Union family of murder victim recall her activist life


The mental images were horrific. The story was headline news statewide. A young woman, murdered and then dismembered, her body dumped in the Willamette River. A young male friend - not a "boyfriend" per se - arrested and charged with the crime. For most people with children, one of their first thoughts was "How must her parents feel?"

Michael Brown, a virtual lifelong unionist and longtime member and leader of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Oregon Council 75, can, unfortunately, answer that question. The victim, 18-year-old Cassondra Brown, was his daughter. Brown realizes that he may never know the truth regarding "Cassie" on that fateful January night. "We don't know what happened," he said quietly. "We may find out at the trial, or we may never know."

Brown is a police officer for the Port of Portland. He has been with AFSCME Local 1847, which represents Port of Portland employees, for 23 years. He is a past president of the local and has held every local union office at one time or another. A Portland native, his parents were both involved in organized labor with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). A brother is an ILWU member and a sister is a member of Service Employees Local 49. Cassie Brown grew up in a union family.

"She was an up-and-coming unionist in her own right, she truly was," said Brown. "She grew up going to strikes and walking picket lines, going door-to-door distributing political literature, attending the Labor Day picnics every year. That was a huge part of her life."

But Cassie Brown related to trade unionism moreso than a typical "union kid." In 1994, as a fifth grader, Cassie did a special video presentation on labor union history in the United States as a class project. Michael Brown chuckles as he recalls her teacher telling him the video was popular break-time viewing in the teachers' lounge at the school. Many teachers, he said, said they "learned a lot about labor history" from Cassie's video.

Brown was concerned Cassie might get into trouble the day she took "Raise the Minimum Wage" buttons to distribute to school classmates. (She didn't.) She helped fight many of the Bill Sizemore anti-union ballot measures in Oregon. And she loved to simply debate people - no matter their age - on the benefits of unions and union history.

Cassie Brown was also an environmentalist. She registered to vote with the Pacific Green Party this past election cycle. "We gave in and got a fake Christmas tree last year," Michael Brown remembers with a smile. Cassie also loved animals; that led her to become a vegetarian. "She was independent and had her own ideas," her father said.

While Brown said news coverage of Cassie's death was fair and sympathetic, he allows that one aspect of some reports bothered the family. Early stories implied the event was related to domestic violence, which wasn't the case.

"The suspect is someone we've known for a long time," said Brown. "He and Cassie dated casually over time, but they weren't 'boyfriend and girlfriend' and they didn't live together.

"Moreover," Brown continued, "anyone who knew Cassie understood that she would never have been a victim of domestic violence. She simply wouldn't have put up with it. She'd have been out of there right now. Cassie was the victim of a violent crime, but certainly not a victim of domestic violence."

"We raised her to stand up for herself and speak her mind," added Joan Brown, Michael's mother and Cassie's grandmother. "She never would have stayed around being hit by somebody." Michael and Joan Brown both believe that Cassie would have eventually run for public office. For sure, says her father, she would have done something where she could help other people. "That was her nature," he said.

A family friend is working on a Web site tribute to Cassie Brown, which will soon be available at www.CassieBrown.org. A memorial fund also has been established at Bank of America; donations can be made at any branch.

Michael Brown says his family has been moved by the generous support of organized labor in the weeks after Cassie's death.

Brown loved to do creative writing, especially poetry. In a bit of haunting irony, in June 2002 she wrote her own eulogy as part of a class project. It was read at her memorial service. Here is a paraphrased excerpt:

"There are those who lived longer, and those who lived better for the world, but she made a difference that mattered, even on a small scale. She was protector to her family, and to women who thought themselves weak. She taught them, as best she could, to find confidence and inner power She decided she was going to adopt as many female children as she could support; she brought up those girls to be strong women She wrote books that didn't reach mainstream bookstores, but the content mattered She loved dogs.

"The world's not drastically different because of her, but there are signs that she lived. The women she raised grew up to be powerful, and took those values into the world with them. Dogs led happier lives, and her books touched the lives of few, but loyal, readers."

(Editor's Note: Don Loving is the communications director for AFSCME Oregon Council 75.)

February 21, 2003 issue

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