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Federal Forces Invade Portland to Clamp Down on Uprising for Black Lives

22-Jul-2020Jesse Dreyer and Wallace Milner

The prevailing sentiment of Portland.  All photos taken by Jesse Dreyer.
The prevailing sentiment of Portland. All photos taken by Jesse Dreyer.

Portland Oregon’s Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, entered their 55th day on July 22nd, 2020. After three weeks initially characterized by the media as being violent and a site of looting, protests entered a cooling period.

The action was mainly confined to protests starting at Revolution Hall, a local music venue, mainly organized by a group calling themselves Rose City Justice. About two or three weeks ago, RCJ announced an end to daily mobilizations amid increasing controversies over the role they were playing and questions over the conduct and history of some of the main organizers.

A group the authors will refer to as the front-liners have continued mobilizing mainly to the Justice Center downtown turning it into a near regular occupation. Over the past two weeks, federal agents were reported as being a regular presence due to their specialized legal exemption from having to declare protests a “riot” to shoot crowd control gasses and munitions.

The first real inspiration for the resurgence in protests came July 12, when federal agents shot a canister of a “nonlethal” munition into the head of a young protester. The victim, who had been peacefully holding a speaker over his head in front of the justice center, was badly injured, fell to the ground unconscious, and bled profusely. Protesters, including one of the authors of this article, carried him to safety. The entire bloody scene was documented in a widely shared video.

The protester was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Following this incident, we saw a small increase in regularly attending numbers to the nightly protests.

The next incident that caused the numbers to skyrocket was a widely reported series of videos showing what look like federal agents, but with no identifying insignia or badges, abducting protesters and putting them into unmarked rental vehicles. This movement that was dwindling to around 100 dedicated front-liners transformed into a reinvigorated movement in Portland. Even after the White House issued an executive order protecting federal statues and buildings from “left-wing protesters and anarchists.”

The economic situation in Portland remains similarly dire compared to other areas hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The official unemployment rate is 14.1% for the state. The method used to determine this is incredibly flawed and meant to uderstate the real unemployment rate. It does not include students, seniors, and those who have stopped looking, so the number is likely much higher than the reported rate.

Schools remain out for summer and closed allowing for the perfect storm of the unemployed and youth to maintain a significant number for 55 consecutive days. Four days ago, the action was geared again around the Justice Center, and there were several thousand people there. (A map of Chapman Square and the central nucleus of the movement in Portland is right, courtesy of Mapcarta.)

Protesters regularly used mortar fireworks as an offensive weapon against the police, dismantling the protective fence around the block and using it to trap the police and federal agents within the Justice Center.

These offensive tactics were a marked departure from what the authors have previously seen at these protests. It is possible this dynamic could be in part attributed to hesitancy of forces inside the Justice Center to engage so soon after the incredibly controversial footage of the abductions had reached a wider audience. Eventually, the crowd was pushed back and many were detained, including the pop-up mutual aid restaurant Riot Ribs.

The night following this drama, organizers split the forces into four declared actions. Downtown, North Portland, Lloyd Center, and Lents Park. The authors attended the North Portland protest which began on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd at the North Precinct of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). The protesters soon marched North on MLK until the crowd hit Lombard Street, where the march turned East.

Marching through residential areas, protesters began chants that urged those watching to exit their homes and join the march. After a period of marching we stopped at the boarded-up Portland Police Association (PPA), the police union building (which ironically is across the street from a Heavenly Donuts chain location). There was no description in any available event details that this was where the march would end, but some indication that this was the case did exist. There had been protests in the last week targeting that building, and the crowd had been led in chants about the police union. “We’re gonna break/bust your union” was a common chant of the crowd.

Several blocks before the march stopped at the PPA, they had taken to pushing a dumpster from near the Interstate MAX (Portland light rail) station. As the dumpster arrived it was pushed to block the advancement of vehicles. Protesters began cutting the lumber that boarded the entrance of the police union. Several scaled the building to drape a banner atop it reading, “Quanice Hayes was seventeen years old.” Quanice Hayes was a child murdered by the Portland Police Bureau in 2017, and is a name that is regularly carried by anti-police protesters in Portland. The dumpster was set on fire to provide a decoy of attention to the real goal: To start a fire in the union building.

