Graham and I went to the Portland protests last night. We have been unable to attend any of the initial weeks of protests as we were living with his mother who is at high-risk for COVID-19. Now that we moved into our own apartment this week, though, we were eager to attend.
I have long felt that protest is useful, and has the potential to result in positive change. Part of that belief, I'm sure, comes from my mother's stories of protesting on freeways in Seattle in the '90s on behalf of planned parenthood and women's reproductive justice. That initial belief was further cemented when I started attending protests in my sophomore year of college, the same year that the Occupy Movement took off. I took to the streets with dozens of friends from my international relations classes and my divestment club, and we joined thousands of other students and residents of Boston, marching for economic justice and equality. I even spent a few nights in a tent in Dewey Square, Boston's Occupy HQ. The Occupy Movement was a valuable learning experience for me. The many meetings I attended seemed at times to suffer from the refusal to follow or to allow people to be in charge of the movement, and the "big tent" philosophy meant that the list of demands grew too large and wide-ranging to allow protestors to gather momentum on any one issue. Despite the flaws I saw in that movement, I still believed in the power of protest, and particularly their ability to change the media narrative of an issue. This, I believe, has been one of the strongest aspects of the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country this summer.
So, I felt very strongly that I needed to take part in the protests and march on behalf of Black Lives Matter, and had wanted to for weeks. By the time I was able to attend those protests, they had gained national attention - and not just from the media. President Trump had sent in troops from the Department of Homeland Security, ostensibly to protect the courthouse downtown, but there were reports of those troops shooting "less than lethal" munitions into the crowd and kidnapping protestors in unmarked white vans. So, for the first time in my life, I felt uncertain. Should I attend this protest? What if I get shot? What if I am grabbed? It felt surreal to realize that I was scared to protest, to exercise my first amendment right because of intimidation by American troops, and while that gave me pause, it made me more determined to attend the protest.
The night that we went to the protest also happened to be the night that the Mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, would be speaking to protestors for the first time since protests began over 50 days ago. We got to the protests around 9:30 PM when Mayor Wheeler started speaking, although we weren't able to hear much - his microphone was unfortunately fairly quiet and many of the protestors drowned him out when we were able to hear him. The Black Lives Matter leaders in charge of the rally told protestors to quiet down periodically and listen to the Mayor so there were a few times we could hear Mayor Wheeler try to talk about what he had accomplished with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) before he was drowned out again. I heard a lot of protestors talking about how he had lost credibility with them since PPB was teargassing protestors before a court injunction stopped them, and Wheeler is also Police Commissioner. They seemed to feel this effort by him was too little, too late.
While I didn't learn too much from Mayor Wheeler's speech, the remaining speakers at the Black Lives Matter vigil were much better. One led us on a powerful call and response, crying out the names of the black men and women who have been murdered and having the crowd do the same. We responded "Black Lives Matter" to the question "Who's Lives Matter?" and listened as others talked about how the community was responding and what they needed to move forward.
After the vigil wrapped up I walked through the protest, trying to get a better idea of the people that were out there and looking at the signs to see how many people were attending for the BLM vigil versus the protest against the occupation of the city by the DHS troops. Nearly everyone was wearing a mask, at least 90%. I'd estimate between 1,500 - 2,000 people showed up and there was a good mix of people there. Lots of people in their 20's and 30's, but also many older people through their 70's were out. I saw a lot of the Moms with and without young kids carrying signs saying "Your mom raised you better than this," "Moms for BLM," and more - and many dads standing next to the Moms holding leafblowers, ready to disperse teargas. Part of me felt as though I was walking in an alternate reality; surely things haven't gotten so bad over the past few years that this was necessary? But that reality set in soon enough, once the DHS troops engaged with the crowd.
Around 11 PM a small group of protestors started throwing fireworks at the boarded up courthouse building and managed to start a small fire, although it was very contained and the rest of the protest was completely peaceful. Shortly after that the federal officers came out of the courthouse and ordered everyone to disperse. After a few warnings, they started throwing teargas into the crowd. We retreated slowly, directed by leaders with megaphones reminding everyone to walk, not run, to the block behind us. There were ambulances and medics waiting in the area we retreated to, along with people offering water rinses for our eyes. After a few minutes, we regrouped and slowly advanced back to the courthouse to regain our ground. Throughout, people were chanting "feds go home" and "black lives matter." This whole process was repeated a few times, and Graham and I decided to leave around midnight after a few advances, teargassing, and retreats. I read this morning that Mayor Wheeler also left around midnight and afterwards the feds escalated their tactics, advancing on the crowd, using teargas more liberally, and firing less lethal rounds into the crowd.
My general impression was that the protests are very well-organized and peaceful. Despite the fireworks thrown at the courthouse building and the small fire created in the plaza by a small minority of the protestors, there was truly no cause for the extreme response of force that those actions prompted from the DHS troops. There was respect from the crowd for all of the speakers at the vigil (except, at times, for Mayor Wheeler), and it was clear that many of the protestors had done the retreat and advance in the face of teargas before, and everyone remained very calm the whole time. The leaders with megaphones were dedicated to being helpful, guiding people during the retreat, doing conflict mediation if necessary, and thanking everyone for being out there. I felt supported and, surprisingly, safe the entire time despite being teargassed.
It was a fairly quiet crowd too, and for the most part people were simply standing, quietly, watching to see what the DHS troops would do. I think many of us were there to bear witness to their occupation and, in a way, reassure ourselves that we still lived in a country where we could exercise our first amendment right.