09 Dec

Clothes make the man

LeBron James and several other players appeared at the Cleveland=Brooklyn games Monday night wearing shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he didn’t mind their expressing their opinion, but he’d prefer of they followed the rules on on-court attire.

To the players, of course, that was exactly the point.

If you’re a young black man in the city, you shouldn’t have to be wearing a pro basketball uniform to feel safe.

09 Dec

In its last days, Merkeley wants to make the most of the majority

After his re-election last month, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley returned to Washington last week for to finish out a brief lame-duck session with some of his close allies defeated, the Democratic majority vanishing and minimal prospects of major legislation before or after Republicans take over the Senate.

Naturally, he wants to stay in Washington longer.

Merkley must have all his Christmas shopping done, because he’s trying to persuade the Senate leadership to stay in session deep into December, almost until senators finally departing Washington might be crossing flight patterns with Santa.

It’s not because he’s become suddenly optimistic about legislation that hasn’t moved in the last two years. It’s about the one thing that a waning Democratic Senate majority can still do – confirm Obama judicial and executive nominees, many of whom have been held up in the Senate since, oh, Valentine’s Day.

“I argued in caucus that we should stay until the week after next,” reported Merkley on the phone Thursday. “I said these people put their lives on hold for a year, they’ve gone through a vetting like a full-body colonoscopy, and they deserve a vote.”

At that point, he said, the caucus burst into applause.

Which may not be the same as wanting to be in Washington deep into December.

Since the election, the Senate has confirmed 16 federal judges, at a time when many judicial districts were understaffed to the point of affecting their functioning. It has also confirmed 38 executive appointments, many of them hanging for a long time, many of them ambassadors to countries where you’d think the United States would really want to have an ambassador.

The reason this could all happen, Merkley points out, was “a direct result of the rules change.” After years of watching even low-level Obama appointments filibustered, requiring a supermajority of 60 votes for confirmation, the Senate last November adopted a rules change that Merkley had actively urged, allowing simple majority confirmation for presidential appointments short of the Supreme Court. Republicans called it the “nuclear option” and warned it would destroy the Senate, but recently announced that when they take over in January, they won’t change it back.

In fact, there’s some talk of the new Republican majority eliminating the filibuster entirely.

So Senate Democrats can spend as much of December as they feel like confirming appointments, certifying long-waiting judges and ambassadors, as well as avoiding a filibuster to make sure the United States has a duly confirmed chief financial officer for the Department of Agriculture. They’re taking care of business, and it’s not like the time might otherwise go to producing legislation.

It does seem that in the next few days Congress will produce a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down next week, although the House Republican leadership will apparently need Democratic votes to pass it. One way or another, Congress will likely extend a large range of tax breaks, which Merkley points out is less impressive when you consider they’re only being extended until the end of 2014 – or three weeks from now, after which Congress gets to start all over.

“This is a huge sign of dysfunction,” he points out, “that we’re still setting tax policy for calendar year 2014.”

Looking past New Year’s, Merkley has other concerns about the Senate where he’ll be starting his second term. Considerably, it has to do with senators who won’t be there, Democrats who came in with him in what he calls the Class of 2008 and were defeated last month – Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Udall of Colorado and Mark Begich of Alaska.

All of them, Merkley points out, had massive independent expenditure campaigns levelled against them, considerably affecting the outcome. In 2012, he notes, there was substantial SuperPAC spending on Senate races, but their targets largely survived, and observers concluded that the new political money situation would not in fact remodel American politics.

“Now the message is the opposite,” said Merkley about the 2014 results. “Now they have control of the Senate.”

He says he already sees the impact in the debate over the tax extenders. While Republicans insist that tax breaks for low-income people need to be “paid for” – matched with spending cuts to balance revenue loss – tax breaks at the other end of the income scale seem not to have that requirement.

For Democratic senators, tempted to stay in Washington to keep confirming Obama nominees, Christmas may arrive a little late.

For folks looking for upper-income tax breaks, Christmas may have arrived early.

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/7/14.

