At midnight PDT tonight the clock starts on Day 63 of protests in Portland Oregon. It’s been a bit of a challenging couple of weeks. I live here and our little neoliberal enclave has gotten a touch of media exposure. Here’s my summary, action items, thoughts, and a compressed time line.
TLDR: Support black activists and organizations that center black lives. Our local one is Don’t Shoot PDX. Support independent local press, and your local ACLU. And for the sake of all that’s good and holy, VOTE for progressive candidates. If you can’t find a progressive one, at least vote for one who isn’t actively fascist <coughJOEBidencough>.
And for the last time: For Fucks Sake, Portland is not a war zone. There is no criminal chaos and very little property damage. We have a few urban blocks that are looking hard used. That’s it. Calm TF down about that. But FREAK OUT about the tactics used in response to the alleged “unrest”. If your response to armed government actors using chemical agents, high impact projectile weapons, and brutal takedowns on people armed with umbrellas and water bottles is : BUT THE GRAFFITI, or even “But they threw burning garbage”, then you need to first review the Constitution and second, examine your ethics.
Oregon has a historical legacy of extreme racism (the white occupiers of Chinook/Klamath land basically wanted to turn it into a white homeland in the 19th century). In Portland — the largest city in the state — we add garden-variety 20th century racism of redlining and plowing over established urban black communities to build freeways, followed by 21st century gentrification. It’s a sweet little town though, if you have race and class privilege. If you don’t, then you have no affordable housing and you risk getting shot by the police, who are mostly a bunch of burly white guys with a tacticool fetish — plus that one dude who was an actual Nazi reenactor and apologist.
Parts of state and local government are bass ackwards, so infrastructure and social programs are chronically underfunded. [Now is when I have to say — my views are my own, not my employer’s or my clients]. In Portland the “Police Commissioner” could be one of several City Commissioners, or the Mayor. Our current mayor is a business-friendly, old-money dude who wants the progressive vote (and probably is personally progessive on general social issues) but won’t do eFF-all to advance hard changes like housing access, education upgrades, and other services to marginalized communities.
With that in mind, here’s a little time line (adopting the counting system of Portland photojournalist Sergio Olmos):
Day -3 : Monday May 25, 2020 — Minneapolis Police Murder George Floyd
Day 1 : Black Lives Matter demonstrations begin in Portland and across the country; in Minneapolis law enforcement shoots photojournalist Linda Tirado, destroying her left eye.
Day 8: June 5, 2020 — Don’t Shoot PDX, a local activist group led by a black woman, sues Portland Police Bureau to stop indiscriminate use of tear gas against protestors. A federal judge issues an order restraining PPB a few days later. PPB continues to gas demonstrators. They just have to announce “this is a riot” first.
Day 37: July 4, 2020 — A guerilla kitchen/aid station/community center sets up in downtown Portland’s Lownsdale Square, across the street from the Federal Courthouse. Operated by the unhoused community and other marginalized people, including BIPOC, it becomes Riot Ribs, serving food 24/7.
Day 44: newly arrived Federal forces shoot Donovan Labella in the head, fracturing his skull. He was holding a boombox.
Day 47–48: Unidentified armed forces, presumably federal agents, begin detaining people in Portland without cause or charge. (some time in here feds erect a chain link fence around the downtown Portland federal court house)
Day 50: Oregon sues Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security, among others, to stop the unlawful arrests. (A federal judge denies an immediate restraining order)
Day 51: The infamous Naked Athena moment (credit to photojournalist Donovan Farley for the name and pictures)
Day 52: July 19, 2020 — a small group of women in white, wearing bicycle helmets join the ongoing demonstration to put themselves in between protestors and federal forces. Feds point weapons, shove, and tear gas them. They also assault a Navy veteran, breaking his hand and spraying him in the face with pepper spray.
Day 53: A much larger group of women in yellow, now identifying as “Wall of Moms” comes downtown to form a human shield between protestors and feds. Feds gas and batter them. Demonstrations get successively bigger, with the Wall of Moms in yellow (aka #momtifa) being joined by Dad With Leafblowers and orange t-shirts (#dadtifa) and eventually Wall of Vets. The feds decide “We’re gonna need a Bigger Fence.”
Day 55: ACLU sues city and federal agencies to stop them from attacking volunteer medics.
Day 56: Yet another, different, federal judge orders the feds to stop attacking press and legal observers. Feds have also been leaving the federal premises to spray pepper spray on medic aid stations and Riot Ribs’ food supplies. Portland Mayor (and police commissioner) addresses protestors, gets thoroughly heckled, performatively gets teargassed by feds, and leaves. PPB joins the feds in tear gassing demonstrators immediately after.
Day 58: Yours truly attends a protest, along with my brother and about 4000 other people including Medical Professionals for BLM, Lawyers for BLM, and Teacher s 4 BLM (#anteachfa). More on that below.
Day 59: Riots Ribs, which has gone viral, gets overwhelmed with donations. They struggle, partially implode, but disperse their funds and operating model responsibly.
Day 60: Don’t Shoot PDX and Wall of Moms sue federal forces for excessive use of force in violation of demonstrators civil rights.
Day 62 — July 29, 2020 Oregon Governor Kate Brown says she has brokered an agreement for feds to withdraw. DJT and Acting Homeland Security Secretary 5o’clockChadow Wolf say, “Nah.” Very awkward. Almost as awkward as the Don’t Shoot + Wall of Moms lawsuit is gonna be because Wall of Moms imploded in a shower of haterade on social media today.
