PDX Unrest — Shots in the Dark

Pop! Pop!

My eyes snap open.

Those had to have been gunshots.


A city contains many loud, percussive noises — fireworks, backfires, trash compactors, train cars coupling, cargo trucks being loaded. Six months ago, the extent of my experience with the sound of gunfire was distant coughs heard while camping on public land. I’d have had no sense of how to tell a gunshot from any other city bang, within a few blocks. I’d been a bit jumpy on more than one occasion. But after the two hundred rounds I’ve put through my own 9mm handgun, I’m starting to develop that sense.

Yeah, I’m not thrilled about it either.

There’s certainly enough gun violence in Portland to support the idea. Seems like not a day goes by that I don’t see Portland Police Bureau or Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office tweet about shots fired. Usually injuries involved. Often deaths. Most notably, of late, a mass shooting at a downtown food cart pod at 2 a.m. the morning of July 17. Likely a drive-by. Likely gang-related.

Six injured. One dead. Makayla Harris. 18 years old. I’m assuming she was completely uninvolved in whatever beef the shooting was related to. I’m assuming most of the injured were, too. After all, most shots miss. I can’t imagine that accuracy goes up when firing from a moving vehicle.

The police blame a lack of police presence in the Entertainment District — because of course they do. They said they’d be pulling officers from North and East Precincts (both of which have been targeted by protests) to provide visible bulk the following weekend, along with investigative support from the FBI.

The involvement of the FBI in policing local Portland gang violence seems weird, and I wonder what US’s stake in this is, or if there’s something else going on. But local gangs tend to be plugged into interstate and international outfits like the Crips and MS-13. So maybe that’s all it is.

Skepticism was heavy that increased police presence downtown would make a difference after a man was shot that next Friday just blocks away. Police say that they didn’t reach the level of bulk they had hoped for, though, because their officers were in Vancouver trying to help track down whoever shot and killed a Clark County deputy that same evening. And I didn’t hear of a downtown shooting on Saturday, for whatever that’s worth.

The deterrence model of law enforcement has an unethical logic to it. It’s ruling through fear. Make people scared to break the law. Arrest, imprisonment, tickets, fines, court fees, tear gas, murder… it’s all tailored to extract compliance through fear. We don’t follow laws because they universally seem right and just and like an ethical way to carry oneself through life. We follow laws so that we don’t get punished.

The weakness in this model, though, is that fear of punishment can be overpowered by desperation. Whether individual desperation, like in shoplifting food, or societal desperation, like in rioting. The limits of fear-based policing are showing. And I don’t expect the population to be getting less desperate in the coming years.

The streets are getting more crowded with RVs and big vans every month. I’m seeing all kinds of new faces panhandling on streetcorners, with clothing intact enough to hint that they haven’t been doing it for long. In one case, a middle-school boy sawed away at a violin while his mom sat next to him holding a cardboard sign. They had been evicted just days prior.

Desperation is on the rise.

We see the same process play out internationally, because our approach toward foreign adversaries is the same: comply or else. Sanctions, tariffs, drone strikes, fuckin’ nukes… And when a nation gets desperate enough, the fear no longer contain them, and you get shit like the Taliban, ISIS, and Iranian nuclear programs.

Deterrence is a convincing model of attaining order, because of its immediate, powerful results. But it’s a flawed model of maintaining order because its inherent oppressiveness inevitably generates the desperation that is its eventual undoing.

I’m not claiming that desperation is the only thing motivating crimes, but I think it’s a big one, and one that’s only going to get bigger as we struggle through the massive changes eating away at the reality we thought we lived in.

It hit me pretty personally, last year, when news of shootings started to rise. I first heard about a drive-by shooting on a street that I had slept on the previous week. It was reported that several vehicles had been struck. If it had happened a week sooner, mine could well have been one of them. And I guarantee my van’s thin steel chassis would not stop any standard pistol caliber.

In the months following, as news of shooting after shooting rolled in, more and more familiar names came up. Parks especially. Shit, Farragut Park used to be one of my preferred spots in North Portland. Fantastic shade til early afternoon, with bathrooms right there. But I haven’t been back since the shooting there.

The extra vulnerability inherent in urban vanlife to crossfire from sporadic street gun violence weighs heavy on me, as gun violence continues to flourish in this city. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before probability throws lead into my van while I’m sleeping. If I’m lucky, it’ll just be through a window.

Pop! Pop!

Jesus christ, again?

Didn’t sound any more or any less like gunfire than it did the first time around. And now my mind was flying with possible causes of two widely-spaced double-taps. The most outrageous by far was a deranged psycho systematically murdering houseless folks in and around this park. I knew this was too outlandish to actually be the case, but my brain just wouldn’t let go of the image, no matter how unlikely I knew it to be. Didn’t matter if a third pair of gunshots never came, I would not be able to fall back asleep at this spot.

I let loose an exasperated sound somewhere between a scream and a whimper as I crawled forward into the driver’s seat.


Wannabe gonzo from the passenger cabin of an ’85 Toyota Van. We're all swine here. (He/her/they) (@captsodapocket)

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Dr. Sodapocket

Wannabe gonzo from the passenger cabin of an ’85 Toyota Van. We're all swine here. (He/her/they) (@captsodapocket)