By Maureen Murphy / Original to Scheerpost
By now, you’ve very likely seen startling footage of armed federal officers storming through the streets of downtown Portland and abducting protesters with unmarked vehicles. Maybe you’ve watched the live streams of them indiscriminately lobbing tear gas into crowds of people calmly standing on the sidewalk. Perhaps you saw a gruesome photo of critically injured young man, struck in the face by a munition while holding a speaker over his head.
Since then, several others have been hit in the face by impact munitions and flash bangs, and there exists extensive footage, photos, and firsthand accounts of the mayhem being unleashed by over a hundred officers from various divisions of the Department of Homeland Security dispatched to my city by the Trump Administration — ostensibly to quell violence but really to incite it. Oregon governor Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler have condemned this behavior, and Portland has garnered international attention for the ongoing clashes between feds and protesters.
Finally, this morning you may have heard that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the federal “tactical teams” will begin a “phased withdrawal” from the state’s biggest city.
Having witnessed this all unfold, both in person and via social media, I’d like to share how the overall narrative has given an often inaccurate portrayal of what has been happening. Portland is not under siege by anyone other than our own police, under the control of our elected officials, and the federal officers have only escalated the crisis, not ignited it. Mayor Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, has sat idly by while the Portland police have employed similar military-style methods for which he has condemned DHS’ camouflaged ground troops.
Additionally, the media uproar has largely centered harm committed against white people at the hands of federal agents, when such harm, and much worse, has been disproportionately directed at people of color in our communities for many years. For context, I think it’s relevant to start from the beginning to explain how we got to where we are now.
On Wednesday, May 27th, longtime local activist Danialle James began an occupation of Portland’s Justice Center in downtone Portland in response to the murder of George Floyd. The Justice Center (JC) is an ironic name for a building that serves as the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) central precinct and headquarters, and the Multnomah County Detention Center. This building sits directly across the street from the federal Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse.
As outrage over Floyd’s murder spread over the following days, nonviolent demonstrations popped up across town. On that Friday, protesters converged on downtown and the Justice Center. There were reports of riots and looting, and the Apple and Louis Vuitton stores were broken into. Police claim protesters tried to ignite the Justice Center and they responded to this alleged threat with force and arrests. Wheeler tweeted “ENOUGH,” in regards to the looting and imposed a citywide curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
There was a lot of criticism and division between “peaceful” and “violent” protesters that was further perpetuated by the mayor and police. For example, the mayor repeatedly tweeted claims that vandalism and violence were occurring, questionably alleging that protesters threatened the safety of inmates and employees in the Justice Center. These allegations were echoed by police via Twitter.
Protests continued through the weekend in spite of the curfew, with demonstrations growing in size each day. Portland police deployed SWAT units Saturday night and arrested 48 people. Sunday followed suit, with multiple demonstrations across the city eventually converging at the Justice Center. Police declared an unlawful assembly just before midnight, alleging “projectiles” were being thrown at officers. (The PPB has frequently used Twitter to demonstrate items allegedly thrown at officers, ranging from plastic water bottles to a half-eaten apple and several cans of White Claw.)
The police responded with flash bangs and tear gas. Wheeler called upon the governor to send in the National Guard, citing property destruction. Brown initially refused, but a few days later allowed the National Guard to assist in indirect operations.
Tear gas was used pretty much every night that week by the PPB. One night, the same officers who kneeled with protesters tear gassed them later in the evening. I was tear gassed while literally standing on the sidewalk blocking the view while my friend peed behind a locked porta potty, both of us completely oblivious to whatever caused the dispersal. This was while an entirely nonviolent rally was being held in Chapman Square, with speakers commenting on racism and police brutality in Portland. There were many people milling in the streets, some dancing to music from cars parked in the road.
After the rally, hundreds of people again descended on the Justice Center, a few blocks away. The crowd was huge. PPB claimed people were throwing various projectiles at officers, and declared an unlawful assembly. Shortly thereafter, without sufficient time for a crowd that large to disperse even if it wanted to, a can of tear gas was shot so high into the air we thought it was a firework. Several canisters followed, one landing at my friend’s foot. I am unable to properly articulate the volume of tear gas used; this night has been dubbed “Tear Gas Tuesday” due to the large amount deployed.
