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April 2002

April 1. The day, Mark Twain once remarked, that describes how humans behave the other 364 days of the year.

But the first day of April now has a different meaning for many Portlanders. On April 1, 2001, Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot died at the hands of Portland police officers who claimed that the aluminum rod Mejia Poot wielded represented a life-threatening situation to the officers. The 29-year-old immigrant worker, here to make money to support his wife and family in Mexico, died without ever understanding what he had done to warrant the abuse (intentional and through gross incompetence) heaped upon him for three days leading to this final and fatal confrontation.

The Mejia Poot tragedy, however, is actually part of a much larger tragedy: the continued killing or near-killing of citizens by the Portland police. Mejia Poot was one of 11 people the police used deadly force against since Jan. 2001. He, along with Daniel Crumb (age 23), Raymond Leonard Youngberg (age 50), and Byron Clay Hammick, Jr. (age 26) died as a result of that application of deadly force.

The bloody and shameful trail that starts with Mejia Poot and ends with Hammick leads to a City Hall that to all appearances has decided it can live with the political baggage that comes with a police force that shoots and often kills those wrong the wrong skin color, the wrong accent, the wrong income bracket, or the wrong political ideology. It is a City Hall that is "handling" the bad press being created by the family of the police bureaušs most recent victim, while at the same time further weakening an already near-impotent Independent Police Review Division.

It is a City Hall that not only continues to advance a law and order agenda that means more deaths in some neighborhoods but safer property in others, but one that shows open disrespect for the people who they are supposed to serve. Whether it is the mayor walking off during citizen testimony she doesn't want to hear or the entire council allowing Portland Police Association President Robert King assert - as the smoke of the Hammick killing was still in the air - that there's never been a police shooting that wasn't justified, the message is clear.

But the tragedy doesnšt end there. We are fast approaching another municipal election where those who have played a part in the killing are largely getting by unchallenged. It is true that Dan Saltzman is being challenged by Peter Alexander, a candidate who filed on the last day and faces Saltzman's enormous war chest. And while this paper does not endorse candidates, the sight of one serious candidate at the city level is cause for celebration in what is laughingly called a democracy in this city. But what of all the past election cycles that have left those in City Hall safe to do as they please? Where are the candidates for 2004? One of the most obvious ways to stop the killing is to replace those who give the police free rein with those who would impose real accountability.

And if electoral politics aren't to your liking - a perfectly understandable position - what about turning out in the streets to stop the killing?

I attended the first of three planned marches to protest the Hammick killing. About 100 people participated, only a handful representing the usual protestors against police violence. On the positive side, this was truly a community-based action in which families marched to decry the Hammick killing. These were activists by necessity I've spoken of in other columns. But where was everyone else? Where were those so enraged by the far more gentle (in comparison) treatment given to May Day protesters two years ago? Where were the organizers of May Day 2002 who were so proud of having gone toe-to-toe with the City? Does fighing for the streets only apply to highly visible Broadway?

Portland's Left - which most the time I am proud to claim membership in - is approaching a critical point. It can either get serious about being a movement or it can settle into a comfortable and ineffectual and primarily affluent white bohemianism in which we discuss and critique but we change nothing.

That would be one more tragedy - perhaps more than this community can take. Those we oppose are open about their agenda. They plan to impoverish us, disenfranchise us, and even kill us if necessary. We can only stop them by building bridges now to those activists by necessity who are truly fighting for their own lives and the lives of their families. We can only begin movement building by losing a lot of attitude and recognizing that those on the front lines not only understand what is going on but may be better at leading us in stopping the killing and all the rest - if we're willing to follow and support them.

If not, perhaps we are and will continue to be fools to the end of our days.

-Dave Mazza

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