‘Double dutching,’ cats and PTSD: Black & Blue at the July 15 North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting
Coming on the heels of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, and the shooting of 14 police officers in Dallas, the July 15 North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting was emotionally charged and intense.
The meeting, which represents a coalition of outreach and mental health workers who work in partnership with the Portland Police Bureau in youth gang prevention, filled the room to overflowing. It included a group of nearly 20 youth from a local peer mentoring organization called TLC-TNT.
While public meetings can be full of posturing and bureaucracy — and truth be told, there was a little of that too— this coming together felt different.
The feeling in the room? One of collective grief, and trauma.
“As you probably know, this is not our typical meeting,” said Antoinette Edwards, director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, as strains of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” faded.
“Y’all come in,” Edwards urged people who kept showing up, crowding the room, flowing out the doors. “We gonna do something. Don’t call the fire marshall, police, mayor, not just yet,” she joked.
The list of attendees was broad: Multnomah County mental health workers. Police officers and managers of every level. Gang outreach workers. Latino Network. Constructing Hope. A federal magistrate judge. Pastors, imams. PIVOT Job Corps. Several parents or other relatives of homicide victims. The Avel Gordly Center for Healing. MeCha. Africa House, IRCO. Gresham Police. Portland Parks and Recreation. East Portland crime prevention. Many more.
Edwards passed her facilitator baton to Michelle Lewis, a therapist.
“I was asked to come as a therapist, and also as a community member,” Lewis, an Afrocentric practitioner at OHSU’s Avel Gordly Center for Healing, said. “I was born and raised here … I’m living out in Gresham area now due to the gentrification process that’s been happening in our community … and I’ve been asked by Antoinette to come and to kind of share how these changes are impacting our community from a psychological standpoint. … Also, to share some coping skills.”
What people shared appeared to reflect an inner turmoil being experienced by those in communities of color as well as law enforcement. All the more so, perhaps, for those who are both persons of color and affiliated with law enforcement.
“We are all struggling emotionally, as well as mentally … some of the things that I’ve been hearing a lot from families, friends, and service users is that, ‘I feel like I’m going crazy,’” Lewis said.
“We are in a hypervigilant state … we are on guard right now,” Lewis said. “When you’re on guard and hypervigilant, there’s no time to think, and the brain cannot tell between a real and a perceived threat when you’re in a hypervigilant state of mind. …”
“When you’re emotionally disregulated, the term I always use is, I go from zero to sixty, and I don’t know what happened in between,” Lewis said, to sympathetic laughter.
Lewis detailed stages of grief, provided guidance about post-traumatic stress, and elaborated coping skills.
But the meeting included a diversity of perspectives. Some of the most powerful voices belonged to youth.
A recent high school graduate and employee at the District Attorney’s office named Asianique Savage earned a standing ovation with her words. Savage said she wants to spend her last summer before she goes off to college organizing young people. Savage, 18, is the daughter of Asia Bell, who was shot and killed on a North Mississippi Ave. porch in 2002, as Asianique, then a young girl, slept in a back room.
“Why not do something about the laws, because it’s the laws that are killing us,” Savage told the room.
“In my head I’m thinking, ‘okay, so what can I do?’ Everybody wants to be mad, and everybody wants to play the blame game, but what can I do? I thought, the people that are getting killed are the ages between 17 and 30. … So why not do something to help us [young people] educate ourselves about the laws? … I want to call it, “What About Us?” … my main focus are our brown-skinned communities. It’s just to come together, and have police officers do demonstrations on how we’re supposed to be prepped, and how we’re supposed to be touched by police officers, what we can do to defend ourselves.”
“But without it being hostile.”
“Also with that, most of us youth, we don’t know our human rights. We don’t know the types of things that we can do if an officer stops us and wants to search us. We need to know that we can say no. And that we do not have to be scared. … I want to do something for our community, and hopefully what I do jumps off, and continues, because it’s very important for our young youth to know the laws.”
One of the TLC-TNT youths, Gabriel Gutierrez-Aragon, said young people’s voices need to be heard.
“If you all want me to be honest, I think you all need to check in with the youth and really understand how it is that they’re approaching these issues,” he said. “Because me, I sit here and I look around at the officers coming into this room and I’m like, ‘damn, this is scary, I don’t want you here.’ Like, for real. And I can see beyond the suit and see the person, right? I can look into your eyes and know that there’s a soul that’s actually registering my presence here now, and understand that you are all here just as I am. … You’ve come to embody the idea of a police force, and I am embodying the idea of a Mexican, whatever that is. At the end of the day, it’s the actions, right?”
