This is not Portlandia
Former Duluthian reports on embattled city
Smoke from fires and tear gas fired by members of the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit cloud the area around the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse during protests on July 22. Photo by Tedder. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
Friday, July 24, I left my suburban home to visit downtown Portland to see for myself what was going on, a question I was getting from friends and family from my hometown of Duluth.
The unannounced arrival of 114 federal officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense in early July put Portland in the national spotlight. President Trump ordered the deployment of these officers, saying Portland was out of control.
This was confusing as I thought the protests were waning, with violence confined to a few people at a fence provoking police after midnight in a couple block area. Maybe there was something I was missing.
Friday morning, I found things quiet as downtown workers, residents and police went about getting morning coffee at nearby the Starbucks. Things hadn’t changeD much since I retired in March after working downtown for 30 years. Except there are far fewer people.
As I approached the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Court House and Justice Center that houses the Portland Police Bureau, I saw plywood boards had been put up that had graffiti scrolled on them. Litter at the front of the federal courthouse showed what had been thrown at police the night before: water bottles and fruit.
I stroll a few blocks to a favorite restaurant to have soup for lunch and then go to my credit union. The latter was boarded up, but open. I was one of two customers there.
The owner of the restaurant told me coping with the impact of Covid-19 on her business is her biggest concern. Covid-19 is a concern for me at that moment, but I am the only customer. The owner said the protesters don’t come down her way, though they did take her neighbor’s wooden picnic tables to burn in front of the Justice Center.
After lunch, I pass by parks in front of the government buildings that ex-tend three blocks along SW 3rd Street. In one of the blocks, protesters are or-ganizing themselves, carrying mostly Black Lives Matter signs and some that say “Feds Go Home.”
Since May 27 after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of people have marched in peaceful protests across Portland and its suburbs to stop police brutality and systemic racism.
Protesters have specific demands and response has been forthcoming, including a white woman stepping down and a black man stepping up to become Portland’s chief of police. The Portland City Council has cut the police budget by millions and the governor called a special legislative session to address police accountability.
By the time federal officers arrived in early July, Portland was at a new juncture in the long struggle against systemic racism and for social justice with efforts being made across agencies, businesses, neighborhoods and households.
The number of protesters had de-creased as had the violence which had eventually amounted to a cat-and-mouse game, culminating along a metal fence between protesters and the Portland Police Bureau.
Most people in and around Portland slept quietly at night and were unimpeded in day-to-day routines, doing their best to cope with Covid-19.
So it took some days to process what was happening with the news of federal officers arriving and how they shot a peaceful protester in the face with a nonlethal weapon, now recovering from a skull fracture; as-saulted journalists, clearly identifiable as such; and pulled protesters going home into unmarked vans without charges or explanation.
Rumors spread, including that one morning at 2 am, an Air Force plane circled the downtown area, and took photos of people on the ground with technology that can pick up the gold tooth in the mouth of a drug dealer.
By this time, the governor, mayor and congressional delegation had demanded the federal officers leave town.
Since federal agents arrived, 60 people have been detained or arrested, 46 face federal charges including arson, assault and failing to comply with lawful order. When these crimes occurred is unclear.
Protests are part of living in Portland, where freedom of assembly and speech are part of its culture. Many are peaceful as last year when thousands of school children, teachers, parents and others marched for climate action.
Protests here have long drawn individuals with a philosophy that violence is a form of expression.
The current protest began with in initial cathartic response to George Floyd’s killing and included breaking window, stealing and arson. Over the weeks, violence subsided as about a few hundred core protesters gathered peacefully each afternoon, staying into the evening in front of the Justice Center and federal courthouse.
The violent element comes out at night, with objects thrown at officers and persistent climbing of the temporary metal fence put up in front of the buildings.
At some point the police disperse the crowd, often with tear gas. Since the federal officers arrived, thousands are protesting and violent behavior has increased. Yet, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney says these officers will remain until the violence ends.
As I left downtown after lunch, I thought about the protest advice I heard: wear a helmet, body protection and a gas mask to be ready for the police. Advice the Portland mayor needed earlier in the week when at about 11 pm federal officers sent three rounds of tear gas into the mostly peaceful crowd of 2,000 he was in.
This weekend veterans joined the protests after earlier a Navy veteran asked the officers if they thought what they are doing is constitutional; they answered him with police batons and broke his hand in two places.
Moms in yellow now build a human wall backed up by dads with leaf blowers to protect young people from federal officers at the protests. Grandmothers with aprons have joined in.
My moment of clarity finally came in watching the reporting over the weekend when a black grandmother said she was there because she wants her grandchildren to grow up in another kind of world than exists today.
This is what the 60-day protest is about.
C.L. Miner is a Duluthian who now lives in Sherwood, Oregon.