Remembering a gentle soul, pursuing justice

From the Oregonian, October 28, 2006 – not online

Stories of eccentricities, poems and songs that family and friends shared in a memorial vigil for “Jim-Jim” Friday night brought to life a man now more noted for his death in Portland police custody.

James P. Chasse Jr. died Sept. 17 after police spotted him acting strangely in the Pearl District, chased him when he ran away, then knocked him down and struggled to arrest him. Numerous broken ribs punctured a lung, and an autopsy found Chasse died of blunt force trauma to the chest.

Chasse , 42, was schizophrenic.

At the vigil, titled “Love One Another,” at the First Congregational Church/United Church of Christ, speakers shared remembrances of Chasse and pleas for justice with the more than 300 people attending.

His father, James P. “Jim” Chasse Sr., said his son was “always the kind of person that dogs loved” and who “took spiders outside where they belonged.”

“In the end, our prayer for us all is to remember that we are the ones who can spread the tolerance for diverse people living in frustrating circumstances,” the father said.

His brother, Mark Chasse, noted that Chasse ‘s favorite holidays were Halloween and Christmas. He credited his big brother with saving him from drowning in a pool before a lifeguard even noticed.

Chasse ‘s mother, Linda Gerber, said, “That such a sweet, gentle man should die so violently and so senselessly is a great tragedy.”

Friends from Chasse ‘s teen years spoke of him as a well-loved figure in an emerging Portland punk rock scene of loners in the late ’70s. They read letters and poems Chasse had written.

    You and me
    we went to tea
    we poured out tea
    quite evenly.

Mental illness took away much of Chasse ‘s clarity, friends said, recalling how he at one time claimed to be a reincarnation of Joan of Arc. But he remained sweet and innocent, they said.

A song a friend wrote about him, titled “Nothing to Fear,” was played during the vigil.

    You don’t realize the colors you shine.
    You’re an abstract painting without any straight lines.

[Nothing to Fear, a song for Jim Jim, by the Neo Boys – 1979]
Neo Boys – Nothing To Fear (For Jim Jim)

Several speakers spoke of the public’s desire for justice for Chasse and called his death unnecessary.

“He did not deserve to be murdered for being crazy,” said friend X J Elliott.

Mark Lasley, 51, of Portland never met Chasse or his family but said he attended the vigil to protest police actions.

“[Chasse] didn’t hurt them. It’s just not right,” Lasley said.

In an earlier interview, Jason Renaud, secretary of the Mental Health Association of Portland and a high school friend of Chasse’s, said the vigil was a chance to do more than mourn Chasse. Those attending could display how much of the community is connected to someone who may have appeared transient or destitute.

Renaud contended that Chasse didn’t die because of a mental health crisis or a health system problem, but rather of police action. He hoped the vigil could raise awareness of the need for people to feel safe in public and confident of their police force.

The family asked that donations in memory of Chasse be made to Portland’s Operation Nightwatch, a charity for the homeless, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.