Filming the History of Police Brutality in One City

a protest march against police brutality in portland in the 1970s

A 1985 Portland protest seen in new film Arresting Power has the same message as protests today. 

While millions of Americans have recently turned out in the streets to protest racial bias in policing, some activists have been busily documenting the history of police protests. Over the past four years, the three women team of co-directors behind new documentary Arresting Power: Resisting Police Violence in Portland put together an 84-minute film that feels like an oral history of police brutality in one city.

The story of policing in Portland can serve as a microcosm of what’s going on in cities across the country. Arresting Power, which debuted in late January, ties together historical footage of protest marches calling for police oversight with interviews of activists, reformers, and people who have seen the emotional and physical consequences of police brutality first-hand. The film moves from story to story, the names of people who have died in police custody in Portland over the past 40 years flashing on the screen as their friends and relatives recount what happened. The effect is the feeling of an endless cycle.

I talked with co-directors Julie Perini, Jodi Darby, and Erin Yanke on the night of Arresting Power’s premiere about their goal with the film and what their research reveals about the relationship between a city and its police.

SARAH MIRK: How did you get started on Arresting Power

JULIE PERINI: In 2010, there had been a number of police shootings that ended in deaths of unarmed citizens in Portland that caused a lot of community outrage. I was working with a lot of activists at the time on those issues, and I got inspired to make some kind of media project in response.

What motivated you to make a documentary film specifically?

JODI DARBY: This movie has had a few different iterations since it’s become what it is.  We had a whole lot of different people who we wanted to talk to: family members of people who had been killed by the cops and people who were survivors of everyday intimidation. We had this collection of interviews and the first time we showed them, it was at a gallery space called Place Gallery. It was a 54-minute video loop that played inside of a black box, so you could go and sit down at any point. There wasn’t a beginning or a middle or an end. We thought these stories are really powerful but they’re are being shown in a very isolated space and we need to get out to a broader audience. We thought that people needed to see what we had seen and so that’s when we started to think about bringing it to a more documentary feature length accessible piece.

The film is premiering while we’re having a huge national conversation about police oversight and police brutality. But what role have citizens played in changing the police? In researching this history, digging into this documentary, did you find that protests actually matter?  Or are we in an echo chamber as people who want a greater oversight of the police?

JULIE: I’m not going to believe we are in an echo chamber. I think that people can work together to make change happen. I think that’s how all change does happen—it’s small groups of people getting together to see what they can do if they combine their energies and mobilize other people. What we see by looking into the history is the way that these protests beget more protests. They make this possible for the next generation to continue the activity and keep speaking out and keep building on the energy of the past. I do think we need all those kinds of tactics. We need people on the streets making noise. We need people writing letters to the editor. We need people making films. We need people teaching classe. We need people talking to each other. All of that stuff is what makes change happen.

So right now the national #BlackLivesMatter movement have been largely led by young people of color. What did you see about the history of organizing in Portland? Did you see a change over time in who’s organizing protests here and who’s been keeping up the momentum behind police oversight?

JULIE: We learned a lot through a couple of documents that we read and having access to from the Oregon Historical Society Moving Images Archive. Access to those images and films gave us a clear idea of who historically had been behind a lot of these movements against police in Portland: young people from Portland State University. The black student union there, and smaller groups of community organizations, the Black Berets, and later the Black Panther party—a lot of those have been lead by young people. I think it’s young people in general who lead those movements and they are people who should always lead those movements in terms of people walking in the front and looking at the elders and saying, “Okay, we’re going to take some examples from what you’ve done.” But every year something changes. Every year we’re working from a different playbook. The police on the streets in 1968 are very different from the police on the streets now. So these young people and these people who are their mentors are responding to different sets of circumstances. One thing we regret is that we worked so hard on this historical perspective and we weren’t able to give a whole lot of film time to honoring the young people who have responded to Ferguson and contemporary issues, but showing this history will hopefully inform people who are like, “Should I do this? Should I step forward? Should I put myself on the line? Should I talk about this?” If they see that this has been a history that’s been strong for longer than they’ve been alive, that will provide them with some encouragement to join that struggle.