“If I want to be [a radical like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Fred Hampton], then what am I looking at? I’m looking at a system that’s going to kill me for it,” Gutierrez-Aragon said. “I’m looking at people like you, who are going to throw me in jail for it. You know? And that’s my reality.” Gutierrez-Aragon’s words also earned him a standing ovation.
Imam Mikal Shabazz of the Muslim Community Center, spoke eloquently even while making an unusual comparison to, uh, cats.
“The relationship between black men and women and police is what it is, and we all are beginning to see just what it has been, across the board,” Shabazz said. “I have three cats. … The thing about cats, they’re something like people. Once you break a cat’s trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back,” Shabazz said. “You have to sometimes wait until the next generation of cats come, and the next generation of people come, to get that trust back,” he said, to increasing clamor. “But you have to work at it, and establish the fact that you are at least trying to work towards that trust. But to expect it to come back immediately because you want it back is an unrealistic expectation. And I think that that’s where we may find ourselves today, as cats. … suspicious cats, at the least, based on what has been done to us, or whom we have seen things done to.”
“We might want to take a look at what’s at risk,” Shabazz said, “and look at it from a global perspective. Because there are those who won’t come in this room, who have made up their mind that all the words that we say don’t mean a damn thing, excuse my expression, don’t mean anything. They’ve already decided, and we’ve seen the horrific impact of them making that decision in their own heads. It’s in the fact that their actions have to be grotesque beyond human belief. We just saw it in Nice, yesterday. France. That’s what’s at risk.”
“In our political reality today, we are looking at a global model. … It’s in the ether. In the ether, right now, we have something that’s far beyond human perception and comfort. And we have to make up our minds, is this what we want? And is it too late?”
Portland’s gentrification and white privilege were touched on as well.
“To me, it’s the little things, when I’m looking and seeing how a certain black coworker treats a certain white coworker,” one mental health worker said. “When I see that the white coworkers recently got moved, our company got moved out to Gresham. You should see how hard they’re dealing with that. And I’m going … really? … What I want us to do is start uncoding. When you look at your institution, you can tell. It’s made for the white culture. And people don’t know what that means. And I want to take that on, like, how do we uncode that?”
A man fought back tears as he related his struggles with privilege.
“As a white person in the room, we have all of us a blindness that is the result of white privilege, that keeps us from seeing the pain and suffering of others. … I fight it every day, and I don’t want it in my life, because it keeps this system, it keeps all of us in bondage, in power. And as soon as we can break that power, and begin to talk to one another, and have compassion for one another, a lot of things can happen.”
One woman spoke of watching her adolescent son play basketball with other youth, and being freaked out by a police cruiser that slowed down to check them out.
“These kids is scared. 12 and 13 year old, and they see a police car coming, and then they freeze, you know. So my question to you is, what should I say? I should have intervened. I should have said, ‘hey guys, it’s okay!’ But I did not. I’m just saying, these kids is traumatized.”
Over the course of 90 minutes, faces in the room moved from initial moments of camaraderie and back slapping to sorrow, to tears. Heavy sighs were overheard from 250-pound, muscle-bound males. Eyes were dabbed.
Many of those in the room, it was clear, are on the front lines.
“Officers as well, their families are suffering, their children are suffering as well,” Lewis said. “We need to work together to figure out what we need to do as a community here in Portland, to protect our children, to protect all life as much as possible. Nobody likes to lose somebody that they love and care about.”
At times the group discussion sounded nothing like what one might expect to hear in a police precinct — almost as if Lewis’ practiced guidance had transformed the meeting into a 1960s teach-in:
“We still got to get in there, talk to legislators, get some of these laws changed,” was a typical comment.
“What I need to see happen is, what do you do after five o’clock?” Keith Edwards of Constructing Hope asked. “Do you go out to communities that you’re not familiar with, do you interact with people that don’t look like you? That’s what has to happen. … If only the folks in this room are participating, then not a lot’s going to change, I can tell you that right now. … We need the whole city to get involved, Mr. Mayor,” Edwards said, to loud applause. “These conversations need to be held all over this city, because everybody’s part of the problem, so everybody’s got to be part of the solution.”
Jack Stripper, 72, spoke of being in a gang from the 1960s called Poison Ivory. “What we did, when we didn’t get along with each other, we’d meet up at the park, at Irving Park, in front of each other. We’ll fight, cut each other. Then whoever gets it set up, we’ll join teams, and say, ‘good job.’ That’s how we understand how to communicate and understand each other. It’s not about war, and fighting. … All of us need to trust each other more, be able to speak to each other more, don’t be scared.”
While the gunplay gets most of the attention, police officers like Julia Rico and Israel Hill suggested, most of the day-to-day work of any police officer is based in service, communication, and trust.