09 Dec

In a bad week, Portland cops looked not bad

Maybe it’s just a matter of comparison. But compared with what we’ve seen in a lot of cities lately, it seems the Portland police did reasonably well handling several hundred people occupying downtown streets last week, with several dozen deciding they wanted to make a point by squatting in the middle of the freeway.

Nobody got hurt, nothing got trashed, only 10 people got arrested. It may not be the social revolution, but it could have been a lot worse.

There are certainly questions about things the Portland police did, such as closing down a section of the street and not letting anyone leave, including media. It wasn’t entirely clear why some people got arrested and some people didn’t. And while a “flash/bang grenade” certainly sounds cool, it’s probably best experienced from a certain distance.

There have been 30 complaints filed against Portland police from the demonstration, and maybe some of them will be upheld. There’s some issue of confidence when three Portland policemen go onto Facebook to declare their identification with the cop who shot Michael Brown.

But a major demonstration on a night of strong national emotion and pain concluded in Portland without injury or destruction. As Mayor Hales said, democracy happened.

And democracy does not require taking over the freeway.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 12/6/14.

04 Dec

Maya Lin tells the story of the Columbia — including the hardest part

The fragile arc, looking like a finger’s width of balsa wood and a millimeter of white paint, curled around the painted lines on the landscape model. The narrow path was designed to bear a crushing historical weight.

To an overflow crowd at the last Portland City Club meeting of November, Maya Lin unveiled her latest vision for the Confluence Project, the multi-site installation chronicling the story of the Columbia River and marking the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Extending from Chief Timothy Park, on an island near the Washington-Idaho border where the Snake and Clearwater rivers run together, to Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific, the Confluence Project is Lin’s most expansive effort, and a statement about what’s been lost and what remains after 200 years.

The entire project, explained Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as a Yale undergraduate, is about “telling the story of the river.”

Her appearance marked another advance in the project’s fund-raising with the announcement of a $1 million gift from the Schnitzer family. Lin also displayed a new model of the final site, Celilo, showing the thin white arc reaching out from the Oregon shoreline into the river. It evokes the tribal fishing platforms that extended over the Columbia toward Celilo Falls, for centuries a regional center of fishing and trading activity, until the falls were drowned under the reservoir created by the building of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Observers said it took eight hours for the water to cover the falls, the fishing platforms and a nearby settlement. For the Columbia tribes, getting over the event has taken much longer.

After multiple requests, and an appeal from her fellow Yalie Gary Locke, then governor of Washington, Lin took on the Confluence Project when founder Jane Jacobsen brought a delegation of tribal elders to Lin’s studio in Manhattan. Even afterward, as the various installations were being located and designed, the tribes said the Celilo site was still too painful to touch. It wasn’t until years into the effort that the tribes agreed to locate the final site there, a completion now scheduled for 2016.

If the tribes had continued to say that the place was too painful, Lin said after her talk, “That would have been the story” – Celilo’s piece of the story of the river.

Instead, the narrow walkway over the river will recount the place’s background geologically, mythically, historically and in the words of Lewis and Clark. The installation will also let visitors hear the roar of the falls, which reportedly had the sixth largest waterflow of any waterfall in the world.

Celilo will mark the completion of the Confluence Project, joining the amphitheatre at Chief Timothy Park, the walkway to the ocean at Cape Disappointment, an earth-covered land bridge to the river at Vancouver, a bird blind at the Sandy River Delta and seven story circles at Sacajawea State Park in Pasco. The plan originally called for a seventh location, but Lin explained that the seventh site will now be a virtual one binding it all together – a web site, a book and a curriculum.

At all sites, Lin said, the project was invited in by local tribes, and the installation was designed for the landscape. She recalled telling Antone Minthorn of the Umatilla tribes, chairman of the Confluence board, that every time Confluence did a blessing at Chief Timothy Park, an eagle flew overhead – and Minthorn answered, “Of course.”

On slats at the Sandy bird blind are the names of 134 species encountered and described by Lewis and Clark – some visible today, some endangered, some extinct. The statement speaks particularly to another long-term effort by Lin, an interactive web site called “What is Missing,” surveying environmental and species changes throughout the planet.

To the City Club, she talked of how the Atlantic cod, which could grow to man-size a few hundred years, has now been fished down to much smaller proportions. Lin showed a slide of a tiered sculpture she has created, with each tier showing a shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap.

“What is Missing” and the Confluence Project, Lin explained, are constantly “talking to each other.” The Columbia, with its depleted populations of salmon and sturgeon, would have a lot to say.

But, she insists, the story is not over.

“Nature is resilient,” Lin said quietly but firmly. “If we give it a chance, it can and does come back.

“What does art do? Art can imagine a different future.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/3/14.


01 Dec

Police problems need to be fixed before they reach the grand jury

Watching the eruptions across the country over the last week, from Ferguson to the Morrison Bridge brought a key insight to mind. Was it the Godfather himself, Vito Corleonw, who asked,

“Why do you come to me after the wine is spilled?”

Because there is no good way for the criminal justice process to handle a shooting by police.

At least, Portland has never found one.

Portland has never had the kind of flaming explosion that swept Ferguson this week, after a Missouri grand jury followed the hand signals of the local district attorney and declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson. But Portland has repeatedly gone through similar processes, when shootings by police officers were ceremoniously referred to grand juries and, after solemn exhortations to let the system work, ended without indictments or public satisfaction.

Legally, these were not necessarily the wrong outcomes. Dubious, high-tension decisions by police officers are not the same as criminality, and juries are particularly unlikely to see them that way. As the Rodney King trial showed, a jury outcome can be as inflammatory as a grand jury outcome.

But that doesn’t mean the system works, here or there. There’s a reason the U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Ferguson Police Department, and a reason why it investigated – and is compelling some major changes – in the Portland Police Bureau.

In Ferguson, the police department was in a different universe from its community. An almost entirely white police force oversees a two-thirds black city, exacting an constant stream of fines and court fees needed to finance city government. It’s not clear exactly what happened with the killing of Michael Brown, but his body was left lying in the streets for hours, and the normal procedures following an officer-involved shooting – photographing the scene, preserving the evidence, taping an interview with the policeman – were blown off as though Brown had been given a parking ticket.

This fall, the city said it would change the fines and fees structure, and set up a community review board.

That was after the wine was spilled.

Portland’s situation is not quite the same. Its police force is more diverse, and police leadership has made efforts to connect with the community.

But there’s a reason the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved, and demands changes. Over the past few years, Portland has seen a series of fatal encounters with police – several leading to major liability payments by the city, none involving actions by the grand jury.

“Rarely in Portland have such decisions led to either discipline or other corrective action,” the County of Los Angeles’ Office of Independent Review concluded in a study of shootings released this week, reported by The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein. Notably, the police chief’s decision to fire an officer who shot and killed a suspect in a siege – and violated procedure – was overturned by a labor arbitrator, suggesting a lack of command authority for the bureau leadership, let alone Portland’s elected officials.

This sense was strengthened last week when three Portland police officers put up on their Facebook sites pictures of their badges with the statement, “I am Darren Wilson” – a position that might not exactly build community credibility for the next use of deadly force.

The action was, Chief Mike Reese said in what sounded like an understatement, “very inflammatory in nature.”

In August, federal district court in Portland accepted an agreement between the Justice Department and the Portland Police Bureau, with input from various community groups. According to the Department of Justice, “The agreement requires changes – many of which PPB has already begun to implement – in PPB’s policy, training, supervisory oversight, community-based mental health services, crisis intervention, employee information systems, officer accountability and community engagement and oversight.”

It’s a substantial assignment. Earlier this month, as part of the agreement, the City Council named former Oregon Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz and a team of criminal justice academics from Chicago to oversee its operation.

But starting there, at the training and policy and community connection level, is the only way to deal with this problem. As we’ve seen from Ferguson – and as Portland could have told Ferguson long ago – grand juries after a shooting are an impossible, hopeless way of dealing with police problems. It’s an unsatisfying way to decide what happened, a useless direction for creating officer accountability, and a path that leads nowhere for reconciling the police and the community.

The only way to address any of those issues is before the wine – and the blood – is spilled.

Note: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 11/30/14.