Portland commish blames cops for fires being set during protests, apologizes after pushback

By Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty said Wednesday she didn’t believe protesters in Portland are setting fires but that police are sending in “saboteurs” to create the strife – an unsubstantiated claim that drew immediate pushback from police and then an apology from her hours later.

She also made a not-so-oblique reference to Mayor Ted Wheeler, referencing “ignorance at the highest levels in our city government” as she participated in a national briefing sponsored by a left-leaning think tank based in Portland.

A protester extinguishes a fire set by fellow protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A protester extinguishes a fire set by fellow protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Hardesty spoke amid growing frustration in the city for the aggressive tactics of federal officers who have been firing tear gas, impact munitions and striking demonstrators with batons as larger crowds have descended this month outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse demanding that the federal officers leave town. Federal officers in camouflage fatigues also whisked away at least two people from Portland streets last week in unmarked vans for questioning.

Hardesty said she believes federal officers are targeting sanctuary cities.

“I asked the mayor, ‘Who do you think they’re grabbing off the street?’ Well, ah, ah,” she said, attempting to mimic Wheeler stammering in response to her question.

“And he says, ‘Well, a sanctuary city just means we don’t work with ICE.’ So we have an ignorance at the highest levels in our city government,” she said. “People who just assume that if the police say it happened, it really happened.”

Hardesty’s comments came three days after she issued a statement via Twitter, telling Wheeler that if he couldn’t control the Police Bureau, he should allow her to replace him as police commissioner. Wheeler responded that he planned to continue in the position during this “period of transformation.”

He couldn’t be reached for immediate comment on Hardesty’s latest broadside.

Her remarks were made during a video conference “Emergency National Briefing,” sponsored by the Portland-based Western States Center. She spoke after Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Hardesty, who has been the leading voice for police reform on the City Council, blamed police for creating strife on the city’s streets by sending in provocateurs.

“I want people to know that I do not believe there’s any protesters in Portland that are setting fires, that are creating crisis. I absolutely believe it’s police action, and they’re sending saboteurs and provocateurs into peaceful crowds so they justify their inhumane treatment or people who are standing up for their rights.”

She didn’t offer any information to back up her allegations.

Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland rank-and-file police union, quickly responded: “Really? Really? That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“With statements like this, it has become completely clear that Commissioner Hardesty is part of the problem in Portland,” Turner said in a statement. “Every one of the many videos we have seen confirms that small groups of rioters are starting the fires and trying to burn down buildings. Even a quick search of Twitter shows rioters setting the fires and boldly claiming responsibility.”

Video images on May 29 caught people breaking windows of the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland and throwing flares and setting a fire in a sheriff’s records office there and more recently setting fires outside the federal courthouse next door.

Two weeks earlier, Portland city officials recorded 114 fires set by people in the city since demonstrations began after the death of George Floyd on May 25 while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight members. The fires were recorded by the Portland Fire & Rescue Bureau, which Hardesty oversees as fire commissioner.

By Wednesday evening, Hardesty issued a statement apologizing, but referenced similar statements on fires she made to another publication, Marie Claire, not the remarks she issued during the national briefing carried live on Facebook.

“Today I let my emotions get the most of me during council and the comment I made to the press. But I’m angry , frustrated, and horrified by what has happened these past 50 days. I’m angry that even as a City Commissioner, I am coming up against countless barriers from protecting protecting Portlanders from the deluge of tear gas, pepper spray and other munitions on a nightly basis.”

She said she drew from her experience as a child of the civil rights movement that “people have been sent to infiltrate these spaces to create incidents that justify enhanced police actions…I appreciate the reminder that as a public servant I need to be careful making statements out of misinformation, and I take this to heart.”

In one of the latest cases involving an attempted fire, a 21-year-old man named Joseph James Ybarra appeared in federal court Wednesday afternoon, accused by federal prosecutors of attempted arson for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail at the front of the federal courthouse about 3:15 a.m. Wednesday.

According to a federal affidavit, video surveillance caught two men lighting a white wick that appeared to stick out of a glass bottle in the pre-dawn hours outside the courthouse.

One in a black sweatshirt, white shorts and carrying a bag, later identified as Ybarra, moved some of the fencing that was used to barricade an exposed opening to the courthouse, while the other person lit the wick of bottle and threw it at the courthouse, according to the affidavit.

The device appeared to fall to the ground and Ybarra picked it up and threw it twice more, wrote Nathan Miller, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the federal affidavit. It didn’t explode, Miller said.

Ybarra, who said he lived in a tent in Southeast Portland, confirmed he was the person in video surveillance holding the device and told a federal officer he did it because he thought it was cool, the agent wrote in the affidavit. Ybarra remains in custody.

Turner, who represents rank-and-file officers, detectives and sergeants for the Portland Police Association, said he has invited elected officials to stand at the front lines with police officers during protests, but no City Council member has taken him up on it.

“Politicians bent on power, perpetuating misinformation and untruths, are just as guilty of using their privilege to hijack this movement as the rioters who are committing violent acts, burning, and looting,” he said.

Western States Center, which tracks extremist groups, hosted what it a video-based national briefing on “the Trump Administration’s misuse of armed federal agents in Portland and beyond.”

Joining Hardesty and U.S. Sen. Merkley, D-Ore., were a New York State assemblywoman, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Eric K. Ward, the director of Western States Center. The center this week filed a federal suit against federal law enforcement, seeking to restrict their tactics on the city’s streets.

Hardesty’s statements about sanctuary cities arose partly in response to remarks made the day before by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf, who said he was concerned about Portland city officials’ lack of cooperation and willingness to assist federal enforcement, stemming from the time City Hall restricted Portland police from helping federal immigration officers deal with a growing encampment outside their Portland field office in 2018.

©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)