Anyone present at the Black Unity-led protest in the Thurston Hills neighborhood of Springfield on July 29, 2020 will likely remember it forever.
The protest was aimed at supporting a local black resident and educating people about the racist history of the noose after a neighbor ‘decorated’ his yard with a skeleton on a noose. Dozens of anti-racism protesters showed up in solidarity to march and chant, with some locals joining in. Other neighbors appeared to join the counter-protesters in heckling, harassing and assaulting protesters.
But it was reactive police violence, in collusion with racist counter-protesters, that illustrated why people had continuously protested across the country since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd. The Springfield Police Department placed riot cops behind barricades and hustled the marchers, with counter-protesters at the back of the march and behind the barricade with the cops.
Activists continued to chant, sing and demonstrate at the barricades. The SPD rushed them, arresting, stabbing and beating protesters while turning a blind eye to counter-protesters’ assaults on non-violent protesters. Nine activists were charged with misdemeanors and one was charged with felonies. Only one was convicted — the other cases were dismissed.
In response to this gross police misconduct, the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) represented the organizers on criminal charges and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Springfield police to force a judgment. Two years after the 2020 protest, here is an update on Black Unity, et al., c. City of Springfield, et. Al.
The plaintiffs and the CLDC recognize that the reform is just a band-aid on the inherently racist policing system. Abolition will not come from police departments agreeing to police themselves. However, through increased accountability, we can lessen the harm people face daily from outdated, racist and unprofessional policing.
Why do we push?
CLDC, Black Unity, and multiple individuals filed a lawsuit against Springfield, police, and officers in March 2021. In July, we added new defendants and a new plaintiff, Black Unity leader/activist Jazmine Jourdan, who was brutally beaten in the face and head. with clenched fists “targeted blows” – punches and kicks often to the head or face – by Officer Bronson Durrant. Jourdan faced bogus charges that were dismissed last month, and now joins other plaintiffs fighting to deter such gross police misconduct in the future.
Currently, we are in the discovery phase — exchanging documents and taking depositions to gather evidence for the trial. What we have learned so far makes us confident about the responsibility of holding the SPD accountable for violating the constitutional rights of activists.
Most civil rights cases end in a settlement rather than a trial. The plaintiffs are trying to reach an agreement regarding important structural and political changes within the SPD. We’ve provided a list of 12 important — but reasonable — demands to improve the SPD’s transparency, accountability, training, anti-racism and de-escalation policies. So far, the defendants have not accepted any of these demands or made any meaningful counter-offer, but the plaintiffs remain committed to forging change and anticipate further negotiations this fall.
What has changed in the SPD?
Many officers, including Chief Richard Lewis and Officer Durrant, left the SPD. The new chief has promised change, but in Oregon, police disciplinary records are not public, making it unclear whether cops have been held accountable for violating their duties.
The misconduct of the SPD drains resources and makes the community less safe. Over the past five years, the SPD has accounted for 90 percent of the millions of dollars paid out in Lane County police dispute settlements. As part of the $4.55 million settlement with the family of Stacy Kenny, a transgender woman brutally killed by the SPD during a traffic stop in 2019, an independent critical incident review recommended 33 policy changes, including including the prohibition of targeted blows.
In the aftermath of the Thurston protest, Springfield commissioned another independent assessment. Despite its selective and incomplete review of the files, the March 2021 report still made 38 recommendations. Yet the SPD continues to use aimed strikes and, to our knowledge, has adopted no recommendations other than those mandated by new state laws.
Last month, the Eugene Police Department called in the SPD riot squad to break up a protest for reproductive justice after the Supreme Court overturned it. Roe v. Wade. Once again people have been subjected to excessive force and injury by militarized and over-reactive cops.
Endless pressure, applied to infinity
Oregon has a long history of racism, and those racist roots are often evident in Oregon police departments today. This is part of why CLDC is working with Black Unity and the wider BIPOC community to bring about real change in a department that has long resisted it.
Many more people were affected and injured that day than those included in our pursuit. Not everyone can join such a lawsuit due to its immense strain on their time, family, and sanity as they are placed under surveillance in their pursuit of justice. With this litigation, Black Unity and CLDC seek a Springfield future in which BIPOC can assert their rights without fear of state-sanctioned violence.
Long-term litigation like this is more effective with sustained community engagement, without which the SPD and the city might feel less pressure to resolve their internal issues. Even as Springfield faces the threat of losing her insurance due to SPD misconduct, she continues to resist calls for drastic reform.
The Civil Liberties Advocacy Center is a nonprofit organization of lawyers and civil liberties professionals who seek to dismantle the political and economic structures that cause social inequality and environmental destruction. We provide litigation, educational, legal and strategic resources to strengthen and embolden the success of the environmental and social justice movement. Learn more and get involved at cldc.org.