By Audrey Barrett
A throng of people marched in the streets of downtown Portland on Monday, Sept. 24. Students, activists, and community members gathered to protest the armament of Portland State University campus security officers, a development that occurred while Wim Wiewel, Lewis & Clark’s current president, was president of PSU. This past summer, an innocent black man was shot and killed by a PSU campus security officer. The victim’s name was Jason Washington.
Wim Wiewel originally armed the officers as a way to protect “campus safety,” a decision “rooted in our values of diversity, engagement and accountability.” However, the decision was made by the Board of Trustees, which, according to an email sent out by the LC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild on Oct. 1, is comprised of “11 business-oriented minds, one student, one faculty member, one staff member, and Mr. Wiewel.”
The president was unavailable for comment, but LC Director of Public Relations Roy Kaufman referred us to a PSU Campus Safety FAQ page on President Wiewel’s behalf. On this page, the answer to “Was this change made because the campus was unsafe?” is “No. But …” followed by an explanation of how urban areas can be inherently unsafe. Also, in polls of both students and faculty, the majority of respondents were against the decision to arm officers. However, in the context of police brutality occuring around the US, some found this decision to be dangerous.
Alyssa Pariah, a former PSUSU member, was one of the leaders of the protest.
“We told them that the system of policing in and of itself is oppressive and racist, and we don’t want it on the campus,” Pariah said.
Pariah left PSU altogether because she was dissatisfied with the way the university had ignored her organization’s requests. She is now co- chair of Portland Jobs with Justice.
The protestors chanted as they marched through the city: “Wim Wiewel! Blood on your hands! Board of Trustees! Blood on your hands! PSU! Blood on your hands!”
The PSU Student Union (PSUSU), who opposed arming campus security before the decision was made, organized the rally to honor Jason Washington and to denounce the decisions that led to his murder. Protest leaders spoke about three specific demands: to immediately disarm all campus security officers, for the officers involved in the shooting, Sean Mackenzie and James Dewey, to be fired, and for PSU to set up a permanent memorial to Jason Washington and his family.
Ben Virgin ’20 is a co chair of the LC Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) club. He and a few other members of YDSA went downtown to support the protest.
“Hearing the PSU students speak, it sounds like the decision was made primarily because by giving the campus officers guns, you could turn to businesses and say ‘Downtown is gonna be safer, you should open up a storefront on our campus,’” Virgin said. “The people who made this decision [Board of Trustees] will never ever face the consequences of this decision, because it is something like two members of the board live in downtown Portland.”
The event began with a rally outside the PSUSU. Protesters then marched to the site of Jason Washington’s death where friends and family were given a space to speak.
Sonia Gibbs, a friend and pastor for the Washington family as well as an alumni of the sociology department at PSU, emphasized how close to home this tragedy was.
“It’s time to address and end the racial biases and fears that contributed to Jason’s death,” Gibbs said. Then Jason’s wife, Michelle Washington, and their daughters came to the front.
“He was our everything,” Ms. Washington said. “He died protecting his friend … I will miss him every second of my life until I meet him again in eternity.”
The final stop on the march was at the PSU campus security office. PSUSU leaders intended to occupy the area for as long as possible.
Three PSU campus security officers stood on the steps behind her. Pariah opened up the floor for audience members to speak; one was PSU associate professor Lisa Bates. Bates has been extensively involved in supporting the disarmament movement, but she thinks more faculty members should do the same.
“I’m really ashamed that students have to be on the front lines and bear the brunt of punishment for speaking,” Bates said.
Another PSU faculty member, Roberta Hunt, pointed out that in a similar situation, guns were pulled out of schools in Toronto. In her view, it is entirely possible for the same to happen at PSU.
“To the students, thank you,” Hunt said. “This says that your education is working. To the faculty, may we continue to fight, may we join the fight, may we be loud, may we be fierce.”