Is Portland's Gang Problem Getting Worse?

The cops may not be at war with Portland gangs, but there is some kind of war going on.

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Mar 23 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user jason#12

At around 11:30 PM on February 24, two officers from the Portland Police Bureau's Gang Enforcement Team and Gun Task Force pulled into the parking lot of Shimmers Bar & Grill, a strip club on the corner of Southeast 82nd Avenue and Foster Road. A crowd outside quickly filed into the bar, but moments later, a man named Quintrell Shaimon Holiman emerged and was confronted by the officers.

As the Oregonian reported, Holiman, 26, had recently escaped from the Northwest Regional Re-entry Center in Northeast Portland, only the latest in a series of incarceration facilities he called home. In June 2007, when he was 17, Holiman received a 60-month sentence in state prison for attempted first-degree assault after a gang-related shooting outside Jefferson High School. When he escaped from the halfway house in January, he had been serving a 33-month sentence for possession of a firearm. Portland police indicated the officers did not know Holiman's identity or his criminal history when they approached him, but Holiman ran, and when the cops chased him, he began firing shots at the officers.

Neither officer was hit, nor did they return fire.

Holiman slipped into a residential neighborhood, where police used a helicopter's thermal imaging camera to track him down. They fired two "less-than-lethal rounds" at a fence near him, followed by a stun grenade. When he still did not respond, officers approached and found Holiman dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Holiman was a longtime member of Portland's Hoover Criminals, a notorious street gang with origins in South Central Los Angeles. After his death, other Portland Hoovers took to social media, asserting the police shot Holiman and issuing threats against cops. Meanwhile, as local Fox outlet KPTV reported, more than 250 rounds were fired in the city over roughly the first two months of this year, and gang enforcement officers tracked 24 incidents—more than double last year's total at this time.

So does this uptick in violence represent a random burst of activity, or is the city's gang problem spiraling out of control?

Every other week, at the Northeast Portland police precinct, officers, community organizers, business owners, and outreach workers gather together to discuss the latest gang activity. At a recent meeting I attended, soon after the confrontation with Holiman, tensions were particularly high. Cops acknowledged the threats made against them by the Hoovers, while also dispelling the assembled media of misinformation.

"We are not at war with the Hoover gang, which I've heard a couple media outlets say," said Lieutenant Mike Krantz, "just so that's very clear."

"When there's an assault on a police officer, it's an assault on all of us," added Captain Matt Wagenknecht. "We should all be taking this very seriously. This isn't just on the Portland Police Bureau; this is on the city of Portland."

Portland, Oregon, has seen a population growth of 12 percent since 2000. It is one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities in the nation, outpacing nearly every other coastal city, including Seattle, and it is expected to add another 725,000 residents over the next 20 years. Portland has become famous for its progressive ideals and its commitment to sustainability, in addition to its craft beers, coffee, bacon-topped doughnuts, and a certain namesake television show. It is also widely known as the whitest major city in America; blacks comprise just 6 percent of the population. Portland's black residents are often hidden to most of the city, living predominately deep in North Portland or east of Interstate 205, far away from bicycle paths or vegan bakeries. To be black in Portland is to be invisible, forgotten. For black Portlanders, and especially young black men, the need for community and solidarity is real, as is the need to be seen and respected, and gangs are increasingly filling that role.

According to Sergeant Don Livingston of Portland's gang enforcement team, there were 24 gang-related incidents through late February, up from ten by the same time last year. They included a February 13 shooting on Northeast 18th Avenue and Rosa Parks Way that left one man hospitalized; a February 7 shooting outside Billy Webb Elks Lodge on North Tillamook Street that left one man hospitalized; a February 5 shooting near a Northeast KFC that left one known gang member hospitalized, followed by another shooting, possibly retaliatory, that same day on 139th and Burnside, leaving another known gang member critically injured; and a February 2 shooting outside Boss Hawg's Bar 'N' Grill, on Northeast 102nd Avenue, that left two men hospitalized.

The Portland Police Bureau may not be at war with Portland gangs, but there is some kind of war going on.

"I seen my first dead body when I was six." –Raymond Grant

Raymond Grant grew up in Northeast Portland. He has a shaved head, a medium-length goatee, and tattoos of smoking pistols and other gang insignia on the tops of his hands. His eyes, however, are friendly and warm, and he smiles openly. His mother was a longtime Blood, and she raised her son to follow in her footsteps.

"I seen my first dead body when I was six," Grant tells me inside Miracle's Club, a nonprofit organization on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard serving Portland's African-American community. "This was on 16th and Killingsworth. It was one of my mom's closest friends." One year later, Grant's uncle was gunned down in front of his house. "My mom told everybody, 'My son is gonna grow up, he's gonna be my right-hand man.' I didn't have no father. What I had was my mom's homeboys, showing me how to throw gang signs."

Grant identified as a Blood; he wore red flags, listened to Blood music, and spoke Blood talk. "What you drinking right there," he said, pointing to my mug of coffee, "that's boffee. Let me get some boffee, with some bereal. And a bookie."

Photos by the author unless otherwise noted

The dividing line between Bloods and Crips in Portland, Grant explains, is MLK, where the two of us are sitting. West is the Crip side; the east side, the side Miracle's Club is on, is the Blood side. The only gang on the west side that aren't Crips is the Unthank Park Hustlers, named after a North Portland neighborhood park. During his mother's tenure as a Blood, Grant says, shootouts between Crips and Bloods were frequent on MLK.

