Demonstrators crowded in front of the U.S. federal courthouse and Portland, Oregon’s Justice Center late Monday night, before authorities cleared them out. (July 21)
PORTLAND, Ore. — Teal Lindseth smiled out over the crowd, looking at the yellow-shirted moms with linked arms lining the street next to the federal courthouse, and the thousands of protesters behind them.
“Hey look, Trump wanted a wall,” she said with a grin. “So we’re giving him one!”
Reenergized in the past four days by what they perceive as heavy-handed federal intervention following nearly two continuous months of protests, Black Lives Matter activists in Portland are seizing a groundswell of national support to continue pushing for police reform in this liberal, mostly white city.
Wednesday night, thousands of protesters alternately booed and interrogated Mayor Ted Wheeler after hundreds of mothers dubbed “the Wall of Moms” led a march downtown against police brutality. Many protesters also carried signs demanding the withdrawal of federal agents dispatched last week by President Donald Trump over the objection of Wheeler and other local officials.
“Trump keeps talking about Portland. People keep talking about Portland. People know us,” said Lindseth, 21, an activist with the Portland Protest Bureau. “We feel like the whole world has seen us.”
While Trump said he sent federal law enforcement officers in to restore order, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said federal agents were in Portland primarily to protect federal buildings like the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, which had become a target for protesters.
Contractors on Wednesday surrounded the building with a tall metal-and-concrete fence, and prosecutors warned that anyone who breached it would be arrested. In court files, federal officials say protesters had inflicted more than $50,000 in damage to federal buildings in Portland, including tearing down security cameras and shattering glass doors.
Tai Carpenter, the board president of Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland-based social justice nonprofit, said the vast majority of protesters were simply exercising their First Amendment rights. She called the federal response disproportionate.
“It’s not a bunch of anarchists on the front lines,” said Carpenter, 29. “It’s moms singing and dads with leaf blowers to disperse tear gas. It’s not nearly as out of control as people think. I’m scared that the federal officers being here is going to result in someone being murdered.”
Wheeler echoed those same concerns after speaking to protesters Wednesday night.
“President Trump needs to focus on coronavirus and get his troops out of the city. My biggest fear is that somebody’s going to die,” Wheeler said. “I want them to leave. This is going to come to a city near you if we don’t stop it.”
The mayor appeared to be attempting to walk a fine line of blasting the federal government while addressing a crowd that only days earlier, before federal officials swept into the city, had been organizing in opposition against his office. As mayor, Wheeler helps set the city’s budget priorities. As police commissioner, he helps sets law-enforcement priorities.
Some activists said his criticism of the federal government rang hollow given the previous clashes between city police and protesters.
“You need to be doing more than you are doing. You say you are doing stuff. We haven’t seen it,” Lindseth told him Wednesday night.
Wheeler’s attempts to answer her questions were repeatedly drowned out by the angry crowd, which booed and jeered as he tried to explain a lengthy process for making reforms. He later acknowledged that he’s a “white, privileged male.”
“Obviously we have a long way to go,” Wheeler said. “Everyone here has a job to do, all of us.”
After standing before the jeering crowd, Wheeler huddled with Black activists who demanded he move more quickly to reform the police department. Some activists on Wednesday said they fear the fight over federal agents is overshadowing their demands for local reforms, and vowed to keep the pressure on Wheeler and Portland city officials. One white mother pointed out that Wheeler only showed up to the protests after the Wall of Moms were tear gassed.
“Enough is enough,” the crowd chanted. “Enough is enough.”
Hours later, at about 11:15 p.m., as the mayor continued to speak with activists in the area, some protesters threw flaming bags of garbage over the fence protecting the courthouse, prompting the federal officers to fire tear gas at the crowd.
Wednesday night once again saw large numbers of white middle-aged Portland residents joining the protests, which have been going on for nearly two months since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes over a report of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
Federal officials have repeatedly referred to Portland residents as anarchists, with federal agents firing tear gas at the crowds of mostly peaceful protesters.
Officials say 42 people have been arrested by federal agents in the past few days, several of them over accusations that they managed to pry open the front doors of the courthouse and scuffle with officers inside.
“Attempted arson is not a peaceful protest. Physically attacking law enforcement is not freedom of speech. Destruction of property is not peaceful assembly,” Wolfe said in a statement. “Criminals perpetrating these crimes are being arrested…not law-abiding protestors.”
During the day Wednesday, contractors raced to finish ringing the courthouse with eight-foot-high metal-and-concrete barricades, the sounds of air compressors and electric screw guns echoing across the street to the protest encampment.
Kitty-corner from the courthouse, city park rangers Wednesday removed the metal benches from Chapman Square, a small park where many protesters had been resting and regrouping during overnight clashes. But there was no evidence the city was planning to evict the protest encampment from Lownsdale Square, directly across Southwest 3rd Avenue from the courthouse.
In that encampment, protesters have erected tents and barbecue grills, offering free food. Other sites within the encampment provide basic hygiene supplies, including masks and hand-washing stations to protect against the spread of COVID-19, as well as water and eye rinses for protesters hit with tear gas or pepper spray.
As with other protest sites around the country, including the now-defunct Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, in Seattle, tourists were stopping by to take selfies, angering protesters who fretted that their message was being ignored while their encampment became a tourist attraction during the daytime.
On Wednesday, four volunteer medics who have been aiding protesters sued city police and the federal government, arguing their Constitutional rights have been violated by law enforcement officers targeting them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Filed with the help of the ACLU, the lawsuit says law enforcement officials at all levels have mistreated protesters.
“Defendants’ conduct is part of a longstanding pattern of assaulting and threatening protest medics to prevent them from rendering aid to protesters, journalists, neutral legal observers, and their fellow protest medics,” the lawsuit says. “Since President Trump ordered federal agents to go to Portland to quell protests, the federal defendants have been coordinating with the Portland police to violently disperse demonstrators, neutrals, and medics standing behind a medical-supply table. The federal Defendants use the same types (or worse) of force—chemical irritants, rubber bullets, batons—as the Portland Police. And they have emerged from unmarked vehicles clad in unmarked uniforms to abduct suspected protesters.”
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell
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