PORTLAND, Ore. — Life has been a series of adjustments for protesters in Portland as they clash nightly with federal agents.
“We came out here dressed in T-shirts and twirling Hula-Hoops and stuff, and they started gassing us, so we came back with respirators, and they started shooting us, so we came back with vests, and they started aiming for the head, so we started wearing helmets, and now they call us terrorists,” Mac Smiff, a local Black organizer in Portland, said. “Who’s escalating this? It’s not us.”
Protests in Portland have been going on for two months, but the situation intensified when federal agents — from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Marshals Service — were deployed to the city beginning the weekend of July 4.
Since that time, the agents have used tear gas, pepper spray and shot “less lethal” munitions, at times indiscriminately, into crowds. The city saw its largest turnout of the protests this past weekend, when upwards of 5,000 people gathered in front of and around the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, which has been heavily guarded by federal agents.
While many have preached a nonviolent response to the use of force by federal agents, others have countered by lighting fires and hurling mortar-style fireworks over a fence that agents have erected around the federal courthouse. In some instances, Molotov cocktails have been thrown, along with rocks, bricks and canned vegetables, while some people have tried at times to tear down the fence.
“Yes, there are some people throwing rocks and bricks and water bottles and fireworks. But they’re a small, small fraction of the people out here to protest,” Paul Swortz, one of the Marine veterans standing alongside the Wall of Vets, said. “These are a handful of people among thousands, and you don’t judge thousands of people based on the actions of a handful.”
As nights have turned into weeks and months, the protests have evolved. The Wall of Moms appeared last week, dressed in yellow and holding sunflowers while linking arms to form a physical barrier separating protesters — some, their own children — from federal officers. The next night, they were accompanied by the Wall of Dads, toting leaf blowers to blow tear gas back toward federal officers.
Not knowing whether they will be warned before tear gas fills the air, some protesters come prepared with gas masks and sprayers filled with eye wash.
At one point, Marine veteran and protester India Wynne thought it started raining in the middle of the night as they wore their gas mask. It turns out, it was the density of what appeared to be pepper spray from federal agents.
“My skin started burning. The federal officers escalate way before we do, and they escalate to a point that it’s not necessary,” Wynne said. “I know crowd control tactics, and this is not what’s happening. You don’t need to deploy 20 or 30 canisters of tear gas…And they don’t care who they’re gassing.”
Weapons-wielding agents in heavy riot gear have clashed with protesters who have created their own makeshift protection and shields, including helmets and body armor labeled “Press,” after a restraining order was approved preventing federal agents from arresting or attacking journalists and legal observers.
Jayla Lindseth, a Black protester, urges people to come to the protests with at least a few other friends who can help protect one another, and to “de-arrest.”
“When I say de-arrest, I mean if you see your friend getting grabbed [by officers], grab them back,” Lindseth advised. “We’re out here fighting for change.”
Portland’s Bureau of Transportation filed a cease and desist order calling on federal agents to remove the fence Tuesday, alleging that it was put up illegally and that it impedes the city’s public right of way. The agency added that it has already begun assessing a maximum fine of $500 for every 15 minutes the fence obstructs the street, which has already totaled nearly $200,000 in penalties.
The Trump administration deployed the unsolicited and apparently unwelcome federal response to the city to counter demonstrations and protests decrying police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The agents, many wearing uniform emblems dark in color, making it difficult to identify which agency they are working for, were accused of overly abusive action against the demonstrators, according to a lawsuit several nonprofit organizations, including Protect Democracy, Don’t Shoot Portland and Wall of Moms, filed on behalf of protesters Monday.
The complaint alleges that federal agents grossly overstepped their bounds beyond protecting federal property with the use of pepper balls and flash bang explosives, and other similar tactics.
The presence of federal agents has been heavily criticized not only by the protesters but also by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has repeatedly asked Trump to remove them.
This week, Wheeler called for an “immediate meeting” with the Department of Homeland Security to discuss a “cease-fire.”
Department of Homeland Security officials have not returned a request for comment on that meeting.
Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Marshals Service have said that they are already identifying officers to possibly rotate or supplement agents in Portland.
As of Wednesday, at least 114 federal officers were known to be in the city per a court filing by the government.
Attorney General William Barr also weighed in on the use of federal force in Portland during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.
“In the wake of George Floyd’s death, violent rioters and anarchists have hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims,” he said. “The current situation in Portland is a telling example.”
Barr added they’ve had to increase the federal presence in the city in an effort to “protect federal functions and federal buildings.”
Meanwhile passions are becoming more resolute for protesters who have been demonstrating for days and even weeks on end.
“I’m so tired of this. I am so tired. I’m sleep deprived because I am a single mom and I work full time and I have to come and spend my nights with you because I can’t stand in my own street and say, ‘Black lives matter,’” a woman, dressed in a signature yellow T-shirt with the Wall of Moms, said Monday night. “Black lives matter, that’s why we’re here. We’re not here because of some d– building. We don’t care about the building, we don’t care about your stupid fence, we care about Black lives.”
Maura Barrett and David Douglas reported from Portland and Safia Samee Ali from Chicago.