Portland State University. Department of History
Date of Award
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
1 online resource (viii, 116 pages)
On March 14, 1975, twenty-eight year old Portland Police Officer Kenneth Sanford shot and killed seventeen-year-old Rickie Charles Johnson in the back of the head during a sting operation. Incredulously, Johnson was the fourth person of color to be shot and killed by Portland police within a five-month period. Due to his age and surrounding circumstances, Johnson's death by Sanford elicited extreme reactions from varied communities of Portland. Unlike previous deaths of people of color by the police in Portland, Johnson's death received widespread attention from mainstream media outlets. In response, some white citizens decried Johnson's death as unjustified police brutality. Still, several white citizens defended the Portland Police Bureau and their actions. Members of Portland's African American community, however, firmly believed that Johnson's death was just another instance in the PPB's long history of police brutality within Portland's black neighborhoods.
Johnson's death motivated young black activists in Portland, Oregon to form the advocacy group the Black Justice Committee (BJC). The BJC, along with several pre-established advocacy groups in Portland, demanded that the city host its first public inquest to investigate Johnson's death. A public inquest is a public "trial" that usually occurs after a sudden or unexpected death. Black citizens felt this public inquest would hold the city accountable for repeated mistreatment of the city's communities of color; whereas, the nearly all white city government believed a public inquest would quell racial unrest within Portland. Mayor Neil Goldschmidt and District Attorney Harl Haas agreed to host the inquest, at which assistant District Attorney John Moore questioned Officer Sanford's motivations and actions. Despite the advocacy efforts before the public inquest, the jury voted 4-1 for Sanford's innocence. The only black jury member casted the sole vote against Sanford's innocence.
Heralded for its progressivity, the city of Portland, Oregon is contemporarily viewed as a liberal mecca where all are welcome to speak their truth and "Keep Portland Weird." However, communities of color have experienced widespread repression, oppression and discrimination since the establishment of the city. Whereas some may see Portland as a city that cherishes individuality, Portland's black community has been robbed of autonomy for generations. Police surveillance, harassment and brutality have plagued Portland's black community for years and continues to be a contentious issue within the city.
This project focuses on the history of Portland's black community, the history of the Portland Police Bureau, and the relationship between the two. Starting with World War II and ending with Officer Sanford's public inquest in April 1975, this thesis showcases the unassailability of Portland's black activist community and the city's continued denial of culpability for police actions. Despite the inquest's results, Johnson's death and the advocacy surrounding the incident fueled the motivations of activists at both the national and state level, and encouraged the city to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the Bureau.
Nelson, Katherine EIleen, ""On the Murder of Rickey Johnson": The Portland Police Bureau, Deadly Force, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Oregon, 1940 - 1975" (2018). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 4434.