This story is about a joke.
This story is not about police brutality or cops shooting another unarmed black man. This story is not about a cover-up or cops getting away with it. This is a story about a joke.
But in this story, a cop almost gets away with it. Instead of an unarmed black man, police kill a 17-year-old, unarmed black boy. There is definitely a cover-up in this story. But this story is about a joke. This story is about how and why the whitest city in America covered up a stupid little joke to save a stupid little police officer until a black woman bravely stepped in and saved the day because...don’t they always?
This story begins at the end.
It begins at the end of the life of 17-year-old Quanice Hayes. It begins on Feb. 9, 2017, when Portland Police Officer Andrew Hearst pulled the trigger on his AR-15 and pumped three bullets into Hayes’ head. Hayes had a gun. It was “justified.” The end.
Even though it later turned out that Hayes’ gun was a toy; even though none of the police officers saw a gun; even though Hayes was on his knees surrendering when he was shot; even though Hearst himself testified that he did not see a gun before he fired, he was still cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury because...aren’t they always?
According to the Oregonian, on Feb. 12, three days after Hayes was killed, Sergeant Gregg Lewis was instructing Portland Police Department’s Central Command on how to place civil holds on intoxicated suspects and take them to a detox center. Lewis explained that they should determine their actions based on the kind of person they encountered. As he explained what they should do when they encountered a drunk person in a suit and tie versus when they encounter a homeless person, someone noted that people were still mad about the extrajudicial killing of Quanice Hayes, so they should be careful, to which Lewis apparently responded:
“If they are black, just shoot them.”
Isn’t that just hilarious?
Another officer reported that Lewis said, “If you come across a black person, just shoot them,” while others said they were uncomfortable with Lewis’ remarks and offered varying accounts to a lieutenant.
The Oregonian reports:
According to one account, Lewis told officers to “be smart” about who they removed from inside parking garages for being intoxicated. Lewis, according to this officer, said, “If you come across a guy in a suit and tie that came downtown and had a little too much to drink…he’s probably not the guy you want to detox straight out of the garage. He will most likely sue you. If it’s a homeless guy, you will probably be safe. I doubt he‘s going to sue you.”
Around this time at the roll call, someone mentioned the shooting of Hayes by Officer Andrew Hearst. The person voiced dismay about comments posted online in reaction to an Oregonian/OregonLive article. The commenter contended officers shoot to kill black people but only wound white people.
“Officers began talking about this statement, and then I heard Sergeant Lewis state, ‘Well, let’s just go out and kill all the black people,’” according to the letter. “The officers appeared shocked and astonished. There was some uncomfortable laughter throughout the room, but most officers were quiet. This brought roll call to an end.”
To their credit, four officers reported the racist joke to a supervisor by the next morning. The Portland police commissioner called Lewis’ remarks “patently racist.”
Then Lewis was no longer working at the Portland Police Department. The end.
I’m kidding—he wasn’t fired.
What actually happened was...
Lewis kept his job for another year. He insisted he was just joking, explaining that he has a “habit of sometimes being a little sarcastic.” Lewis defended himself by saying it was unfortunate that his comment about shooting black people “is being colored as a racial thing.”
“I remember saying, and I thought it was kind of funny in light of the stupid conversations in the media,” Lewis told investigators. “So you know, unless it’s a black guy, then we just shoot them.”
Finally, on Feb. 2, 2018, almost a year after joking about shooting black people to a group who sometimes shoots black people, Lewis was fired. His termination letter (pdf) specifically mentioned the comments from the roll call, noting he violated department policy on discrimination, harassment, and decorum. The letter added that his high rank exacerbated the situation. This should definitely be the end of the story, but it’s not.
Of course, Lewis hired a lawyer because...don’t they always?
The lawyer wanted to take Lewis’ firing to arbitration and get him reinstated. The city attorneys determined that there was a chance that Lewis could win, so the City of Portland decided to settle with him. They offered to expunge his firing, give him $100,020.53 in back pay, put him down as “retired,” and allow him to draw his pension.
All the whites agreed this was the most prudent path. All they needed to do was to get the city council to sign off, and the people who Gregg Lewis joked about shooting and killing would pay him a nice pension for the rest of his life. And since the “whitest city in America” had an all-white city council, it looked easy.
Then Jo Ann Hardesty fucked everything up.
Jo Anne Hardesty is not with the bullshit. Hardesty is a Navy veteran who was one of the first women to work on board naval ships. Hardesty grew up in Baltimore. Hardesty is the daughter of a longshoreman. Hardesty is an activist.
And Jo Ann Hardesty is a black woman.
In November 2018, Hardesty became the first black woman to ever be elected to the Portland City Council. When Hardesty took her seat in January, she didn’t know about any of this because no one knew. The racist remark, the complaints, the firing, the six-figure settlement, the pension—it was all a secret. The city council, the police department, and city officials had covered it up for nearly two years.
Now that they had a black woman on the council, they were still going to pay off the racist police comedian. The city council was going to OK the settlement at the Jan. 30 city council meeting. The people didn’t know the details, so the vote would seem like a simple matter of financial housekeeping. Hardesty didn’t want to go along, but she only had one vote, and she would surely be outnumbered. What could she do?
So at Wednesday’s city council meeting, Hardesty waited until it was her turn to speak, and then, like a motherfucking G, Hardesty simply read every officer’s account of Lewis’ racist joke, meaning it would forever be officially on the record. No one could deny it.
Flustered, Mayor Ted Wheeler delayed the vote on the settlement. Citizens demanded the city release all of the related documents. The city did. The vote is now on hold and people are upset about the secrecy, the lies, and the racism.
“It’s clear we have a broken system,” Hardesty said at the meeting. “If it was up to me, I’d say, ‘Let’s go to arbitration. Let’s fight the good fight because even if we lose it, we send a very strong message that this is just not acceptable. That you don’t get to sit in roll call and make racist comments and you don’t get a payday on top of your city-paid retirement.’”
And this is why voting isn’t about a president or senator. This is why it is important to have a seat at the table. Just one city councilperson can effect change. The best-laid plans of mice and white men often go awry when one good person steps in. And this time, it was a black woman because...
Isn’t it always?
The End (for real, this time).