‘Double dutching,’ cats and PTSD: Black & Blue at the July 15 North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting

Coming on the heels of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, and the shooting of 14 police officers in Dallas, the July 15 North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting was emotionally charged and intense.

The meeting, which represents a coalition of outreach and mental health workers who work in partnership with the Portland Police Bureau in youth gang prevention, filled the room to overflowing. It included a group of nearly 20 youth from a local peer mentoring organization called TLC-TNT.

While public meetings can be full of posturing and bureaucracy — and truth be told, there was a little of that too— this coming together felt different.

The feeling in the room? One of collective grief, and trauma.

“As you probably know, this is not our typical meeting,” said Antoinette Edwards, director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, as strains of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” faded.

“Y’all come in,” Edwards urged people who kept showing up, crowding the room, flowing out the doors. “We gonna do something. Don’t call the fire marshall, police, mayor, not just yet,” she joked.

The list of attendees was broad: Multnomah County mental health workers. Police officers and managers of every level. Gang outreach workers. Latino Network. Constructing Hope. A federal magistrate judge. Pastors, imams. PIVOT Job Corps. Several parents or other relatives of homicide victims. The Avel Gordly Center for Healing. MeCha. Africa House, IRCO. Gresham Police. Portland Parks and Recreation. East Portland crime prevention. Many more.

Youth working with TLC-tnt sit in a row at the July 15 Portland police North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Edwards passed her facilitator baton to Michelle Lewis, a therapist.

“I was asked to come as a therapist, and also as a community member,” Lewis, an Afrocentric practitioner at OHSU’s Avel Gordly Center for Healing, said. “I was born and raised here … I’m living out in Gresham area now due to the gentrification process that’s been happening in our community … and I’ve been asked by Antoinette to come and to kind of share how these changes are impacting our community from a psychological standpoint. … Also, to share some coping skills.”

What people shared appeared to reflect an inner turmoil being experienced by those in communities of color as well as law enforcement. All the more so, perhaps, for those who are both persons of color and affiliated with law enforcement.

“We are all struggling emotionally, as well as mentally … some of the things that I’ve been hearing a lot from families, friends, and service users is that, ‘I feel like I’m going crazy,’” Lewis said.

“We are in a hypervigilant state … we are on guard right now,” Lewis said. “When you’re on guard and hypervigilant, there’s no time to think, and the brain cannot tell between a real and a perceived threat when you’re in a hypervigilant state of mind. …”

“When you’re emotionally disregulated, the term I always use is, I go from zero to sixty, and I don’t know what happened in between,” Lewis said, to sympathetic laughter.

Lewis detailed stages of grief, provided guidance about post-traumatic stress, and elaborated coping skills.

But the meeting included a diversity of perspectives. Some of the most powerful voices belonged to youth.

A recent high school graduate and employee at the District Attorney’s office named Asianique Savage earned a standing ovation with her words. Savage said she wants to spend her last summer before she goes off to college organizing young people. Savage, 18, is the daughter of Asia Bell, who was shot and killed on a North Mississippi Ave. porch in 2002, as Asianique, then a young girl, slept in a back room.

“Why not do something about the laws, because it’s the laws that are killing us,” Savage told the room.

“In my head I’m thinking, ‘okay, so what can I do?’ Everybody wants to be mad, and everybody wants to play the blame game, but what can I do? I thought, the people that are getting killed are the ages between 17 and 30. … So why not do something to help us [young people] educate ourselves about the laws? … I want to call it, “What About Us?” … my main focus are our brown-skinned communities. It’s just to come together, and have police officers do demonstrations on how we’re supposed to be prepped, and how we’re supposed to be touched by police officers, what we can do to defend ourselves.”

“But without it being hostile.”

“Also with that, most of us youth, we don’t know our human rights. We don’t know the types of things that we can do if an officer stops us and wants to search us. We need to know that we can say no. And that we do not have to be scared. … I want to do something for our community, and hopefully what I do jumps off, and continues, because it’s very important for our young youth to know the laws.”

One of the TLC-TNT youths, Gabriel Gutierrez-Aragon, said young people’s voices need to be heard.

“If you all want me to be honest, I think you all need to check in with the youth and really understand how it is that they’re approaching these issues,” he said. “Because me, I sit here and I look around at the officers coming into this room and I’m like, ‘damn, this is scary, I don’t want you here.’ Like, for real. And I can see beyond the suit and see the person, right? I can look into your eyes and know that there’s a soul that’s actually registering my presence here now, and understand that you are all here just as I am. … You’ve come to embody the idea of a police force, and I am embodying the idea of a Mexican, whatever that is. At the end of the day, it’s the actions, right?”

“If I want to be [a radical like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Fred Hampton], then what am I looking at? I’m looking at a system that’s going to kill me for it,” Gutierrez-Aragon said. “I’m looking at people like you, who are going to throw me in jail for it. You know? And that’s my reality.” Gutierrez-Aragon’s words also earned him a standing ovation.

Imam Mikal Shabazz of the Muslim Community Center, spoke eloquently even while making an unusual comparison to, uh, cats.

“The relationship between black men and women and police is what it is, and we all are beginning to see just what it has been, across the board,” Shabazz said. “I have three cats. … The thing about cats, they’re something like people. Once you break a cat’s trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back,” Shabazz said. “You have to sometimes wait until the next generation of cats come, and the next generation of people come, to get that trust back,” he said, to increasing clamor. “But you have to work at it, and establish the fact that you are at least trying to work towards that trust. But to expect it to come back immediately because you want it back is an unrealistic expectation. And I think that that’s where we may find ourselves today, as cats. … suspicious cats, at the least, based on what has been done to us, or whom we have seen things done to.”

“We might want to take a look at what’s at risk,” Shabazz said, “and look at it from a global perspective. Because there are those who won’t come in this room, who have made up their mind that all the words that we say don’t mean a damn thing, excuse my expression, don’t mean anything. They’ve already decided, and we’ve seen the horrific impact of them making that decision in their own heads. It’s in the fact that their actions have to be grotesque beyond human belief. We just saw it in Nice, yesterday. France. That’s what’s at risk.”

Read the entire blog post on Medium.com/@PoorforaMinute.