A conversation with the president of Don’t Shoot Portland

Tai Carpenter talks Black Lives Matter, Portland protests

Tai Carpenter is the current president of Don’t Shoot Portland, a Black-led and community driven nonprofit known for its bystander intervention work and community advocacy. Carpenter served as Don’t Shoot’s communications director before recently becoming president. 

Portland State Vanguard: For how long have you been involved with Don’t Shoot?

Carpenter: Well, Teressa Raiford is my mom, and she founded Don’t Shoot in 2014. So I’ve been helping out for a long time. I started by writing press releases and social media posts whenever we needed it. I was the communications director for the last year and a half, and about three weeks ago I became the president. 

VG: Can you detail some of the key ways that Don’t Shoot has been involved in mutual aid projects since the pandemic started?

Carpenter: We had to stop all of our programming in February and switched most of our work to an online format. But we started to use our space as a distribution space. So, people would come in before protests and we would help them load up their cars with snacks, first-aid kits and cases of water. We even had a couple of restaurants that started to reach out to us who have donated meals. So, we were able to get meals dropped off to people. We fed a lot of houseless camps and we’ve also done a lot of work with jail support during the protests. Mostly, our focus right now is helping people out at the Justice Center. I know a lot of people pull shifts down there, so we’ve been really good about making sure that people who need tarps, sleeping bags, meals or first-aid kits are helped out. 

VG: I know Don’t Shoot’s primary objective is disbanding [the Portland Police Bureau], but can you elaborate on what you think that should look like? 

Carpenter: I know PPB pledged to slash its budget by a few million dollars, but I think that’s just a drop in the bucket. We need to reimagine what public safety is and what it looks like, and that means slashing the budget and reallocating those resources to other social programs. You know, having specialized units to deal with people that are in crisis. Not everything needs to be dealt with by a bully with a gun. I think we need to put more focus on real community policing and taking care of our homeless communities, because they’re the ones dealing with the blunt end of all of this. You can see inequities on the street, you can see it in our city audits that they put out every year. The fact that PPB has such an obsession with murdering Black and brown people is sick and we’ve got to do something about it. 

VG: When you talk about disbanding PPB, reallocating funds to social safety net programs and working towards real community policing solutions, do you think that there should still be a specialized armed force that is prepared to respond to violent crisis situations?

Carpenter: Absolutely. I’m in no way advocating for the amnesty of violent criminals. It’s just that [armed police officers] are the only force we have right now. I would love to know that if I’m in danger or if people can’t protect themselves that there is going to be a unit for that. I just don’t think armed officers need to be the only unit. 

VG: Polling from 538 shows that an average of 31% of Americans support police abolition while 58% oppose it. Those aren’t winning numbers. What kind of efforts do you think need to be made to garner widespread support for the cause? How do you go about changing people’s minds? 

Carpenter: I don’t know if it’s up to the activists. People have their demands and have spelled them out clearly, I just think people are afraid to actually take those steps. We have city leaders that are leaning towards reform, but no one will come out and say it. That’s the problem because I think too many people, including community partners, may be benefiting from having policing ties, and having these relationships with the police. I’m actually surprised that 31% of people support police abolition, I thought the number would be a lot lower. I know abolition is a scary word, but a lot of people didn’t want to abolish slavery. So, it’s not as scary as you think. 

VG: On June 9, the judge in the lawsuit against PPB using tear gas granted the motion for a temporary restraining order against them using tear gas. The order was recently extended to last until July 24. I know tear gas is now regularly being used by federal law enforcement. Is Don’t Shoot making any efforts to stop federal law enforcement from using these weapons?     

Carpenter: The thing is, even though they extended the order through July 24, I feel like there’s probably only been one night or two where tear gas hasn’t been used at these protests. With Trump sending Homeland Security here, it’s been brutal. And so now there’s a way for them to work around using munition and the tear gas. They’ve been trying to make it seem like PPB has been abiding by the ban, but now federal agents are using it so it’s gotten much worse. And yes, we’re currently working on [court] filings on this issue.

VG: I’ve seen a lot of rhetoric by organizers online around calling for peaceful protesting being a red flag of sorts for the objectives of the movement. In fact, I saw a comment from Don’t Shoot on Instagram that said, “Peaceful protests are an exercise in #alllivesmatter co-opting.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

Carpenter: That was when an article was put out a few weeks ago where Black community leaders were interviewed and expressed their outrage at the protests. The piece was trying to create division among protesters. And I just thought it was funny because the people they quoted in the article had never actually been to a true Black Lives Matter protest. However you decide to protest is a protest. If you’ve ever been to a protest, you know it’s peaceful until the cops show up. Whenever I see someone crying for peaceful protests, that’s trying to walk someone into a category instead of addressing the real violence that we all face from the police. It feels like the argument is being made in conjunction with the city to make the city look good. You can’t tell people how to protest. You can’t condemn one group for how they react to 400 years of oppression and then salute these other kids just because they’re behaving a certain way. I think that further divides the movement. You can’t co-opt liberation. We’re all angry, and whatever we decide to do is going to happen.

VG: There have been many instances where established Black leaders have called for peaceful protests. How do you strike the balance of critiquing these calls for peaceful protests while also not splintering the solidarity of your coalition?

Carpenter: I think we need to take a hard look at whose voices we elevate. There are plenty of people who are just now saying “Black Lives Matter,” including Black leaders in our community. Just because the media says they’re leaders or just because Ted Wheeler was invited to the barbecue doesn’t mean they represent us. So, you should always respect and listen to Black voices. But you should also know and acknowledge their track records. And you need to know if that’s someone that you feel comfortable speaking for you. 

VG: There are, and have been, a variety of groups in town organizing protests right now, and there are protests occurring in various places at any given time in Portland. Going forward, do you think there needs to be a centralized voice that can unify these groups?

Carpenter: I feel like this is a process that can’t be controlled. It’s difficult to have a specific structure with all of this going on. I don’t know if creating a central voice is going to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. But I think the community has shown that it is dedicated to this. So, at this point the responsibility is on our local government to make these changes. 

VG: In the past few weeks we’ve seen a lot of attention around the tragic deaths of Dominique Dunn and Shai’India Harris. Do you have any updates on how Don’t Shoot is helping seek justice for those victims?

Carpenter: We’ve been in touch with Dominique’s family and we published a press release on that. And we’re trying to get in touch with the Harris family. You can find information on how to help those families on our social media accounts and our website.

VG: There seems to be a good deal of momentum around writing in Teressa Raiford for mayor in the upcoming election. After she lost in the primary, did she intend to pursue a write-in campaign?

Carpenter: After the primary, the plan was to take a break. But a few days later, George Floyd was murdered and we started to get contacted about a write-in campaign and how to make that happen. So, Teressa got on board with it and we’re excited. Outside of Don’t Shoot, I’m helping with the campaign a little bit. I feel really good about the momentum we’re seeing from people finally standing up. Right now, I think a lot of people are waking up. This is what democracy is about. Write-in campaigns are successful and people need to get this notion out of their minds that they have to choose between the lesser of two evils. 

Don’t Shoot Portland continues to do mutual aid work during the ongoing protests. They have an intake form on their website for anyone who has been harmed by law enforcement officials.

Courtesy of Don‘t Shoot Portland