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Portland protesters defy US federal agents

Julia Mahncke
July 22, 2020

In the predominantly liberal city in Oregon, a power struggle between authorities and demonstrators continues. The calls for defunding the police are only getting louder now President Trump has sent in special forces.

Protesters forming the 'wall of moms' hold their hands up
Image: picture-alliance/AP/The Oregonian/B. Nakamura

It is just after 9 p.m. in Chapman Square, a park that stretches across two blocks of Portland, Oregon. A large crowd of protesters is gathering among the rows of leafy ginkgo trees and park benches.

One of them, a slim Black American man named Jeff, is getting ready to protest for the thirtieth time. "We shouldn't be afraid of them, they should be afraid of us," he says. By 'they' he means the police. That's who the people are here to oppose.

Their protests began almost two months ago. Since then, the Pacific Coast city has seen daily demonstrations in support of black victims of police violence in the United States. One of the main demands: Defund the police. Some say abolish them altogether.

This early in the night neither the local police, nor the special forces that US President Donald Trump has ordered to Portland in response to the protests, are anywhere to be seen.

But the direction from which the police officers and special forces will approach is common knowledge among protesters. Usually they are inside this building, says one, pointing to the Justice Center across the street, which houses a police station and a prison. Right next to it are two courthouses.

Protester Jeff stands in front of the courthouse in Portland, its walls covered in graffiti
Jeff is one of thousands of protesters calling for the police to be defundedImage: DW/J. Mahncke-Gütz

'We have to make the police uncomfortable'

Over the noise of more than a thousand people chanting "Black Lives Matter," Jeff says he is here because he supports the abolition of the police in its current form. He is a member of the political organization American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS). ADOS, he explains, is calling for reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors were forced into slavery.

"Americans have been docile and accepting to the point where we are not exerting the power that we really have," he argues. Civilian disobedience, such as demonstrators setting garbage cans on fire, throwing water bottles or trying to dismantle barricades, is effective and necessary, says Jeff.

"It creates a disruption of the norm. We have to make the police uncomfortable. That's the way most black people feel in this country 24/7. We have to let them know that we are serious."

A 'mob' attacking America?

Graffiti and property damage are the official reasons why the Trump administration has sent federal agents to Portland. Their stated task is to protect buildings and monuments. However, according to local news media, they seem to be doing much more.

Agents have been spotted mingling with demonstrators in civilian clothes, taking people into custody without officially arresting them and using tear gas and rubber bullets against non-violent protesters.

Videos on social media about the nightly police actions deter some residents of Portland from participating. But those who go work together like a well-oiled machine.

Volunteers block off the intersections around the park so that drivers keep away from the protest crowd. On one corner there is a group of white, bearded bikers who have the letters BLM, for Black Lives Matter, attached to their motorcycles.

On another corner two white women are using their bikes as a make-shift fence. One is an elementary school teacher, the other organized bicycle tours before the pandemic.

"I'm not the type of person who likes to be confronted with tear gas," says the teacher with a chuckle. "Like most of the others, when the police come and announce at night that the space needs to be vacated, I go home."

The bigger the crowd, the longer the police usually waits, she explains. That night the police do not clear the park until after midnight.

A man helps to tie elbow pads around the arms of another protester for protection
Carey is part of the 'wall of moms' using makeshift protection to help shield other protestersImage: DW/J. Mahncke-Gütz

Bicycle helmets vs rubber bullets

Leaving the square is not as easy as it sounds, reports Carey, a mother of two. She says in previous nights she tried to follow orders, but police had blocked the streets and let no one through. "We were trapped."

Carey is part of the 'wall of moms,' a group that started attending the protests a few days ago. Initially numbering around 30, now hundreds of mothers, mostly white women, stand arm in arm in front of the demonstrators to shield them from the police.

"Yesterday we weren't even blocking a street and around the corner came a truck with all these police officers in riot gear hanging off the back," Carey explains.

"They started throwing concussion grenades at us and then smoke bombs and tear gas. There was no one looting, rioting, nothing was being thrown at them and that's been the standard. Nobody is doing anything to them and they just open up on us."

This explains why many demonstrators look like they are part of a DIY army. In order to protect themselves from the police, in addition to the mandatory mask, many also wear bicycle helmets, swimming goggles, ear plugs, knee, hand and elbow pads — or even carry homemade shields made out of wood, plastic and even salad bowl lids.

Protesters hold anti-racism signs and hold their hand up during in a demonstration on a residential street
Pop-up anti-racism demonstrations have become the norm throughout PortlandImage: DW/J. Mahncke-Gütz

Portland is not sinking into chaos

There might be chants, graffiti, and savy protesters who flick back flash bombs at the police with hockey sticks, but people in Portland reject the idea the city is sinking into chaos, as some politicians have put it.

The protests against racism and police brutality are now part of everyday life. In addition to the demonstration in front of the Justice Center every night, there are also weekly car caravans, small groups of people holding Black Lives Matter signs on street corners, art exhibitions, rallies in parks and online readings.

In the windows of many shops, theaters, cafes or yoga studios there are displays in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the calls for defunding and abolishing the police.

But in parks, residents continue to have picnics, play with their children and walk their dogs on the sidelines of political rallies. Amid this evening's protests, people picked up their food order from a Vietnamese restaurant, completely unfazed by the loud demonstrations down the street.