“Where would we be if we didn’t have the police,” Rico, a long-time North Precinct veteran officer, wondered. “And it’s not a Black issue, it’s not a Latino issue, a Russian issue, or a police issue. I mean, we got to get together and start talking. … We got to work together. If a man is wearing a police uniform, and you’re in dire straits and you need help, are you going to go to the guy that’s wearing a regular shorts and shirt? No! You’re naturally going to go to the police officer.
“That trust needs to be developed, again, because we’re all in it together.”
“I think we all find that it’s much easier for us to try and build trust when things are bad, it seems like the natural thing to do,” said George Burke, North Precinct Commander. “But the unnatural thing to do is to try and build trust, and work on that trust when things are good. Because it doesn’t seem to be so important then. It becomes important when we’re having trauma in our lives. But now is the time for us to continue to work on that trust piece, and when things settle down, we continue to build that trust. That’s all I ask.”
Sometimes community members don’t understand the ways in which law enforcement can inspire troubled youth to change their ways, said Val Polk of Portland OIC.
“When I was your age, it was the cops and robbers game, that was the game that we was playing. When you catch me, oh, you got me. You was better than me that day. But when I got away with it, I was better than you that day. But I have to be one hundred, you know, and I’ve done a lot. Hard headed? I did it. But I had to make changes. And one of those changes was, I had Officer Barrios that would get out of that car,” Polk said. Knew I was wrong. And say, ‘man, what are you doing?’ Brother Modica. Yeah, there was a lot of them. Cigar. Man, I can name ’em all. And every time they came around, I’d throw my head down, ‘Aw, damn it!’ But, when I started doing the right thing, and doing it the right way, you know, I don’t care about you pulling up on me. Now I’d get nervous, and like the brother said, you hear the sirens, they coming up behind you, I ain’t gonna lie, I’d get the goose bumps, and ‘what did I do? What did I do?’ I wonder if they see me. But then it goes away. And that’s that cortisol business. But then I have to check myself. ‘Man, you ain’t done nothing wrong, you all right. You work at the school, you work at gang outreach, every day, all day. It’s what I do.
Even today, he still gets checked by police, Polk noted.
“This ain’t a job, this is a lifestyle. I get paid to have fun, and work with young people, and teach y’all, and show y’all we can do it the right way. It takes a little bit longer to get where you wanting to go, but do it the right way. It took me ten years to go back to college, but I went back. Don’t wait, young people. I got blessed with a scholarship. Get yours, and keep moving forward. And then come back here!
“I got respect for the police, I don’t want no problems. I’m not mad at you. Now. Don’t get me confused; I just got checked the other day. But I ain’t going to hold it against him. And I ain’t going to be mad at you. Because you need me. I don’t need you. You need me, officer. So it’s that love that the brother was talking about, got to have that love. … We all know the laws, we do. But we taking that chance, double dutching.”
“Stop double dutching, and let’s get together and do what we do.”
Israel Hill, a former football player and mountain of a man who is now a graveyard-shift officer with Portland police, spoke of his pride in his job and how black police officers “get it from both sides.”
“I am a young married black man committed to his wife and children, who believes in God and loves the value of life. I appreciate the value of life, but I am also law enforcement, and I am proud to be law enforcement. And I love my job. … It starts at home. It can’t continuously be us versus them. What these young people mean to me, before I even got the job that I have now, youth are everything,” Hill said.
“You have to respect what we’re trying to do out here, because we are trying to make it better. And our home is Portland. You guys [youth] have to understand, there are a lot of officers here that are really trying,” Hill said, visibly emotional. “And it hurts me when I’m driving down the street and I want to get out of the car to engage a kid, and then I go towards the kids and some kids are receptive to me because they know me, and other kids are like, ‘Oh, F the police.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m only here because I want to be. I’m not trying to take anybody to jail, I’m not trying to see what’s in your pockets, I’m not going to tell you what you should or should not be doing.” At this point, Hill paused for a minute, then smiled.
“I take that back, yes I will.”
“There are great, great, great police officers here in this city of Portland. … I just want you to know, from a black police officer, who gets it on both sides … when I’m in that uniform I take pride in what I do, I take pride in taking care of my brothers and sisters that get dressed with me in that locker room or that I’m in that roll call room with. But also when I roll out of the garage I take pride in taking care of all of you in here. And I work night shift. So 90 percent of you are sleeping when I’m out there protecting your homes, protecting your children, and protecting this community. So yes, I take pride in being a black man, but I take pride in being a police officer as well.”
Hill’s words also brought a standing ovation, and calls of “we love you, Israel!”
The Blazer Boys & Girls Club next door, will be holding a helmet, backpack and school supply giveaway on Aug 19, at 3 p.m., sponsored by Providence, Officer Julia Rico said.