Hotshot reporter Percy Crenshaw died on
the last day of my thirty-second year.
I'm crystal clear on the timing, because
I remember precisely where I was when I got word the following morning. I was
slogging away in the misdemeanor intake unit, issuing criminal trespass after
criminal trespass case, thinking to myself, This is a shitty way to spend
my thirty-second birthday.
The way I saw it, I had no business
working at intake. I have been a prosecutor for seven years, three federally
as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York City, and four in my current
position as a Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County. Only someone with
a local connection would know where Multnomah County is, let alone how to
pronounce it. It's the county whose seat is Portland, Oregon, the rainy city
in the Pacific Northwest. Not the big one with the needle in the skyline, the
smaller one south of there.
Before hearing the news about Percy, my
big complaint of the morning -- and the reason I was at intake -- was the
protesters. Outsiders might not recognize the county name, but they know about
these people, even if they've never made the Oregon connection. My hometown's
protesters are the same nuts who stirred up the masses outside the World Trade
Organization talks a few years ago. In a smaller local show, they tried to
make a lost point about our soldier-a-day situation in the Mideast by
upchucking red, white, and blue ipecac when the President showed up for a
campaign stop. Some of them are rumored to be responsible for the arsons in
California targeting suburban housing developments and SUV dealers.
The political causes may vary, but one
thing remains the same: These kids love to protest. And the night before my
birthday, the chosen cause was the fatal shooting two weeks earlier of Delores
Tompkins, an African-American mother of two, by a patrol officer with the
Portland Police Bureau. Like all police shootings, the Tompkins case would be
presented to a grand jury before any official determination was made regarding
justification. Unlike most, however, this one's purpose would not be simply
for appearances. Tompkins had no criminal history, was unarmed, and was shot
through the windshield of her car during what should have been a routine stop.
And, as often seems to be the case with these things, the police officer in
question, Geoff Hamilton, was white.
As the newest member of our office's
Major Crimes Unit, I was not working on the investigation into the Tompkins
shooting. But even I could sense a more than theoretical possibility that our
office would be going for charges against Officer Hamilton. The public must
have sensed it too. With each day since Delores Tompkins's death had come
another related event -- a prayer vigil, a town meeting, a conference with the
police commissioner -- each occasion an opportunity to apprise the city that
its small community of color was fired up and paying attention. And as their
message trickled its way each morning into a new edition of the Oregonian,
the odds of an indictment reading State of Oregon v. Geoffrey Hamilton
increased just a little more.
Until the Sunday night before my
birthday, however, the pressure to indict had been quiet, subtle, and largely
behind the scenes. All that changed when the state's band of semiprofessional
protesters selected Delores Tompkins as their cause du jour, drawing a
riled-up crowd of several thousand downtown on Sunday afternoon for a hastily
planned March Against Racism. Supporters of the police bureau organized a
counter-protest, not because they were marching for racism but because they
interpreted the anger over the Tompkins shooting as a general attack on law
enforcement. When a pack of militia types from eastern Oregon announced that
it would piggyback onto the counter-protest, downtown Portland became the
official magnet for every disgruntled wack job in the region.
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