I think people now are especially frustrated with the way policing works in our country. People see that violent actions keep happening again and again. Portland it’s a little microcosm of that. We could list off a litany of names of people who’ve suffered from excessive use of force. In making this film and in interviewing all these people who’ve been personally affected by police violence, did you get an image that anything has changed? Does it feel like we’re on repeat?

JODI: It’s pretty powerful to see how certain things have not changed, and just from this movie, there are so many clear parallels. There are these other attendant things we’ve discovered in our research. For example, the police in the ’80s went out and killed possums, loaded their vehicles with dead possums—this is on the clock, while they’re on patrol—took those dead possums to the doorsteps of an African-American-owned business on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and dumped the possums on their doorstep. It was known as “The Possum Incident.” Another African-American young man was killed by Portland police in 1985 because of a chokehold very similar to the Eric Garner incident. He was Lloyd Stevenson, and while his funeral was going on and his family was trying to come to terms to what had happened to their son, the police were selling t-shirts out the back of patrol cars that said “Don’t Choke ’Em, Smoke ’Em.” It seems like the police at that time were going out of their way to make this community feel like they're under siege.

ERIN YANKE: What that speaks to is a systematic problem based on white supremacy and social control. it’s the cultural and social things that are changing while the basic structure of the police and social control stays the same. That’s why it’s important for us to protest. We are putting pressure from the bottom, and if the outside justice department comes in to put pressure from the top then we can actually make things happen.

As filmmakers, how did you think about the narrative of this film, and how did you take all of these tragic, horrible incidents that have happened over 50 years and figure out what the story is behind them?

JULIE: Initially when we began the project, there was some desire to resist telling the story. This is a community-based project, a community-based problem. There isn’t any one story we can listen to and now feel relieved we understand the story. We have some stories that were historical—what happened in Portland back in the ’70s and ’80s and what were organizers doing then, and what’s happening now and what are organizers doing now. Those are some of the ways we’re trying to grapple with both telling stories and presenting ideas. The point of our film is to show this is a system predicated on the threat of violence and potential use of excessive force. I am thrilled that people are even using phrases like “excessive use of force.” Even phrases like that are more commonly used and are part of people’s consciousness and awareness. It shows me that change can happen.

JODI: One thing that is really powerful about some of the conversations that we’ve had in the movie is that we touch on alternatives. We talk to people about what a world without police would look like. We are so used to living in a world that has these institutions of police and the prison industrial complex as ways to deal with threats of violence to each other. What if we started thinking about that? What if we didn’t assume that having police on the streets was the safest way to take care of society? What if we talked about alternatives as far as community control? When is the proper time to call the police and when isn’t? How do we impact other people's lives when we decide to call the police? Taking ownership and accountability to our role as people who bring police into communities and talking about what it would look like if we didn’t use police.

ERIN: Julie was talking about how we’re not trying to tell the story. We’re also not trying to provide the answer. All of the answers come from different communities and different experiences. We’re hoping to push the conversation into thinking creatively without the police. A lot of people come to documentaries, and they want to learn all about a subject, and then they don’t have to think about it again. That's not this film. We don’t have an answer for you. The answer is that we all work together and talk to each other and figure it out for our own particular communities, and it takes a long time to build the relationships to do the work, but that’s what makes it successful.

Related Listening — A Protest is Not a Riot: The Songs and Culture of Protest. 

Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. 

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Interview with Arresting Power film makers

Thanks! Excellent questions, excellent answers.

I especially like the film makers' awareness of the bottom up, top down strategies, and how they work together. Their emphasis on the long term nature of this is important too. As Americans, we're always inclined to look for the quick fix. On the issue of white supremacy and class based social control, we are decades away from what we who are activists believe is "the ideal."

At any stage of the journey, relationships are crucial, yet sometimes it seems that the health of our relationships may be our weakest link. I thank the film makers for their insights into the power of working together, at all levels, all fronts at once. Too often, people fight over strategies (e.g., protests in the streets, shutting things down vs. pushing for the DOJ to take the PPB to court, vs. being on citizen boards for police accountability vs. training the youth in their rights vs. testifying at city hall, county commissioners, or at the state legislature). Too often, people compete with each other for credit for the small, slow results that we do achieve, and put down the leaders of each tactical domain.

Strategies are not mutually exclusive. It's wonderful if they all eventually stem from the same analysis. I think that's really all the unity that we need, plus the power of respect for different choices in how to fight this long fight.

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