Grant was selling drugs at 12 years old, and was caught after stealing a car, his first arrest. At 14 he was arrested after committing his first robbery, then arrested again after his second robbery a year later, earning him his first felony and two years in Oregon State Penitentiary. He dropped out of high school at 17, and was involved in a shooting at 18 that earned him 13 months in Snake River Correctional Institution. At 19 he was back on the streets, and soon after his 21st birthday, in 2005, he was arrested again—after leading the police on a high-speed chase—for driving with no license and no registration, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. It was his second felony. He received 24 months in Oregon State Correctional Institution. While inside the penitentiary, he met his father for the first time, in the next cell over, who was serving time for robbery.

In 2008, Grant was shot three times in his back outside his home, and nearly died. He doesn't know who shot him. He was arrested for the sixth time in 2009, for unlawful use of a weapon, and received a 30-month suspended sentence, 36 months' probation, and nine months in the county jail. He was freed in 2010, but failed to report to his parole officer. Finally, on October 5, 2012, Grant decided to turn himself in.

"I was on drugs. I was tired of running. I was tired of committing crimes," he says. His parole officer told Grant he'd receive a maximum of five days for parole violation, but the judge instead sentenced him to 30 months in Columbia River Correctional Institution. While incarcerated, Grant decided he'd had enough; he got married, quit using and selling drugs, and found a job, and has since become a mentor to young black men in Portland, helping to steer them away from gang life.

"In my mom's time," he says, "it was about people getting a name, grabbing a block, selling drugs. Now they shoot kids for no reason, all because of a color that they wear."

The legend of Portland gangs begins in the mid 80s, when members of the Hoover Criminal Gang (HCG), named after Hoover Street in South Los Angeles, are said to have moved moved north to exploit the Pacific Northwest city's untapped drug market. HCG was followed close behind by the Rollin 60s Neighborhood Crips. Hoovers and Rollin 60s have historically been at odds with each other—competitors in the drug business—and in 2002, differences over an illegal dogfight in the basement of a North Mississippi Avenue home resulted in retaliatory shootings that left two people dead, escalating hostilities.

According to a January 2014 study by the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, there are at least 133 active gangs in Multnomah County known to law enforcement and outreach workers, though many of them are offshoots of larger groups. Hoovers are considered the largest—an expansive, loosely connected organization with affiliates operating like franchises in various cities. Portland Hoovers include the 112 Hoover Criminals, the 107 Hoover Criminals, and the 74 Hoover Criminals. Hoovers once identifed as Crips, but have since gone independent, eschewing the traditional blue attire for orange. Many local gangs have ties, at least tenuously, to their Southern California counterparts, but others, such as Unthank Park Hustlers, Woodlawn Park Bloods, Loc'd Out Piru (the LOs), Kerby Blocc Crips, and Columbia Villa Crips (the Vills) are homegrown, as native to Portland as rain and roses.

I visited Shimmers Bar & Grill on the night of March 9, two weeks after the confrontation between the police and Quintrell Holiman. Holiman was a known member of the 107 Hoovers. He had been a fugitive for just over a month when he shot at the cops in Shimmers' parking lot. Shimmers is not a large bar, with one row of glowing video lottery machines and two modest stages on opposite sides of the room for the dancers. It was a Monday night, and it was slow. The few people inside were sitting at the bar, alternating between talking to the bartender and glancing at the TV screens, showing sports highlights. The young blond woman behind the bar had been working the night of February 24, when Holiman and a group of what is assumed to be his friends came inside. The bartender told me her real first name, but I'll call her Georgette.

"I'd never seen them before. They weren't regulars," she tells me. "They were polite, they tipped well, they ordered top-shelf liquor. It was just a normal, busy night."

Exactly how many people were with Holiman—or if he was in fact part of this group—is uncertain. It was a small crew, and they apparently didn't come to Shimmers looking for trouble.

"I think they came from another bar, and they were all here to play on the video lottery machines," Georgette says. "They all knew each other, they were all friends. A few of them got up and went out to smoke, then a few more went outside. Everyone scattered as soon as the police showed up."

According to Georgette, the gang task force for the Portland police routinely drops in on bars like these, twice a week or multiple visits on a single night, often in unmarked cars. They'll either drive through the parking lot or they'll come inside, walk through the bar, and speak with the doorman, before continuing on to the next place. That the police stopped at Shimmers that night, unbidden, was not extraordinary. What is uncertain, and what will likely forever remain so, is why Holiman—who had perhaps been on his way from Shimmers to The Spot, another bar across the parking lot—began firing on Sergeant Duilio and Officer Wilbon.

"I didn't even hear the gunshots," Georgette says. "The music was loud inside. Then the police came in here looking for him, and they were calling everyone within a ten-block radius, telling them to stay indoors. Then, at about 2:30 or 3 o'clock, we got word that everything was OK."

It's hard to say why Holiman, who had already been through so much, would decide at that moment to take his own life. Maybe, like Raymond Grant, he was simply tired of running.

After speaking with Georgette, I approached the doorman, who had also been working the night of February 24. He was the only security at the bar that night.

"From my understanding, the gang is pretty pissed off, and some guys were saying they were pissed off at us," he tells me. "They weren't happy with the bar, for whatever reason. We've had to get another security guy. We have a dress code now. We have to turn people away at the door."

I ask the doorman for his name. He shakes his head.

"That's not something I want to get mixed up in, bro," he tells me. "These guys will shoot at you just because."

Santi Elijah Holley lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached here.

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