Hundreds of people arrested on non-violent misdemeanor charges during the protests in Portland, Oregon won’t be prosecuted after the District Attorney announced policy changes to protect people exercising their First Amendment right.
About 550 charges have been referred to Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s office since May 29 and they include 140 felonies, 45 of which are currently being pursued by authorities.
But as the office runs more than two months behind in processing cases because of COVID-19, Schmidt announced Tuesday that charges will be dropped for people who got caught up in rioting, if the allegations don’t involve ‘deliberate’ property damage, theft or force against another person or threats of force.
The majority of those arrested as a result of the unrest at the racial justice protests are white, according to the DA.
The policy change doesn’t affect federal charges, of which there are dozens, including arson.
Schmidt acknowledged that many of the crimes committed in the days and months following George Floyd’s death were unexpected reactions to the mistreatment of citizens by police while they were protesting against police brutality.
The new policy announced Tuesday recognizes the outrage and frustration over a history of racial injustice that has led to the city’s often violent protests and the practical realities of the court system.
‘The protesters are angry … and deeply frustrated with what they perceive to be structural inequities in our basic social fabric. And this frustration can escalate to levels that violate the law,’ Schmidt said in a video from KGW.
‘What we’re doing is recognizing that the right to speak and have your voice heard is extremely important.
‘If you’re out there committing violence, you’re damaging property, those cases are going to be prosecuted. If you’re a person who is out there demonstrating and you get caught up in the melee, those are the kinds of cases that we’re talking about.’
The same no prosecution policy applies to those arrested on similar charges in future demonstrations, he said.
The city’s protests have dominated local news and made international headlines for more than 70 days since the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck for nearly eight minutes.
Consecutive nights of unrest last month that increasingly targeted a federal courthouse in Portland prompted President Donald Trump to dispatch U.S. agents to guard the building.
The presence of the agents from U.S Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service was aimed at quelling the demonstrations but instead reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement.
But the government reaction ignited more unrest. Police precincts in the north and east of the city, the police union headquarters and a building that houses police offices have been frequent targets.
Protests continued nightly at locations miles from the courthouse, with demonstrators calling for the City Council to defund local police and reinvest the money in the Black community.
The U.S. agents began drawing down July 31 under an agreement between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown for Oregon state troopers to guard the courthouse.
Schmidt took office August 1 and worked with a 15-member transition team including four who were at the briefing on Tuesday; Ricardo Lujan-Valerio of the Latino Network, Kayse Jama of Unite Oregon, retired Portland Assistant Police Chief Kevin Modica, and Lakayana Drury, co-chair of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese objected to a draft proposal of the policy on Friday so they reached a compromise.
‘This policy acknowledges that centuries of disparate treatment of Black and brown people have left people with deep wounds,’ Schmidt said.
‘This policy recognizes in order to advance public safety, we must not only prevent crime but we must also promote economic and housing stability, educational opportunities, strong family and community relationships, mental and physical health and build trust with everybody in our community.
‘I want to make it very clear though, this is not a free pass. While I will do what I can to provide protesters with a forum to make their voices heard, I will not tolerate deliberate acts of violence against police or anyone else.’
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, informed of the impending policy change last week, said the decision does not change Oregon law and still holds accountable people who commit violent acts or intentionally damage property.
‘Committing a crime is different from demonstrating,’ Lovell said in a statement. ‘The arrests we make often come after hours of damage to private property, disruption of public transit and traffic on public streets, thefts from small businesses, arson, burglary, attacks on members of the community, and attacks against police officers.’
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the Police Commissioner, did not respond to a request for comment.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announces policy on Portland protests.
Schmidt’s policy change came the day after he dropped charges against Demetria Hester ‘in the interest of justice.’
Hester became a leading activist in the racial justice movement after she was assaulted by a white supremacist three years ago.
Hester had been booked on suspicion of disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer during the protest that began Sunday night. Hester’s arrest drew a sharp rebuke from national Black Lives Matter activists, who are increasingly focusing on demonstrations in Oregon’s largest city.
Officers made dozens of arrests last weekend and this week after clashes with demonstrators who police have said threw eggs, bottles and rocks at officers; started fires and punctured the tires of police vehicles.
Tuesday night, one group blocked traffic downtown in a peaceful gathering that authorities did not interact with, Portland police said in a statement.
A person in another demonstrating group that blocked traffic for hours near the Multnomah County Sheriff´s Office building fell off the back of a pickup truck, the statement said.
Authorities brought in an ambulance to take the person to a hospital. Police threatened to arrest some protesters after they went on the property of the sheriff’s office building, but they left, the statement said.
No arrests were made and no crowd control methods were used, the police statement said.