Every night tear gas was used, police claimed projectiles were being thrown at them. The “projectiles” are all documented on the PPB Twitter account, and I think my favorite ridiculous assertion made there is that they had to intervene because someone threw a hard-boiled egg at them.
The city erected a fence around the Justice Center, allegedly to “protect the people housed in the building” (i.e., people being detained in jail). Protecting the “Sacred Fence,” as it was jokingly dubbed, became a running police excuse for munitions deployment. Any actions that could be described as tampering with the fence resulted in threats of “crowd control munitions” and arrest. Protesters started to refer to the mayor as “Tear Gas Ted” and “War Crime Wheeler,”as tear gas is banned for use in war under several international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. While this was happening, the mayor frequently commended the PPB.
After that week of nightly gassings, a request by Don’t Shoot Portland, a local police accountability and civil rights nonprofit founded by activist Teressa Raiford, to restrain PPB’s use of tear gas was granted by a federal judge. However, the injunction was only for two weeks and allowed for use if there was “credible threat to life or safety.”
On June 10, the city was due to adopt the annual budget, as protesters and local activists called for the city to defund the PPB by at least $50 million. In the end, Portland’s City Council passed a budget that cut specific law enforcement roles, trimming about $15 million from the PPB. Not long after this, the acting chief of police stepped down. She had been in the role for less than a year.
Nightly protests continued across town. I want to emphasize that, by and large, these demonstrations were nonviolent. I’d argue that even if they weren’t, the police response was disproportionate to the crimes they claimed people were committing.
Holding off on tear gas for a while, police instead chose to forcibly arrest and beat people with batons. They also indiscriminately fired rubber bullets, pepper balls, pellet grenades, and similar “nonlethal” munitions, aiming at heads and faces and shooting through the fence. They deployed a gas solvent they claimed wasn’t tear gas, but seemed very similar to tear gas. They hid on the east side of the bridges, across the Willamette River from downtown, to arrest people. They denied people they arrested access to toilet paper and menstrual products. They arrested journalists and told them their press passes didn’t matter. And, finally, they eventually started using tear gas again.
This went on all throughout the month of June. Towards the end of the month, the tear gas restraining order was edited to include other crowd control and impact munitions. A state law was passed by the Oregon Legislature requiring police to warn protesters before deploying munitions, and that a riot must be declared in order to use tear gas. A lot more “riots” started being declared following the passage of this law. It gave PPB a loophole to exploit, and they did so aggressively.
Around this time, Trump signed an executive order to address the unlawful removal of statues and monuments deemed racist or otherwise upholding white supremacy. Federal officers started to become more visible in Portland directly following this order.
July 4 drew a massive crowd to the JC, which by that point had become the central rallying point for demonstrations due to the direct confrontation with police. Prior to the holiday, protests had not reached the size they had been in the first couple weeks for some time. Your typical Fourth of July events were happening in a park directly across from the courthouse; people were grilling hot dogs, someone was passing around cheap beer, and fireworks were set off in the park. Laser pointers were directed at the courthouse and JC.
The police declared a riot, citing the fireworks, and deployed tear gas. A lot of tear gas.The crowd moved away at first, but held their ground until more and more canisters filled the park. I think this is one of the first nights federal officers were documented as actively contributing to crowd dispersal.
I was standing about a block away from a line of police, when the person I was with turned to me and asked if I could see that they were arresting people. I couldn’t. Then this person pointed out that a block to our south, there was a line of US Marshals. (This was the moment I realized how desperately I needed a new glasses prescription.) We were broken off from the larger group of protesters, which is a highly risky situation to be in, so we left. As we were leaving, we saw more and more camouflage-clad officers filling the streets. I remember crossing the bridge and turning around to see huge clouds of smoke and gas billowing around where we had just been.
