Portland’s finest? Maybe not…

Aug 6, 2018 | 0 comments

From “Envisioning the American Dream”

I grew up secure in the knowledge that “the policeman is your friend.”  I had complete faith in the smiling men in blue uniforms who were occasionally directing traffic at busy intersections and I had no doubt that if I got lost or frightened when I was walking home from school, I could go to a policeman for help.

Though I spent almost forty years repeating those same platitudes to young children in my teaching years, I have to say that I no longer believe them.  Not as a general rule, anyway.  Never mind that I still love English mysteries involving the cheerful Bobby-on-the Beat and I am horrified and heartbroken when policemen are killed in the line of duty.  But, over the years, I’ve had some unhappy experiences with policemen that have made me feel… well, wary.

New Age Nightmare

Once was in the ’60s in Oakland, California, when my (then) husband and I were frisked and our car was searched as we left an artist friend’s studio that happened to be on the “wrong side of town.”  That experience resulted in an apologetic phone call from Oakland’s Chief of Police and a “we are so sorry” letter from Oakland’s mayor.  Unfortunately, neither letter nor phone call erased my lasting, negative impression.

A decade later in Castro Valley, California, I had occasion to call the police about a break-in attempt.  Their response was prompt and efficient but when one of the uniformed men came back a few days later, ostensibly to see if I was all right, and then asked me for a date (“Are you hitting on me?!!!”) my faith in the friendly boys in blue was shaken further.

Saturday evening in Portland we had a police encounter that was actually frightening and gave me just a tiny taste of the fine line many people walk these days.  We were driving west on Burnside following our GPS instructions for how to reach the Benson Hotel.  We were well aware of the protest activity down at Waterfront Park but there was absolutely no spill-over in the area where we were.  Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, was moving as usual.

The disembodied voice of our GPS told us to turn right at the upcoming corner which we did.  But before our turn was complete, a large uniformed policeman loomed toward us gesticulating and scowling and  shouting.  We couldn’t distinguish his words over our GPS and the air conditioner but the expression on his face left no doubt as to his intent.  Nyel put the car into reverse immediately but had to ease back into the stream of traffic we had just left.  Meanwhile, we felt totally threatened and vulnerable.

From the Portland Police Museum Collection

We saw no signage to indicate that the street was off limits – there were other cars parked on both sides, though at the moment, there was no traffic.  The policeman continued to snarl and shout.  Rolling down the window to explain or ask his directional advice was obviously not an option.  Our adrenalin levels?  Maxed!  The cop’s?  Apparently ditto.  If we’d been other than a little old gray-haired white couple, what might he have done?    It was a terrifying and mystifying encounter that made me more-than-ever sympathetic to all those who deal with that sort of overwhelming anger/fear/testosterone-in-uniform every single day.

We made our right turn at the next street over and proceeded the three or four blocks to our destination without further incident.  (And, I might add, no evidence of police presence along our route.  Was that guy confused about where he should be??)  My take-home memory:  the policeman is not my friend.  Not in Portland.

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