“I’m a child of the ‘60s, and I don’t easily scare,” says Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. “But when I started talking to Governor Kate Brown, and to my U.S. senators, and to my U.S. House members, and kept hearing ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ I’m like—how is that even possible, that there’s nothing we can do?”
The scene scaring Hardesty is the one playing out in her own city, the largest in Oregon. As in many cities and small towns alike across the United States, Portland has seen its residents rise up in protests against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd on May 25. Unlike other cities, Portland has, for the last week, reported that mysterious federal officers without visible identification have been firing tear gas and impact munitions at protestors—and pulling them into unmarked vans without explanation or typical arrest procedures.
In a press conference on Tuesday, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said that the federal government deployed officers to Portland because there has been “violent criminal activity every single night for 52 nights,” and as a response to “lack of action from city officials.”
“That is a blatant lie,” Hardesty tells Marie Claire. “It is a lie that 45 keeps tweeting out, that he came in and somehow fixed Portland.” Over the weekend, President Trump wrote on Twitter: “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators….We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE.”
“If he's fixed Portland, why are [federal agents] still brutalizing people every night?" asks Hardesty.
She believes that Trump is using the democratic and largely peaceful protests in Portland to create a narrative of uncontrollable anarchy in America in an attempt to delay the November presidential election. “Forty-five does not want to hold an election in November because he knows he will lose, even with all the dirty tricks he will play,” Hardesty says. “And so we may end up with martial law and elections canceled because there’s too much urban unrest for us to do something stupid, like voting someone into office,” she adds sarcastically.
Hardesty believes Portland’s record of civil unrest resulted in the White House’s decision to first send federal troops there in early July. “Because if you can intimidate and silence Portland, which has a long history of direct action protest, then what [do] you think will happen in Mississippi and Louisiana and all the other places?”
But Hardesty thinks the lies extend beyond the federal government, and that even leaders in her own city—that is, her colleagues—aren’t telling the truth. She takes the biggest issue with the police bureau itself. “I am old enough to remember that during the civil rights movement, the police had provocateurs…intentionally added to the group to do disruptive stuff,” says Hardesty, who’s been involved in Portland government for 25 years and previously served in the Navy. “I have no doubt in my mind, I believe with all my heart, that that is what Portland police are doing.”
Hardesty’s accusations go further: “I believe Portland Police [Bureau] is lying about the damage—or starting the fires themselves—so that they have justification for attacking community members.” On Saturday evening a riot was declared after a fire was reported at the Portland Police Association office. In an email to Marie Claire, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said, “The Commissioner's statement that police officers would commit the crime of arson in order to precipitate their violation of people's civil rights strains credulity. I am interested in seeing what evidence she has to support her accusations. I'm disappointed that an elected official would make a statement like this without providing specific facts to support it. This allegation is completely false.” (Thus far no evidence has emerged supporting Hardesty's claims that the police have started the fires themselves.)
As a result of these beliefs—and after a “very mellow” event she hosted this past weekend was, she says, broken up with military-grade tear gas fired into a crowd containing children and the elderly—the commissioner released a statement demanding that Portland mayor Ted Wheeler let her take over management of the police. “You are putting our community in danger. You are putting my staff in danger,” she wrote. “Mayor Wheeler, if you can’t control the police, give me the Portland Police Bureau.”
In her role as city commissioner, Hardesty currently oversees the fire department and the bureau of emergency management, among other duties, so the request wasn’t preposterous. But Wheeler rejected it Monday, saying in a press release, “I will continue to serve as Police Commissioner through this time of transformation.”
“I have been working on police accountability for 30 years in Portland, Oregon. There have been task forces and work groups and all kinds of community conversations,” Hardesty says. “I [have] worked with 14 police chiefs and eight base commissioners. And the culture of Portland Police Bureau hasn't shifted at all. And so what's next?”
Last week, she released a list of very precise suggestions for reforming the department, including a previously announced pilot program in the Lents neighborhood that would offer an alternative to typical city policing (for example, low-risk 911 calls would be handled by non-police emergency workers), and the creation of an independent civilian police-oversight board with the power to review misconduct complaints and discipline officers.
“The system we have now presumes that police are the only ones who can discipline police for inappropriate behavior,” Hardesty says. “The system I'm sending to the ballot for November [via a proposed charter change] assumes that the community has the right and responsibility to hold police accountable for inappropriate behavior.”
Change is already coming to Portland, Hardesty believes: In June, the city passed a budget that reduced police funding by $15 million. It was a mere 6 percent difference, but such a cut “was unheard of just three months ago,” she says. Indeed, Hardesty believes that the presence and behavior of President Trump’s federal officers is only galvanizing the cause.
“Every night, we got a thousand more people that are showing up. We’re not going to let 45, or his secret police, or anybody else intimidate us into not exercising our freedom of speech,” she says. “We’re sending a strong message: You mess with us, and then you’re going to have thousands more of us.”