The next few nights were similar, with federal officers and PPB working in tandem. There is substantial documentation of their coordination. PPB Deputy Chief Chris Davis claimed local police had no authority over federal officers, and that they had separate policies and procedures governing them. Regardless of these claims, there were nights where on one side of the river PPB was beating the shit out of protesters while federal officers gassed them on the other. Any attempts by PPB to distance themselves from the actions of federal officers are disingenuous and gaslighting every person who has been brutalized by them in the past two months. There is video and photographic evidence of PPB and federal officers working together.
The current national outrage centers around a handful of events. First, on July 11, Donavan La Bella, 26, was struck in the face by an impact munition launched by a US Marshal while holding a speaker over his head. This shattered the bones in his face and skull. A few days later, video footage showed federal officers detaining a protester while refusing to provide their names, identification of any kind, or any information whatsoever. The officers put the person into an unmarked vehicle and drove away.
Unconfirmed stories have circulated that some who are detained in this way are driven around for an indefinite period of time while blindfolded, taken into a building and questioned, and then released without charges. There are even whispers circling Twitter about federal officers raping at least one person they detained, while a “Wall of Moms” protester told reporters she was sexually assualted by a US Marshal who arrested her on charges of assaulting an officer. Regardless, just from what has been documented plainly, the federal officers either don’t understand the Fourth Amendment and/or choose to ignore its mandates.
As they continued to fire tear gas and munitions every night, the “quelling” Trump claimed they would bring has only engendered further rage against his machine: People who had not protested before, people who haven’t been out there consistently for the 60+ days this had already been going on, now began showing up in droves, upwards of 2000 a night. And, increasingly, some of white Portland finally is experiencing what Black, Indigenous, and other Portlanders of color have been experiencing for much longer.
What gets the most attention is often illuminating. A single Black mother started these protests with her occupation of the Justice Center but it is the mothers who are garnering national attention and support are the predominantly white “Mom Bloc” or “Wall of Moms.” A naked non-Black person went viral in leftist spaces for their standoff with cops while Black women and femmes went viral in alt-right groups for their calls for abolition.
It’s not that the contributions of the “Naked Athena” or “Mom Bloc” aren’t important, it’s that the media is centering white and non-Black people when it focuses on them. You cannot protest fascism without protesting racism.
Misogynoir has been an ongoing problem in Portland activist spaces and in the press coverage of the protests. Federal officers kidnapping people in vans is not new, but people were okay with it until it was happening to white people. Police tear gassing moms is not new, but people were okay with it until it was happening to a group of mostly white women.
These protests have always been about Black Lives Matter and the mainstream media’s narrative that centers whiteness and engenders outrage over harm being done to white moms, white veterans, and white youth ignores the centuries of abuse that Black and Indigenous moms, veterans, and youth have suffered at the hands of police and the United States government.
Alternatively, there have recently been several articles criticizing the “white spectacle” of the Portland protests, claiming that white-led violence draws away from the Black Lives Matter movement. These critiques ignore all of the Black anti-fascist activists, anarchists, and abolitionists (calling for an end to policing and mass incarceration) involved in the protests.
Portland is one of the whitest cities in the country, and absolutely there have been issues around whiteness that have emerged during the past two months of protests. It is all a lot more nuanced, however, than what has been illustrated by the majority of op-eds and news articles.
Black people are not a monolith; portraying them as uninvolved in the protests is inaccurate and erasive. It is harmful and dangerous to vilify these protests as only white-led riots. This narrative erases Black protesters and guilts white people into staying home, leaving people on the ground more vulnerable to police violence.
The demands of the protests have not changed since the beginning and center on upholding that Black lives matter by defunding the police and investing in communities. The police will not be defunded by people asking nicely. Portland City Council had the opportunity to meet the demand of removing $50 million from the Portland Police budget and they chose not to. So, as often chanted by protesters, “no justice, no peace.”
