Portland police, activists get ready for Bush's visit

PORTLAND — The nickname "Little Beirut" has stuck to Portland since it was first coined by the staff of former President Bush after violent protests during his visits to Oregon in the early 1990s, and the reputation remains strong as his son prepares to return more than a decade later.

Political activists and police are already planning tactics for confronting each other at demonstrations expected during the scheduled visit by President Bush on Thursday to attend a $2,000-a-plate campaign fund-raiser.

But activists say it is time to live down the reputation that compared Portland to the troubled Middle Eastern city, and focus instead on the issues they feel Bush has avoided — protecting the environment, raising wages for workers, protecting civil rights and dealing with the aftermath of the war with Iraq.

For the record, former Oregon Republican Party Chairman Craig Berkman said he first heard the nickname "Little Beirut" from the staff of former President Bush.

It had become a local legend that the elder Bush had coined the phrase, but he told an Associated Press reporter during an October 2000 campaign visit for his son that he did not make up the nickname himself.

"I think it's a catchy nickname, but it's kind of misleading in the amalgamation of constituencies that are opposing him," said Tom Hastings, a Portland State University professor and longtime peace activist.

The Oregon protests against Bush and his father have been aimed at legitimate issues and have drawn broad support regardless of age, race, religion or political party, he said.

But confrontations with a few noisy, chanting protesters who challenge police lines typically draw widespread television coverage that paints a distorted picture about the tens of thousands of people who have marched or demonstrated peacefully against administration policies over the years, Hastings said.

It is the sheer numbers of those demonstrators that lends weight to criticism of those policies, he said.

"If we're out in the streets, and we have that right in a democracy, we're there to make a point," Hastings said. "We're there to be counted, literally."

Mayor Vera Katz agrees that the city's image has been distorted by media coverage that has focused on confrontations rather than the issues that attract demonstrators to protest rallies.

"Protests here are not any more frequent or violent than other cities," said Tommy Brooks, the mayor's spokesman. "And if Portland was a truly unfriendly place, the president wouldn't keep coming back."

Berkman, however, says the city's image has suffered not only from the protests but from the way they have been managed by the Democratic mayor and the city council.

"Frankly there is a political climate in this city tolerated by this mayor and city council ... reflective of blatant political partisanship," said Berkman. "I don't know of any city in the country that has let this happen repeatedly."

The last visit was almost exactly one year ago, when the president was met by thousands of demonstrators who marched through downtown streets while police in heavy black riot gear tried to herd them away from the hotel where a Republican fund-raiser was being held for Sen. Gordon Smith.

Police used tear gas and fired rubber bullets at the height of the protest in August 2002, hitting demonstrators and a few reporters unable to move out of the way quickly enough because of the huge crowd squeezed along the narrow blocks between high-rise buildings.

This time, the fund-raiser is being held at the University of Portland, which is private property perched atop the Willamette River bluffs far from downtown.

Demonstrators will be kept far away from Bush and the top state Republicans, confined to quiet, tree-lined neighborhood streets.

But many Portland streets have a history of grass-roots political protest dating back to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 70s, when Portland boasted some of the opposition leaders — including Democrat Wayne Morse, one of only two U.S. senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964, and Mark Hatfield, an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and one of just two Republicans to vote against the Desert Storm attack in 1990.

"The generally leftist reputation of the area has grown since the 1960s," said Daniel Pope, a University of Oregon historian and author of a book on radical politics.

Liz Samuels, who is helping organize protests on Thursday, said young people her age — early 20s — are just as outraged at problems in the world today as the Vietnam War generation.

But they feel the problems are even more complex and are given less attention by the administration, building up a sense of frustration that finds release in protest marches.

"They feel the world is messed up and there's nothing they can really do about it," Samuels said.

Bush may have only himself to blame for the level of protest in Oregon, Pope said.

"I think if Bush had come into office and essentially followed the compassionate, conservative middle-of-the-road policies he promised in his campaign, I don't think there would be quite this degree of anger and hostility and overt opposition," Pope said.

Bush is expected to visit the Seattle area Friday.