board of Trustees: 1) immediate disarmament of all campus public safety officers; 2) immediate firing of the officers who murdered Washington; and 3) initiation of a process, overseen by Washington’s family, to create a permanent memorial for him.

Pace, who has been with the #DisarmPSU campaign since its inception in 2014, stressed the importance of turning the simmering discontent into action, in an interview with Socialist Alternative newspaper:

The key is turning that huge passive support into active participation, which requires patience and a keen sense of timing. It has taken us five years to get here. We went from being a small group of about seven people who would put tape over our mouths in board meetings in 2015 to having rallies of 100 people in the park blocks, to going to the president’s office and putting statements and videos out on Facebook shaming him, to having a 500-person walkout, to planning a hundreds-strong rally within two days after Jason’s murder, to finally now getting national coverage on the first day of school, taking over the Campus Safety office, and being confident that we can hold it.

ON OCTOBER 4, the occupation officially ended, and activists and community members attended the PSU Board of Trustees’ meeting. The Board of Trustees had solicited open comments on their website in the time leading up to the meeting, asking people to sign up to speak.

What you can do

Help PSUSU continue its #DisarmPSU campaign by liking, sharing and following its Facebook page. To make a donation, their CashApp address is $PSUSU.

At 8:30 a.m. in PSU’s Lincoln Hall, where the Board meeting was about to take place, students, activists and community members quickly packed the large auditorium-style classroom. As they came in, they placed placards in front of the tables where the board members were seated, reading “No more killer cops! #DisarmPSU!” and “Black Lives Matter.” Many wore white bandanas that bore Jason Washington’s name on them.

After the formalities of the board meeting had concluded, the public comments section began. One after another, powerful and emotional testimonies came from audience members about police violence, abuse of power and the board’s culpability for its decision to arm campus police in 2015. More than 70 people took the microphone to speak up for disarming campus security.

The chair of the meeting ostensibly limited comments to three minutes each, but several speakers took much more time than that. When the chair attempted to ask those individuals to stop, she was greeted with jeers from the crowd and shouts of “Let them speak!”

When it was her turn to speak, Pace placed the blame for Jason Washington’s death squarely on the Board of Trustees and implored the Board to honor PSUSU’s demands:

Our power is growing, our campaign is growing, our numbers are growing, our determination is growing. Your power is weakening. The days are gone of you making us look like immature students with fringe ideas. We are not on the fringe — we are a part of a tradition of student movements working in conjunction with contemporary civil rights movements.

We have a simple belief that those who make a community work should be the ones with the loudest and most important voice on the mechanisms created to keep that community safe. I ask you, in the era of Trump, and everything horrific that has preceded it and come out of it, what side of history would you like to be on?...

Somebody has died. On your watch. On the watch of every board member who voted yes on this policy. It is time for you to give it up. You can either continue to perpetuate the corporatization of the public university and turn a blind eye to a family who has lost their husband, father, brother, grandfather, best friend. Or you can save yourself the further embarrassment. Make yourselves look like the heroes. Stand up in the face of what everybody in this community and across the country has correctly identified as another case of racist police violence.

ON OCTOBER 9, PSUSU released a statement via its Facebook page, which read in part:

The occupation allowed us to connect with more than 6,000 students, faculty, staff and community members who support campus disarmament — this number is absolutely unprecedented by any other entity on campus. The thousands we were able to engage allowed us to show the board that the broad opinion on campus is unwaveringly in favor of disarmament.

In terms of getting closer to meeting our demands, the board has been pushed, and we know that they and the administration are feeling increased pressure. However, they are continuing forward with the farcical process of bringing in two third-party consultants to investigate the policy of armament as well as the incident in which Jason Washington was murdered.

We believe this is highly unnecessary as the opinion of those who live, learn and work on this campus has already been heard. Our demands are clear, and there is no need to gather more information. We intend to put continued pressure on the board and the administration with escalating tactics during the duration of these unnecessary investigations. We intend to win this fight.

The #DisarmPSU campaign highlights the importance of fighting for Black lives in the Trump era, particularly in Portland, a city plagued by repeated mobilizations of white supremacists, police brutality and police killings of Black and Brown people and people living with mental illness.

On September 30, for example, Portland police killed 27-year-old Black man Patrick Kimmons. The two officers responsible are now on paid administrative leave, though both of whom are connected to two other incidents of murder by police.

The killings of Washington and Kimmons are not isolated incidents, but the fatal consequences of police violence imbued with institutionalized racism.

Standing up to the institutions that uphold white supremacy is a critical and inseparable component to the broader fight for a better world. We have to fight them in our schools, in our workplaces and city governments. We have to fight them at every level of this society. We have to fight, and we have to win.

Greg Fox contributed to this article.

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