After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, took to the streets for 108 days in a row, setting buildings on fire and scuffling with local and federal law enforcement as well as fellow Portlanders. As the summer wore on, protesters began entering residential neighborhoods in the early morning hours, shining lights into windows and telling people to literally and figuratively "wake up" to a world they say is made intolerable by racism, income inequality, the presidency of Donald Trump, and more.
Veteran journalist Nancy Rommelmann knows Rose City like the back of her hand, having lived there for 15 years. Nick Gillespie spoke with her in August about the roots of the unrest, what she learned while covering the demonstrations for Reason, and what might be coming next.
Q: Tell me about the protesters we see on the national news.
A: For the most part, in my experience, they're kids.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: I'm in my 50s. I'm a mother. They're in their early 20s and sort of ungainly, like kids in their early 20s can be. I've had them be, one-on-one, exceptionally polite to me: offering me a doughnut or a water, or "Can I wash out your eyes?" [after I've been hit with tear gas]. They will claim they are taking care of each other, and in a certain sense, they are.
I have had them be extremely obnoxious to me. They stole my phone. They come up and yell in my face. They want [you] to know that they're there with their baton.
I've also had a few—very few—actually talk to me.
Q: When you see somebody walking down the street carrying a bat, that's very provocative.
A: It is provocative. And usually you're not seeing one person. They move in groups, whether it's three people or six people or 600 people. And this is deliberate, to say, "We are here."
It's sort of the magic outfit. "I put this on, I am part of a group. And as part of this group, I will be intimidating. I don't need to talk to you about things. You will not film me. I'm not going to hit you with my baton—probably—but I'm going to let you know that I'm here with my baton."
Q: The protests started after the death of George Floyd, but they changed when Donald Trump signed an executive order to protect federal buildings using federal law enforcement.
A: This was like sticking a neon sign on the [federal courthouse in Portland] saying, "Attack me." Now you have a locus, you have a place to express your rage. Peaceful protest had been sort of tamping down because, come on, six weeks? Eight weeks? Maybe I want to stay home and watch a miniseries.
But [the arrival of federal police] reignites it, and we see the grief and outrage over George Floyd taking on another dimension, which is, "We are against Trump and his goons."
Q: What happens after the feds arrive?
The first night I was there, the feds are inside [the courthouse]. And occasionally, like once every half-hour, something is announced: "This is federal property, get away from the building." Which does nothing. The people outside are trying to provoke a reaction. After about two and a half, three hours, they finally got it, which was tear gas was thrown out [by the feds].
So everybody falls back, and then everybody starts screaming, "I can't believe they tear-gassed us!" And it's like, well, it's not a good thing. Nobody wants to be tear-gassed. But you've been pelting the building with flaming trash for three hours, provoking a reaction. So you got the reaction.
Q: You've talked to a bunch of protesters over several months. What do they want?
A: Some of these people are 20 years old, and I have said to them, "What is it that you want?" And it's like, "DEFUND THE POLICE." All right. So then where do we go from there? "Well, we could have nurses." I mean, these are the little answers you get.
There may well be a somewhat workable manifesto. But if antifa is decentralized, there's not going to be one policy paper of where we're going from here. I don't think the average protester is prepared to have that discussion with you beyond the six or seven slogan-encapsulated principles that they are working toward.