Jason Washington was shot and killed by two Portland State police officers on the university’s campus on June 29, 2018. Last Monday, on the two-year anniversary of his death, hundreds gathered on campus to celebrate Washington’s life and to protest PSU’s current public safety policy.
The crowd gathered around 7 p.m. at Southwest 6th and College and began marching around 7:10. As the protesters started moving, the crowd grew in size, as chants of “Say his name,” “Black lives matter” and “Jason’s life matters” rang through the air.
After making a loop around the east side of campus, marchers came to a stop at the site where Washington was killed. Participants formed a circle around the tree that has served as a memorial to Washington since his death, on the corner of Southwest Broadway and College.
A variety of speakers stepped up to address the crowd. A local pastor and close friend of the Washington family was the first to speak. “I’m angry that victims of a crime had to fight an institution that was only interested in protecting themselves,” she said. “And I’m angry because justice has not become even close to being the reality in this situation.”
As the pastor spoke, candles were passed out to the crowd to be lit in Mr. Washington’s memory. “We’re going to keep shining a light for justice,” she said.
Marlene Howell, a professor in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, gave an address centered on the words spoken by George Floyd’s niece at his funeral: “My name is Brook Williams. I can breathe. And as long as I can breathe, justice will be served.” Howell led the crowd through a chant of these words, urging protesters to stay in the fight to disarm Campus Public Safety officers.
Throughout the evening, various members of Washington’s family addressed the crowd. At one point, in a stirring speech, Washington’s brother-in-law pleaded with citizens of Portland to “wake up.” “This is a movement that’s been going on for two years,” he said. “If we don’t wake up, they will keep doing this. You don’t put guns in the hands of inexperienced people on a campus that kids attend. We want things to change so we have to wake up. Because if we don’t, who will be next?”
Kaitlyn Dey, a member of Care Not Cops, a grassroots campaign working to abolish policing, gave a speech focused on policymaking and the struggle to redistribute funding from both the Portland Police Bureau’s and CPSO’s budgets. Dey made her position clear: defunding the police also means defunding CPSO, and abolishing the police also means abolishing CPSO.
“We have to be very careful about the rhetoric that PSU and the Board of Trustees are using on this issue,” Dey said. “When PSU says community policing, what they mean is they’re trying to figure out a sly attempt to justify the ongoing expansion of CPSO.”
Just hours before the vigil, President Stephen Percy issued a statement to the PSU community about remembering Jason Washington. In it, Percy stated the university was working with the Washington family to establish the Jason Washington Memorial Scholarship in Washington’s honor. Further, the university will be commissioning a memorial art piece on campus in his honor.
Percy’s statement comes several weeks after he pledged to “outline to the Board of Trustees a collaborative approach for moving forward” in response to a Disarm PSU demonstration in front of the CPSO office.
Christina Williams, a spokesperson for the university, clarified that Percy’s email on June 29 was not the follow up to the statement issued on June 12. “In his statement to the Board of Trustees on June 18, President Stephen Percy said he is committed to a thorough review of campus security as part of a larger commitment to being a more just, diverse and inclusive campus,” Williams stated. “He also announced a three-year, $1.5 million racial equity fund to support investments to advance the recruitment, retention, success of, and a supportive and empowering climate for, students and employees of color as well as the development and deployment of an anti-racist lens for all employees.”
While the university has made efforts recently to participate in the discourse surrounding Disarm PSU, students and faculty alike are growing restless with a lack of action. Faculty and staff from the School of Social Work, the English department and the Psychology department have all published letters in support of disarming campus public safety officers, as university community members continue to speak out.
Jacob Richman, an adjunct professor in the art department, said he sees this issue as a simple matter of protecting his students. “We don’t need an armed security force on our campus, and we’re working hard in our union, PSUFA, to push for disarming PSU,” Richman said.
“I think the university needs to hurry up on this issue,” Richman said. “There’s no reason for President Percy to be dragging his feet on this. There’s nothing legitimate keeping him from moving on this issue now.”
Christine Jigau, an engineering student, expressed serious frustrations with the university’s lack of action. “They’re going to put a memorial up and a scholarship, but there’s nothing in there about actually disarming our campus,” Jigau said.
Olga Burlay, a student in the Mathematics department, believes President Percy’s most recent statement demonstrates the university isn’t actually addressing the issues most pressing to students. “It’s disappointing, and it’s disheartening, and it makes it difficult to want to continue to attend PSU,” Burlay said.
Towards the end of the vigil, organizers announced they had started a new petition calling for “the immediate and permanent disarmament of PSU campus police.” Williams stated President Percy has seen the petition and is currently reviewing the demands from Disarm PSU as well as input from all students, faculty and staff who have expressed their views on the matter.
In spite of the somber circumstances that brought protesters together last Monday, many members of the PSU community seem cautiously optimistic about the prospects of real change from the university in light of the current political environment.
“It’s so great to see so many people here,” Richman said. “I think there’s momentum, but we have to act fast, and we have to act now. Because the powers that be want this energy to dissipate, they want it to stall.”