Police Shoot Pepper Balls at Oregon Demonstrators
October 21, 2004
On the evening of October 14, demonstrators gathered in Jacksonville, Oregon, where President Bush was eating dinner.
About 200 of them were marching peacefully along the sidewalks of the three-block downtown area, carrying signs that said, "More Trees, Less Bush" and "Bush Lied, People Died."
Some Bush supporters were also present, and they were chanting, "Four More Years." And the others responded, "Three More Weeks."
The demonstrators rolled out an "Unwelcome Mat" that was about 150-feet long and was made out of cardboard, which they painted red and wrote messages on. That was their idea of the red carpet treatment.
The organizers of the Bush protest, Grady Boyd and Shelley Elkovich, had cleared their protest with the local police department, which assured them they could assemble so long as they were peaceful and stayed on the sidewalk.
Elkovich says she invited a lot of families to come. "I felt sure we had good communication, and it was going to go well," she says. "This was billed as a very mellow family-friendly event, there was no civil disobedience planned, and we had this code of nonviolence."
For a while, it was a mellow event, according to the protesters, until the police became violent.
"This was just an unprovoked attack," says Elkovich.
Around 8:00 p.m., while the President was having dinner at the Jacksonville Inn, police gave an order for the demonstrators to move back at least one block, and police in riot gear quickly began to approach them. Some of the protesters said they never heard the warning.
"The riot police had formed a line from sidewalk to sidewalk and were moving towards us with their batons, yelling, 'Move back, move back,' " recalls Lesley Adams, 27. "It's not easy to move back with 200 people on the sidewalk."
At that point, things went from bad to worse.
The police opened fire with pepper balls--like paint balls, only filled with pepper spray.
Elkovich says at least four protesters were hit.
Michael Moss, a goat farmer who lives just outside of Jacksonville, was one of them.
"I was on the front line facing the cops," he says. "They were saying, 'Move back.' They had their batons in front of their bodies and started marching on us. I got struck with a baton, which was more like a black painted axe handle. It struck me in the ribs and the biceps."
Next to him, Moss saw a riot policeman push a sixty-five-year-old man, Richard Swaney, to the ground.
Moss says he then tried to shield Swaney from the oncoming police.
"When I turned my back on the police, they opened fire from point-blank range, probably three-to-four feet away," he says. "It sounded like something between a paint ball gun and a really loud lightbulb popping. It was pa-pa-pa-pa-pa, pa-pa-pa. I got hit six times." At first, Moss thought they were rubber bullets. "About five seconds later, though, I realized it was pepper spray," he says. "It felt like there was a red-hot branding iron being put on my back, and that's how it stayed for the remainder of the evening."
At the time, he says he felt shock. Now, a different emotion has set in.
"I'm furious," he says. "I find it totally unacceptable that our constitutional rights are being infringed on like this."
Leisa Glass, a gardener, came to the demonstration with her five-year-old daughter. Once the police started charging, "I turned around and there was nowhere to go," she says. "I got pushed four or five times in the back by a big baton while I was holding my daughter."
A few moments later, the same officer kept yelling at her to keep moving, she says. "He grabbed my neck while I was still holding my daughter, and he pushed me and I was falling down when another cop grabbed me before I fell totally down. He told the other cop, 'Hey, watch the kid.' "
Once she had regained her balance, Glass looked over at another line of police. "I saw the cops back up and shoot," she says. "My daughter was petrified. 'Let's go home, I want to go home,' she said."
Glass says the demonstration was completely peaceful up until the police charged. "They turned the event into something aggressive when it wasn't aggressive," she says. "They made me feel like I was not living in a free country. I felt I was living in some other place that was a nondemocracy."
Cerridewen Bunten also brought her six-year-old daughter to the rally. "There were so many children there," she says. "We weren't there to cause trouble. We weren't there to riot. We were just there to be heard."
Bunten says law enforcement was giving confusing signals. Some ordered them to get off the sidewalk. When she stepped to the curb, she says another policeman shoved her from behind. "He said, 'Get back on the sidewalk or you'll be arrested.' Then he shoved me again with his hands, while my daughter was in my arms," says Bunten. "My daughter was crying hysterically and saying, 'This is not what police are supposed to do.' "
The Jacksonville City Administrator, Paul Wyntergreen, initially alleged to the AP that a few protesters started the whole thing by pushing some police officers. All seven of the protesters I talked to deny this. Two protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct when they were passively resisting the orders to move, according to Glass.
Still, Wyntergreen defends the actions of the police.
"The mobile response team, which is a mix of Oregon State Police and Jackson County Sheriff's deputies, testified to us that basically a number of these people refused to move and one got confrontational and put hands on an officer, and that's when they responded with the pepper balls," Wyntergreen says. Law enforcement, he adds, needed to "secure the perimeter at the request of the Secret Service."
Wyntergreen says the Jacksonville police were not involved in the shooting of the pepper balls. "My guys don't even have that kind of equipment," he says.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters did not return phone calls for comment.
Sheriff's Deputy Michael Hermant said, "I wouldn't have a comment. I wasn't involved, for one thing. For another, it was done through the Oregon State Police. They were the ones that did it. And their reasoning? I don't know."
On October 15, on Oregon State Police stationery, a joint press release was issued from the Oregon State Police, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, and the Jacksonville Police Department. "The Secret Service requested assistance in providing a safe and secure setting," it says. "Protesters were asked to move to areas wherein they could legally and safely congregate. The vast majority of individuals complied and cooperated with law enforcement requests. However, after several requests had been made by law enforcement to disperse, a very small group of male protesters (approximately five) had to be pushed back by State Police Mobile Response Team members. This small group became aggressive with the officers, and pepper balls were used to gain compliance."
Tom Mazur, a spokesman for the Secret Service, says, "I acknowledge we work in close partnership with the local and state law enforcement community, but only local law enforcement have the authority to deploy crowd control measures."
The protesters deny the allegation by the Oregon State Police and say they have video evidence to prove that the police initiated the violence and that no protesters were aggressive with the officers.
The ACLU of Oregon is investigating. "We are very concerned about the actions of the riot team in Jacksonville," says Executive Director Dave Fidanque. "Some protesters are looking for legal help on their own. Some have contacted us."
Organizer Elkovich, whose eight-and-a-half-year old and ten-year old were at the rally, remains angry about the police violence.
"But I'm also hopeful," she says. "This time they've gone too far. When people see a militarized police force, it really opens their eyes. If people see where we're really at in this country, maybe we have a chance to put a stop to it."