The death of Fallon Smart has torn our community apart. A potent mixture of how she was killed (run over by a dangerous man who used his car as a deadly weapon while she legally walked across a street), where she was killed (a stretch of Hawthorne you might see in a tourism brochure), and who she was (by all accounts a bright, giving and creative 15-year-old who attended a nearby high school), has led to multiple protests, heated online debates, an outpouring of support for her grieving family, and a much-needed dose of reality on Portland’s back-patting path to “Vision Zero.”
Whenever someone dies in a traffc collision, it has an impact on the community; but every once in a while a fatality will spark something larger. Smart’s death appears to have done that. But strangely, while citizens and grassroots activists have mobilized, there’s a deafening silence from City Hall.
The day after Smart was killed, volunteers with BikeLoud PDX spearheaded an occupation of the intersection at 43rd and Hawthorne. They put up signs on traffic poles and in the intersection and some people even stood in the road to make sure the messages got to people driving by. Activists also painted two unsanctioned crosswalks — reacting not just to Smart’s death but to the fact that she was hit in the middle of a seven-block stretch that is notorious for speeding and where there are no marked places to cross.
From reports we read, Smart’s friends and classmates came to the site throughout the day to leave flowers, sing, and just hold the space. Many tears were shed from strangers and those who knew her. All day long people came and went to pay their respects. And it even lasted into the evening.
I wasn’t able to get over there until Saturday night. When I did I was surprised to see two people sitting in chairs adjacent to the new guerilla crosswalk. They weren’t eating or drinking, they were sitting toward the street. Then I realized they were there to act as a sort of citizen police force. Every few minutes one or both of them would suddenly spring out of the chairs while waving their arms and yelling “Slow down!! A girl was killed her yesterday!”
The two people were Brian Burch and Catie Griesdorn. They didn’t know Smart or each other before Saturday.
Burch was there because he heard about it on the news. Now in his 50s, he was born and raised in the neighborhood. Smart’s death hit him especially hard because his own big brother was hit and killed when he was just 10 (and his brother was 14). They were riding bikes together and Burch saw the whole thing happen. He teared up telling me about it. Then I understood why he was jumping into the street yelling at people to slow down. Burch was out on that street all day and well into the night.
Catie Griesdorn is a local school teacher (formerly at Sunnyside a few blocks away and not at Arleta). She’s not a traffic safety activist and had no personal connection to what happen Friday night. She just happened to be in the area and felt compelled to be there. It seemed like she was doing this as a penance, letting the emotion and sadness of what happened wash over her so that she would be a better person on the other side. “I’m a driver. I need this.” she said. As I talked to her, I realized that she was also there to try and build a connection where one was so violently and tragically broken. She stayed at that intersection for over three hours before going home just before midnight.
Employees from Ranger Station, a cafe on the corner that closed it doors after the collision to provide a space for the Smart family to grieve (they were with her when it happened), also came out to talk with us. They fully supported the guerilla crosswalks and loved the citizen patrol of Burch and Griesdorn. They told us people always drive dangerously and speed on this stretch of Hawthorne. One employee even offered to give us eggs to throw at people who were driving too fast.
The connection Smart had to those who knew her is clearly evident in the outpouring of support for her family. A fundraising site set up for funeral expenses has raised nearly $38,000 in just two days.
While her family and friends go through unfathomable pain, activists are expressing theirs through demonstrations and more protests. On Friday (8/26) two volunteer activists have organized, “We demand safe streets – A call to action,” an event and ride that will be a show of solidarity and remembrance. Here’s more from the organizers:
“This is another senseless and completely preventable death here on our streets. Our city doesn’t seem to have any plan other than talk of ‘Goal Zero’. Let’s challenge them to do better, lets create ways as a community in which we can make our own roads safe for us once again…. We can make our voices heard by showing up in mass. let’s not be silent anymore.”
The ride will begin at City Hall and will visit 43rd and Hawthorne where they will lay down a crosswalk made of flowers (bring some if you can).
The stop at City Hall is important because we haven’t heard much yet about this tragedy from the people who work there. It doesn’t appear that Mayor Charlie Hales or three of the other five city council members have publicly acknowledged Smart’s death. Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick has offered condolences.
Despite this lack of official recognition, most Portlanders won’t soon forget what happened to Fallon Smart. Her death — on a day when Portland was touting its leadership in “open streets” at an international conference — has forced us to acknowledge the vast gap between what we say we want and what reality provides for us.
Read more about Fallon Smart via The Oregonian.
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – email@example.com