Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 7.1.10

A Formal Complaint
Rights activists taking the next step
By Majeska Sees-Green & Carol Berg-Caldwell

The “magic boxes” painted on the sidewalks adjacent to the downtown LTD station (see EW, 5/27) did the trick of removing crowds that had been blocking the sidewalk. The purpose of the boxes is to restore constitutional rights to everyone, according to Chief Pete Kerns.

While the city has provided some clarification, there is still some confusion about the no-blocking zones. For instance, our guest viewpoint in The Register-Guard June 27 was given a headline referring to “free speech issues,” even though it turns out free speech is not the issue. Unless, in a backwards way, that issue includes what was apparently said by downtown patrol officers, statements they did not have the right to make. Officers did not have the right to threaten kids with fines or jail for stepping or standing inside the boxes.

The Code of Conduct for Eugene police officers includes the “fundamental duty to observe, respect, and protect the constitutional rights of every person.” Officers must also be truthful and not convey misleading information.

Especially on behalf of the young people ­ many understandably afraid to challenge police — we are filing a formal complaint with the police auditor. Our purpose is not to put officers on the hot seat, but rather to improve the system, including better training about constitutional rights and profiling. 

If the sometimes-unpleasant kids are not intentionally blocking passage, could it be that their constitutional rights to be inside the boxes trump the civil rights of others using the sidewalks, even the frail and disabled? 

Fortunately, one group’s rights won’t be pitted against another’s. The council’s number one goal is “A community where all people are safe, valued and welcome,” especially downtown. To the extent that goal was going sideways with unauthorized, illegal, targeted threats by police regarding the boxes, those concerns seem to have been nipped in the bud.

Ironically, Chief Kerns wrote to City Council that, “The project has drawn sharp criticism from some local activists who, with limited information, have drawn conclusions about the legitimacy of the project.” 

That would be us. But we haven’t questioned the legitimacy of the boxes, nor have we suffered from limited information. Rather, we went up the chain of command with information from the street level, from kids and a key officer, to head off a lawsuit against the city. (The city attorney had approved the no-blocking zones and painted boxes and lettering. But the message in spoken warnings and threats was a different matter.) 

Another aspect of our complaint will be aimed higher up the chain of command. Many opportunities are being missed that could result in better communication, coordination, and collaboration with affected and/or supportive community members and potential partners. This would be good for public relations, but more importantly, it could lead to strategic capacity-building for a viable downtown.

The Magic Box Project was developed in closed meetings of downtown security agencies, police, and other city employees. It was not mentioned in advance in the monthly open meetings of the informal Downtown Safety Council, nor was it discussed in last fall’s Downtown Public Safety Task Team meetings (open to the public but not publicized).

The downtown exclusion zone ordinance is under review by the police department, and will likely be amended and extended by City Council in late summer. Legal issues need community discussion and buy-in by various stakeholder groups, including civil liberties organizations. 

Proactive transparency about the place of the exclusion ordinance within the larger package of intended downtown public safety measures will help smooth the way. Human rights issues are related, including the need for safe, dry, legal places to sleep, and the imperative for affected groups to be represented in the process.

We look forward to being in the loop, and hope many others will be as well.

Community activists Majeska Seese-Green and Carol Berg-Caldwell co-founded the nonprofit A Community Together ­ Lane County (ACT). The public is welcome to ACT’s one-year birthday celebration picnic on Sunday, July 25, and to a community play-day at Skinner Butte Park on Sunday, Sept. 12, sponsored by ACT’s project Police and Community Together (PACT). For more information as it becomes available, call  337-1643 or email