Portland Protests

Dispatch From Portland: The Fire Next Time

The protests continue, as does the tear gassing.


I decide not to hit the protests so early this time. Before 10 p.m., it's mostly people milling in the park across from the federal building, asking if you've heard of Riot Ribs, and why don't you write about that? COVID-19 is on the rise in Portland and the streets and traffic remind me of what it was like in NYC in mid-May: eerily empty, few other cars, very few people as I drive up Broadway. 

Or at least this is how it was before the tear gassing started.

There are not many people walking to the federal building, three or four kids I might take for LARPersblack bandanas pulled over their faces, black bike helmets, black jeansbut who knows? I've just had dinner with a friend who gently tried to school me on the protestors' more radical factions. 

"They're not all anarchists, some of them really want to help people that are in trouble," he said, "and sometimes that help means they need to use violence." 

I tell him radicalism is going mainstream, is going Main Street, is vanilla-fying in Portland like no city I've seen. I ask, if someone's mission is to help, and that "help" can mean violence, might it not prove tempting to distort what constitutes people deserving of help and people deserving of violence? 

"But doesn't everybody do this?" he asks.

Four blocks from the Lownsdale Square and the rib-eaters; from the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse and Multnomah County Justice Centersite of the nightly protests and police confrontations on which the world is fixatedit's dead quiet, with the only whomp-whomp sound of a helicopter very high overhead. A few blocks more and that sound gives way to someone shouting through a bullhorn. It sounds like Mayor Ted Wheeler, whom my friend mentioned would be making his first appearance at the protests.

"It's him, in the blue sweater," a girl tells me, though I can barely hear her. The crowds are out here early, many thousands, the bulk of them jeering at Wheeler standing before Justice Center. Onto the building's face is beamed, in alien green, THEODORE, FANCY SEEING YOU HERE. THESE ARE OUR DEMANDS, which include FEDS OUT OF PORTLAND NOW and YOU, TED WHEELER, NEED TO RESIGN. Wheeler has been trying to tell the crowd that Trump's sending federal forces to protect the courthouse is "an unconstitutional occupation"; that "the tactics that have been used by our federal officers are abhorrent." And you'd think this would be what the crowd wants to hear, but they more seem to want to shout that Wheeler "SUCKS FED TIT" and to chant, over and over, "FUCK TED WHEELER." Soon enough Wheeler will, as will we all, be tear-gassed, and then led away by a plainclothes detail. 

Next door at the federal building, a man named Rufus has set up a folding table and is selling commemorative t-shirts for between $35 and $50 a pop with slogans like BLACK LIVES MATTER and NOBODY DIED WHEN KAEPERNICK TOOK A KNEE. How's business?

"Good," he says, though I don't see anyone buying. I see instead a lot of young people gathering at the fence that's been re-erected in front of the building. They're particularly interested, it seems, in how the fencing is joined together.

"See that nut? They didn't weld it on," a young man on one knee and digging through a knapsack tells me. I ask if he brought tools. 

He nods. "Gotta find my wrench," he says.

Unlike two nights ago, when there was no fence and the action seemed more freeform hooliganism, the crowd tonight, of more than a thousand people, seems more organized, more sober. They're here to antagonize the feds, no doubt, shouting slurs and throwing Styrofoam coolers and a BBQ grill over the fence. But they're also helping each other, talking about how they can do better tomorrow, because they will definitely be coming tomorrow, how tomorrow they will bring a Dremel, and a better mask, and more protective goggles to give away.

"I think people rise to the level of what's needed," a girl with her face covered tells me.

"FILM THE POLICE, NOT THE PROTESTORS!" someone yells into a bullhorn every few minutes. This is in order to protect people's identities, though the idea that people will not film is ridiculous. Everybody has their phone or camera out. 

Still, people are remarkably cooperative. They know the protocols and follow them. They "WALK DON'T RUN!" when the feds shoot tear gas out of the building. There are people helpfully stationed, offering eye wipes and water, or pulling out leaf blowers and directing the gas away from protestors and back at the feds, or asking if you need a medic. It's night 55 of the protests. People know their roles.

Just before 11 p.m., young people in gas masks lay down improvised shields—a cafeteria tray, a garbage can lid—and start to shake the fence, lifting it from its mooring. It's enough of a commotion that the feds start playing the recorded message meant to get the crowd to disperse, "THIS IS THE FEDERAL—" only to have the message parroted back, "THIS IS THE PEOPLE OF PORTLAND. GO HOME NOW. YOU ARE IN VIOLATION OF THE CONSTITUTION. GO HOME NOW" and then completely drowned out with chants of, "WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS!" and "DIE, PIGS, DIE!"

The fence-rattlers take a break to light some garbage on fire and throw it over the fence.

"Why are you doing this?!" a young woman implores whoever will listen. "You're giving them a reason to shoot at us!" 

She and the young man she's with confer. "We've got to try," she tells him. 

I ask them what they're trying. 

"When they start the fires, we come and try to stop them," the young man says. He both puts out the fires himself and explains to the crowd why the tactic is only going to make things worse.

Does it work?

"They listened to me earlier and said, 'Yeah, that makes sense,' but…" 

"We have to go, sorry," the young woman says, pulling him into the crowd, where their message is most certainly not heard over the bang-and-flash of the feds' first tear gas volley. The crowd undulates away from the fencing. They're walking, not running, not mowing each other down, which would be super easy, what with a thousand people stumbling and coughing. The gas is very bad tonight, worse than it was two nights ago. I pass several men writhing on the ground, though in truth I can barely see.

"Here, here," a young woman says, pressing a baggie of wipes into my hand, then following me and offering a set of plastic protective glasses. Thank you.

This scene—people heading up to the fence, the feds telling them to disperse, people yelling back, "GO FUCK YOURSELVES!" and throwing flaming trash at the building, initiating another volley of tear gas—happens three more times. It's a bit Groundhog Day, and also nauseating, the gas has some people close to barfing, and it's sticky, or maybe that's the wipes, making you feel covered in glue. More and more people are falling back, kids carrying Go-Pros and hockey sticks melting into the night.

As some musicians play "The Imperial March" from Star Wars, I head to the front line one more time. Cattycorner from the federal building is a man I noticed earlier. In dad jeans and ball cap, he stands out. 

"Can you tell me what's going on?" he asks. 

I can try, and run through the coordinates that got Portland here, that got federal troops here.

"Right," he says, and keeps staring at the building. His name is Paul. He tells me he drove 50 miles to be here. 

"I'm a farmer, semi-retired," he says. "I used to live and work in Portland, I raised my kids here, and I came here tonight to bear witness to what these kids are going through, what maybe my grandkids will go through. I'm really trying to understand what each side wants."

He says this with an honest sense of wonder, some sadness, watching these young people rushing back and forth, back and forth, falling, rising, where does it lead?

There's another tear gas volley, very strong, it smells like church incense gone wrong, everybody knows their escape routes by now and also how to flow back, to work whatever they will do in front of the federal building, set fires, offer water, shoot off fireworks or bop past to a rap song whose lyrics are "fuck Donald Trump." The scene looks to me as it did the other night, like a 2020 Delacroix.

'STAY TOGETHER! STAY TIGHT! STAY TOGETHER! STAY TIGHT!" the crowd chants as it re-stations itself one block to the south, in reaction to a stronger message from the feds, that the crowd needs to disperse now, that the streets will be closed down, and again, I am amazed that a group that can look so anarchistic has the ability to move as one, though to where, who yet can say.