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Portland pepper spray incident generates iconic Occupy photo

November 18, 2011 |  1:10 pm

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The dramatic photo of a young woman getting a blast of pepper spray on her face during a mostly peaceful Occupy protest in Portland is destined to become an enduring image of the national movement.

The youthful protester vomited almost immediately after the Thursday incident and medics were able to wash out her eyes and nose so that she was not much the worse for it, Occupy Portland spokesman Reid Parham told The Times.

"She's OK," he said.

FULL COVERAGE: Occupy protests around the nation

Portland's Occupy the Banks demonstrations began Thursday morning with the arrests of 25 people on the east end of the Steel Bridge.

Interestingly, it was a gray-haired group that sat stubbornly at the entrance to the bridge, waiting to be taken away in flex-cuffs by police. The Portland Police Bureau put out a list of arrestees, and only one of them was under the age of 35. Seven were in their 60s. Five were in their 50s.

It might be that those were the folks who could afford the time to be hauled away, booked and possibly charged; certainly, it reflects Portland's deep history of street protest.

The Occupy Portland demonstrations of the last six weeks are only the latest in a long tradition of turbulent clashes that date back to the city's well-remembered anti-Vietnam War demonstration of 1970, and earlier.

A former member of President George H. W. Bush's staff famously dubbed the city "Little Beirut" in reference to the noisy reception Republican candidates traditionally received there. And street clashes between protesters and police have over the years been a regular event at May Day rallies and union organizing rallies even before Vietnam.

In that context, Thursday's events were relatively mild. Yet Occupy Portland organizers allege law enforcement took an inappropriate and heavy-handed approach. 

"The city's overreaction and complete waste of tax dollars to quiet down a completely peaceful demonstration against the greed of banks was very unnecessary," spokeswoman Illona Trogub said in an interview.

Police said pepper spray was only brought out when a small group of unusually confrontational protesters refused to get out of the street and stood in the path of MAX transit trains.

Portland Police Bureau spokesman Lt. Robert King said the march had proceeded peacefully along most of the route, with officers trying to keep people on the sidewalk and out of the street.

There was initially "a pushing and shoving match" near SW 5th Avenue and Alder Street, King said in an interview, and again a "pretty intense confrontation" at SW 4th Avenue and Morrison Street.

The most raucous confrontation occurred near Chase Bank shortly after 4 p.m. as officers were trying to remove protesters who had entered the bank vestibule. But police were blocked by hundreds of demonstrators outside. Meanwhile, a core of protesters couldn't be cleared from the street, which is a path for one of the city's major downtown light-rail systems.

"Two of the protesters engaged in some kind of a struggle, a pushing match, with one of the officers, and in the course of that, tensions escalated and ultimately pepper spray was deployed, and that by and large resolved the disturbance at that location," King said.

Occupy spokesman Parham said one of the problems was that police, many of them on horseback, were actually shoving people into the street. "It's consistently true that the police were over-reacting and pushing people off of the sidewalks into the street, and then yelling at them to get out of the street," he said.

He said two people were stepped on by the horses, and one was knocked over. "All of the eyewitnesses say there was no warning that chemical agents would be used," he added.

King said the police have consistently employed an approach known as "tactical disengagement" during the last several weeks, often backing off and literally retreating from marching protesters "in cases where there could have been a flash point."

"What we encountered yesterday was different in its tone and its character from the previous marches," King said. "We're thinking it's because the people that were there yesterday were there to engage in direct action against financial institutions. This was designed to be an interruption.

"Again, there were hundreds of people, possibly as many as a thousand people, who marched. Many, many people were utterly peaceful," King said. "But there were definitely individuals involved that were more aggressive. Officers definitely encountered higher levels of resistance than they had seen in previous incidents."

The pepper spray deployment is under investigation, he said.

Meanwhile, the photo of the young woman taken by Oregonian staff photographer Randy L. Rasmussen has raced across the Internet, becoming, as the Oregonian described Friday morning, "a web sensation and an iconic photograph."

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--  Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: A woman is blasted with pepper spray during Occupy protests in Portland Thursday. Credit: Randy L. Rasmussen/The Oregonian

Video: Police deploy pepper spray in Portland. Credit: KATU Communities

 

 

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