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What Happened to James Chasse: Jim Jim

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Jim Jim

from Mary's Great Ideas

James Chasse, Jr., known to many of us as Jim Jim, was beaten to death by police on September 17, as many Portlanders know by now. He was a visible member of the Portland scene or community (or whatever you want to call it) in the 1980s. I didn't know him that well, but he was closer to friends of mine and we went to the same school, hung out in the same crowd, so this is seeming especially strange and awful and infuriating.

I remember Jim Jim as gentle and nutty. Rachel remembers: "crazy or no, he really was a gentle, loving, sweetiepie sort of guy." The Oregonaian quotes Jason Renaud describing him as, "cute and charming and cuddly and quiet and careful and sprinkled with pixie dust." He believed in magic and fairies and stuff like that and once gave me elaborate instructions on a ceremony he wanted me to perform. I think he struck a lot of us, even then, as vulnerable. Linea reminded me of how, when he was hospitalized at Dammasch (a state mental hospital that was closed in 1995), someone wrote, "Free Jim Jim" graffiti -- there was a perception that his hospitalization was a form of imprisonment. Of course, these days, we don't put the mentally ill in hospitals that seem like prisons -- we just put them straight into prison.

Jim Jim was schizophrenic, and his death at the hands of police reminds me that the powerful victimize the most vulnerable (first), and that all of us can be vulnerable at the right time and place. My father was also schizophrenic, and died peacefully on a couch at his parent's home, but I can easily imagine a more tragic end had he encountered the police on the streets in one of his more psychotic states. (It should be said that, from witness accounts, it doesn't appear that Jim Jim was in the midst of a psychotic episode at all. He was tackled by police when he ran away. They were chasing him because they thought he might be peeing in public.)

Police brutality is often perceived as an issue for people of color -- which it most certainly is -- but Jim Jim's death is a reminder to me that there are many ways to become vulnerable and powerless: mental illness, certainly, but also poverty, being drunk, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't want to over-simplify the issue or demonize individuals: maybe the police involved in this case weren't arrogant, steroid-driven jocks who get off on picking on people weaker than themselves. Maybe they were under-trained, frightened and overwhelmed by the problems we ask them to solve without the resources or education to do so and resorted to the only tool they know how to use -- their fists. Either way, it's a tragic and avoidable problem, and Jim Jim died because of it.

Here's some coverage of the story:

A comprehensive index of media coverage by the Mental Health Association of Portland.
Oregonian article on his death - DEAD LINK
Oregonian coverage of the autopsy - DEAD LINK
Portland Cop Watch (that website seems a little out of date, but you can see a statement they issued on the Chasse case here.

Other places where people are commenting on Jim Jim's death:

Comments and memories at PortlandIndyMedia.
Memories from a friend.
Political commentary on police brutality.
Political commentary on police brutality.
Political commentary on the lack of care for the mentally ill.

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