The day (July 17/Day 50) my state sued several federal agencies over their Pinochet-lite detention stylings, I had to take one of my kids some place and stopped at Goodwill on the way home. It was Portland at its everyday best on a sunny weekday. The people scoping out the second hand dishware and lightly worn Target brand clothes were diverse — older black women, white tweakers, working class Latinx and South Asians. Everyone wore a mask. In the checkout line a big white man who looked to be in his 60s, with long hair and cutaway t-shirt hailed the security guard, another older man with a pronounced western accent (Texas?). They bumped elbows and shouted cheerfully at each through their face masks. The security guard paused briefly to tell someone “Miss, your mask has to cover your nose.” Miss, who was almost certainly trans, adjusted her mask.
A mile away, directly across the river, stands the federal courthouse. My job requires me to be in the Courthouse from time to time and it is a temple of my profession. I respect it and the people who work in it so it’s a bit startling to see it splattered around its granite ankles with graffiti. In daylight the ordinary good and bad of Portland is much the same. There are still homeless encampments all over, not just in Lownsdale Square. There are also farmers markets, families playing basketball while blasting mariachi music, and teens having socially distanced birthday picnics in the park. I’m guessing the bleeding pustule of totalitarianism in the White House fears the black, brown, trans people, and agriculture for refugees nonprofits way more than he does some bottle-throwing crust punks.
I went down town last week (July 25) because I wanted to bear witness and support the BLM focus of the protests. Assembling and petitioning the government for redress is one of the most fundamentally American things one can do. I’d like to think petitioning for redress NOT to be summarily executed and brutalized by law enforcement is pretty fundamental as well, but that’s hope rather than historical fact. (more on that another day).
I did my homework. I followed and supported local journalists on twitter who are documenting the protests every night, I looked for lists of supplies that the direct aid groups needed. I took a bag of soap and paper towel to the folks at Riot Ribs. Also two tyvek coveralls because someone is going to need to clean up the scary latrine.
I wore a mask. I took a respirator, a bike helmet, goggles, extra water, AND for extra preparedness, because I’ve pushed 3 babies out of my fundament, I wore a disposable diaper from the stash leftover from my late mother. Because NFW was I going to find a place to piss down there. I didn’t “need” it, in case you’re curious.
The pattern on Day 58 was pretty consistent with what I know of days 51 through 61 (when I’ve been following most closely).
- There’s a giant festive parade-like march with hundreds of people blasting music, drumming, shouting “Black Lives Matter” “No Justice No Peace” and intoning the names of those murdered by law enforcement (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor)
- There are speeches in front of the Justice Center, which is the criminal courts/jail/county building next to the federal building. More chanting, cheering, call-and-response. Note: there is another federal office building on the other side of the Justice center from the federal court. There is rarely action there and it is not barricaded as far as I can tell.
- At some point the people who want to “storm the barricade” assemble by the fence in front of the federal court house and start hurling water bottles, shining lasers, tossing fire crackers, and screaming taunts. The federal agents are inside a very stable, inflammable, granite building at this point.
- Eventually feds come out into the “yard” they’ve created on the sidewalk behind the fence. The stupid/crazy/aggressive/extra-righteous folks crowd the fence and flip them off and throw things. Feds respond with pepper balls, flashbangs, projectile weapons. The lumpy middle aged white women in yellow t-shirts line up to try to protect the protestors.
- Hundreds of people in the park hold up signs, cheer, boo the LRAD announcements, and put on their PPE. (I’m in that category) PPB and Feds make formal announcements to the effect of “Bad protestors. Time to go home.”
- The feds start gassing. People who get gassed at the fence fall back, puke, call for aid, street medics clean them up. Feds blast people with pepper spray, steel balls, etc through the fence. Dumbasses climb into the yard and taunt the feds and get taken down hard.
- Some time between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. the feds exit the compound. (the night I was there it was right after 1:00. I left a few minutes before)
- Everyone still on the street reacts like a pack of dogs to the deliberate territorial affront, screaming obscenities, exposing themselves, and throwing virtual poo (maybe actual poo, I don’t know).
- The feds bull rush and gas everything and everyone in sight, including press, medics, the assembled civil disobedience factions (moms, dads, vets, whatever), arrest anyone within arms reach, then retreat.
- The reporters tweet when they’ve made it home safely.
It’s chaotic, depressing, inspiring, fascinating, vitally important, and some times funny. Follow journalist Tuck Woodstock for the snickers and inside baseball. And I really wish it wasn’t happening. On one hand all of these anarchists, idealists, and wackos are better at following public health advice the Rep. Louie Gohmert. On the other hand, why do we have to get out in a crowd to defend our civil rights during a respiratory pandemic?
And why the frigfragfuckityfuck can’t we not suck? The RiotRibs and Wall of Moms (tm) disasters are a big downer, but totally unsurprising. People get caught up in their moments, and get greedy. And a lot of the people in the streets are not who you’d want running the show — or any show. They are people with nothing to lose, like the blood thirsty mobs of the French Revolution, or brutal revolutionaries in just about every 20th century upheaval. Nice, law abiding respectability will not protect those of us in the back of the park from the gas in the air, but the ones down at the fence are there for a reason.
I’m not “defending criminals” in the sense of justifying breaking windows, setting fires on the sidewalk, and spraying graffiti (or piss) all over public buildings. It’s a real problem. Some of the people storming the fence at night are throwing morter-grade fireworks into the yard. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured, and its just as likely to be someone on the demonstrators side of the fence. It’s not helpful. However, the ones inside the building could hunker down with fire suppressing equipment. Or better yet, go the hell away and stop with the ridiculous pretext of protecting property. Instead they choose to come out, terrorizing and poisoning everyone for three blocks around, and shooting people at close range with projectiles capable of cracking a bike helmet. Framing the discussion with “what the people on the other end of the gas did” is like suggesting a reasonable response to jaywalking is a cattle prod to the genitals. There are people in this country who do think that way. Those of us who value justice and want to live in a society that does as well cannot accept it.