What these articles also miss is that there is a wealth of political education through direct action happening right now. The Wall of Moms (WOM) turned over their group administration to Black and Indigenous women, in a statement acknowledging that Black mothers have always been at the forefront of calls for police accountability. Riot Ribs — a mutual aid group that started out as one former Black Panther with a grill and desire to feed anyone who was hungry and became a network of volunteers feeding others, even while being inundated with tear gas — similarly turned over leadership to Don’t Shoot Portland in an effort to expand their ability to partner with other mutual aid networks and distribute resources.
(As it was announced today that state police will replace some federal ones, new divisions emerged, however, including an ugly split between the WOM and Dont Shoot Portland. The latter cited examples of the former silencing Black women and putting them in dangerous and vulnerable positions on the ground. WOM leadership says their focus is the feds, not BLM, which is disappointing, to say the least.)
In general, there has been an outpouring of community action and redistribution of resources. Demonstrations have varied — from a “brunch” at the mayor’s condo where demonstrators danced in the street and listened to the city council meeting that included the police budget vote, to marches led by elementary and middle schoolers. There have been vigils for local Black women lost to violence, one for Shai’India Harris murdered by domestic violence and another for Tete Gulley, who was killed in what her family and friends suspect as a lynching that PPB did not investigate due to “lack of public interest.” There have been rallies centering on local politics, with speakers calling for greater accountability and action from city officials.
Now, due to the guarantee of harm to anyone protesting downtown, there are workshops and meetups to create protective gear, collect safety and medical items to be distributed, and discuss how to combat the trauma from being assaulted by police. Every night at Lownsdale Park, across from the JC, there is free food, water, clothing, medical supplies, hygiene products, safety gear, and people taking care of each other. The parents and veterans who are showing up nightly are putting their bodies on the frontline to protect protesters.
This level of community action and care happening on a huge scale is, I think, scary to both the local police and federal officers. Their attacks on these mutual aid networks are revelatory in their cruelty; they’ve slashed water bottles, pepper sprayed Riot Ribs’ grills, destroyed the medical tent, attacked identified press and medics, and pursued a slew of other gross tactics aimed at dismantling these community-built systems and resources.
I think it is important to always reflect and be critical of whose mission is served when being critical of protesters. Who benefits from direct action and community care being portrayed as violence? What is gained by police when white, able-bodied protesters are told to go home? Whose narrative is perpetuated when you spread the narrative of “peaceful protester” versus “rioter”?
These arguments benefit the police and federal officers and enable them to continue to commit harm by convincing people not to show up or support folks on the ground. They also posit mutual aid and resource sharing as dangerous, rather than a display of radical care and support.
This entire situation is rapidly evolving. Over the weekend, protesters and journalists suspected that new chemical agents were being unleashed for crowd dispersal. It was discovered that the officers have been monitoring live streams from people on the ground at protests, calling into question the safety and security of these recordings. The beloved Riot Ribs has dissolved due to threats of violence from a volunteer who sought to profit from the mutual aid establishment, halting the planned partnership with Don’t Shoot.
The city of Portland is fining the federal government $500 every 15 minutes that the fence outside of the federal courthouse sits there without the required permit, because it blocks a bike lane. ACLU legal observers walk around downtown in gas masks, which are sold out citywide. PPB is continuing to make a fool of itself on social media by furnishing claims about the danger presented by protesters that are easily proven false. Nationally, Trump is sending more officers to Portland, and has threatened to send them to Chicago, Oakland, New York City, Detroit, and Baltimore; all cities with greater racial diversity than Portland. The Wall of Moms and Don’t Shoot are suing the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department.
The demonstrations in Portland don’t show any signs of stopping or slowing down, and on July 25 a call to action to join Portland in asserting that Black lives matter and denouncing the presence of federal officers spurred protests in cities across the country including Eugene, Richmond, Oakland, Austin, Omaha and Seattle. Seattle protesters set fire to the construction site of a planned youth detention center, while in Oakland a fire was set in the lobby of the Alameda County federal courthouse.
Despite the announcement this morning that the federal officers will withdraw from Portland if certain “conditions” are met, all signs point to increasing demonstrations and action in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement and against the deployment of federal officers to U.S. cities.