Police 'unlawful assembly' powers come under fire in Oregon

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Noah Berger

FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2020, file photo, Black Lives Matter protesters march through Portland, Ore. after rallying at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. A lawmaker in Oregon is trying to repeal a statute that allows police to declare an unlawful assembly, which critics say enables authorities to restrict free speech and the right to assemble. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, FIle)

SALEM, Ore. – As racial injustice protesters swarmed the streets of Portland, Oregon, day after day last year, a voice would come over a police loudspeaker, announcing they had assembled unlawfully and would be arrested or face tear gas and rubber bullets if they didn’t disperse.

Law enforcement agencies can respond that way under an arcane Oregon law that critics say allows them to violate people's First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Now, state Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Black Democratic lawmaker, is seeking to repeal the law in this predominantly white state.

The push comes after Portland saw more than 100 straight days of sometimes violent protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

Other states have dealt with the issue. In 1971, the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated Virginia’s unlawful assembly statute on First Amendment grounds, the ACLU of Oregon said. The court said the law was too broad in banning demonstrators' intent to use force and violence, even if they did not pose a threat.

Law enforcement has already begun lining up against the Oregon bill sponsored by Bynum, who chairs the House subcommittee on equitable policing and held a public hearing Monday.

“Repealing this statute will eliminate a valuable tool that law enforcement uses to disperse unlawful gatherings and deescalate tensions when violence and threats to community safety become likely,” said Chris Skinner, police chief of the college town of Eugene who testified on behalf of associations of police chiefs and sheriffs.

He said that without the law, "law enforcement would be forced to wait to respond until violence and criminal activity escalates.”

Supporters of the measure say it shouldn’t be up to police to decide if a protest has the potential to become violent. The law also gives officers the power to arrest people before there's a crime. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon says that because unlawful assembly is not a crime in Oregon, the vast majority of protesters who were arrested were charged with interfering with a peace officer.