Once the police realized the real intent of the action they bull-rushed the crowd, declared the gathering a riot, released crowd control agents, and deployed flashbangs. The authors took a lucky turn and avoided the fate of the crowd, which was trapped on the interstate bridge by traffic and the police, including one of the two Portland DSA co-chairs.

After taking side streets, to avoid confrontations with any federal officers, the authors ventured downtown to check on the situation at the Justice Center. We were greeted as usual by a mortar-style firework.

The authors soon left. Others on the ground report that #WallOfMoms locked arms to protect the protesters and a seemingly indestructible navy veteran, dubbed “Captain Portland,” took a vicious beating and gassing from federal agents.

July 20th began with a rally of Portland parents. A specific call went out for dads to come and back up the #WallOfMoms. Yellow shirts were to denote mothers, while orange were to denote dads. Dads were encouraged to bring leaf blowers to use as a defensive measure against tear gas. Activists led the crowds away from the Justice Center. They led protesters for a relatively peaceful march, with several moments of silence, and a moment to scream the names of those murdered by police. This was also the venue where a chant had the most concrete political demands. “Defund PPB! How much? 30% at least! Where should the money go? The Black community!”

The march soon returned to the Justice Center. A period of calm and protesters milling about Chapman Square eventually led to the crowd of protesters attempting to pry off the lumber that was boarding up the federal courthouse. This led to another confrontation with federal agents, who are not limited in their use of CS gas by the Oregon Legislature. After the gassing, the crowd regrouped in Chapman Square defiantly exerting their presence.

July 21st started in a similar fashion the parents met up at 8:45 PM at the Salmon Street fountains and began a march to the Justice Center to meet up with the rest of the assembled crowd. Initially, the authors believed that the previous night had larger numbers, however, after the first 2 hours this seemed incorrect. From our vantage point in front of the justice center we watched protesters lead chants about whether Portland was afraid. Portland was not.

After this chant there were clashes in front of the federal courthouse. A line of federal agents faced the protesters in front of the Justice Center. Flashbangs were soon deployed (second video), but protesters maintained their line. Dads armed with leaf blowers pushed the CS gas back onto the federal agents in front of the justice center, forcing them to retreat into the building. Two more confrontations with federal agents that night resulted in major gassings of protesters, and one of the authors got seriously sprayed in the face.

Soon after this gassing the crowd quickly regrouped and gathered barricade materials from various sites nearby. The tactic of the federal agents was to wait for the crowd to thin out before striking again. The crowd remained resolute in beating the strategy, setting off a firework inside the federal courthouse. Soon after the authors left for the evening, the mutual aid network that had built up around RiotRibs in Chapman square had their grills pepper-sprayed and ruined.

Protesters were out again the next night to continue the offensive against the federal agents.

In City Hall

The confrontation has spilled into City Hall, where Mayor Ted Wheeler has frequently clashed with Commissioner Jo Anne Hardesty. Hardesty, the first African American woman elected to the city council, ran as a progressive reformer. She has drawn intense criticism for her opposition to abolition and her expressed frustration with more radical elements of the protests. However, she has been the leading advocate of action around police reform in the city government.

On July 20th, Hardesty released a statement calling for Wheeler to relinquish his position as police commissioner, demanding that if he “couldn’t control the police” he must give her control of them. Wheeler rejected the demand and maintained his position as police commissioner. (Portland is run under a commission style government, where the mayor and the other city councilors take executive ownership of city departments as assigned by the mayor.)

The weeks preceding the federal invasion there was similar brutality enacted upon protesters by the PPB under the control of Ted Wheeler. His vain attempts to condemn the federal response are not directed at protesters congregating in downtown Portland every night, but voters who are less active in the protests. Wheeler is up for reelection, and a mayor has not won a reelection in Portland since Vera Katz in 2000.

On July 22, Portland issued a new resolution about PPB collaboration with federal officers. Hours later, reports of potential live fire ammunition about to be used by federal agents have gone out over the #WallOfMoms Twitter account. However, their source for that information is unknown and questioned by many in the community, there is no denying the fight between the federal agents and protesters seems to only be escalating.

Jesse Dreyer is a community college student and member of DSA. Jesse is also a member of Young Democratic Socialist of America (YDSA) and the Reform & Revolution caucus.

Wallace Milner is a student at Portland State University and a DSA member. Wallace chairs the Portland State University chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA).