Kent Ford, Portland Black Panther Party founder, talks about what started the 1969 Union Avenue Riots

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Kent Ford, Portland Black Panther Party founder, talks about what started the 1969 Union Avenue Riots.

KF: … Let me tell you what happened. Me, Dave Dawson, Tommy Mills who helped me found the Party, ... We were driving down Union Avenue, which was Union back then but MLK today. It was changed I think about twenty years ago. And there was a commotion there at the Lidio’s, which was a burger joint and Italian restaurant kind of like. And so we got out to see what was going on and then all along they got this little kid in the back of the car so I let him out of the back of the police car and told him to run home. Well they grabbed me and maced me and beat me and the next thing you know I got all these charges against me and I don’t even know what I’ve done. I said “Well you know you can put me in jail for letting this kid jump out of the car and run home, he only lives a couple of blocks away.” I said “You guys might’ve took him home yourself but I figured I know the kid, I knew his mother and everybody so that’s why I let him out of the car.” I said “For releasing one of your prisoners or something, for opening the police car door,” but I said “How do you get ‘riot’ and ‘inciting to riot’ out of this?” They was just trying to railroad me.

CW: So what happened then was they initially charged you with “inciting to riot…”
KF: Mm-hmm
CW: And then they added a “riot” charge on top of that one. What happened with those charges and the case that ensued from that?
KF: Well I got acquitted and they dropped the “inciting to riot” and kept the “riot” because you can’t have both. Either you rioted or you didn’t, you know. So the jury dropped the “inciting to riot.” A riot is three or more people acting in concert and they come to find out ain’t nobody but two guys that was involved in the case. So my lawyer he says, “Kent you know any of these guys?” I said, “I never even known nothing about them. The guys I know I was in the car with.” And I said, “We all stayed together until the fight broke out.”
CW: And so then later that year, actually the following year in early February 1970 that’s when the charges were dropped correct?
KF: They weren’t dropped. I got acquitted.
CW: Oh you were acquitted.
KF: I went to trial and won four-thousand dollars.
CW: Can you talk about what that trial was like, who the jury was made up of?
KF: Well, a lot of people showed up from Portland State, a lot of anti-war people showed up. Susan Hammerquist, there was Percy’s wife, ex-wife, she wrote some articles on it. I’ll get some of those article for you in the Willamette Bridge. And she wrote articles on it. And it was about the jury selections and all that stuff, Clay. And anyway the lawyer beat the case. A good lawyer, Nick Chaivoe, he passed the bar thirteen years earlier than he started practicing, Why wouldn’t they let him practice? Because he was labeled a communist back during the McCarthy era. So he had to work for an attorney to be an investigator and as the years passed by he was able to practice. He shared that with me one day over lunch that they wouldn’t even let him practice for thirteen years. He had to be an investigator, and he had passed the bar thirteen years prior to that. Brilliant criminal defense attorney.
CW: And he handled many of the other Panther cases?
KF: That and a lot of other civil rights cases too; real strong on civil rights.
CW: And so actually, later on in the year after you were acquitted you went back and you ended up suing and you ended up winning.
KF: I sued because of the beating I incurred. You see my civil rights were violated when they beat me when I was handcuffed. And the beating I incurred on that night got into federal court, got the police officers names and stuff like that and they subpoenaed them all to court and then I sued and the federal judge awarded me 5,000 dollars. They didn’t have a jury, the federal judge awarded me 5,000 dollars.
CW: So that’s a good example of how the police were brutal in Portland because you were acquitted and then you ended up winning a suit against…
KF: Uh-huh. That’s a little note right there uh-huh, sure, exactly.
CW: Now I read somewhere that after you were acquitted, or sometime around that time, you held a press conference and declared that you were going to start a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Portland. Could you clear up those details?
KF: Yah, the police in ’69 was just rabidly arresting people, just with complete impunity. So I had bailed out, uh yah I bailed out after the two seeks I spent in Rocky Butte County Jail, and I got released on a property bond and called a press conference on the doorsteps of the police station and announced that we were gonna open up a chapter.
CW: And this was around the time of what they’ve labeled the 1969 riots on Union Avenue. Could you talk about those a little bit and what was actually going on?
KF: Oh some buildings went up and all that stuff. Somebody got shot at the Rose Festival Fun Center. And it wasn’t out on the waterfront where it is today at Tom McCall’s Park. It was over at the Lloyd Center and those buildings over at the Lloyd Center on, not Clackamas street, what street is that? Multnomah Street. Yah Multnomah, there’s a park area over there. Well that’s where the Rose Festival used to be back in those days. Well, some young man got shot over there by one of the Rose Festival security guards or Portland Police. So we were going down MLK one night and we had all these pocket lawyers in the car and this and that. And all of a sudden we seen all of these people were coming up MLK. Jeff was sort of in the lead of them and about fifty, it must have been at least several hundred people. So we jump out and I said “Jeff, what’s going on?” And he said “they shot…” What’s the kid’s name? Can’t think of his name now, “They shot him at the Lloyd Center.” And I said “Ok” and so we got out and started passing out pocket lawyers in case somebody got arrested, you know, and then they’d call us and we’d come get them out of jail.
CW: Was this Jeff Fykes?
KF: Yah Jeff Fykes uh-huh.
CW: And um, for the records what exactly were your pocket lawyers like?
KF: It told you things: you don’t sign anything, once they put you under arrest never resist once they put you under arrest because that’s another charge, you know. After you’re placed under arrest and then you resist then they tack another charge on to you. I’m gonna find some for you, Clay, and let you read it for yourself. And if you have any of the early Panther Papers all of them have pocket lawyers in it. Then there was a phone number for you to call in case you got arrested. Call it and we’ll come down and see about you.
CW: So then, in the wake of this kid getting shot, what happened in the community?
KF: Well that’s when the riots started. That was the spark that started the prairie fire. Just like in ’63 in New York, when this white guy watering his lawn and this black kid was walking down the street and he walked across the guy’s lawn. And I think the white guy shot him. And that’s when Harlem went up, you know.
CW: So that was the catalyst for the riots?
KF: Yah, I mean every riot has a spark that starts it, you know, a police shooting or some kind of something else, you know yah. And usually it’s a build-up of frustration over a long period of time you know, uh-huh. I think the Chinese have a saying. They say “a spark can start a prairie fire, you know.” And the conditions were just right.
CW: So that was the build-up and then catalyst right there?
KF: Yah.
CW: How was the community different before and after the riots?
KF: Well, after the riots there were lots of boarded up buildings and a lot of businesses were moving out to other safe areas…safer neighborhoods and uh, that’s pretty much what was going on there.

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