As federal agents retreat in Portland, protesters return to original foe: local police
Protesters march outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., Aug. 1, 2020.
By Mike Baker
Late on Saturday night, with protests in Portland continuing into their third month, one crowd of demonstrators gathered yet again in front of the city’s fortified federal courthouse while another group traveled miles east to a precinct used by local law enforcement.
At the federal courthouse, the crowd saw a third consecutive night of calm since the start of a plan to withdraw federal agents who had brought a militarized crackdown to the city. But at the police precinct, officers pointed bright lights into the crowd, warned protesters to disperse, then chased them through the streets, knocking people to the ground, using pepper spray and making arrests.
While the arrival of federal agents wearing camouflage last month outraged protesters and local government leaders alike, their presence also masked the more personal grievances that protesters have long had with their local police force.
Gia Naranjo-Rivera, who had been protesting for weeks, said that while she was appalled by the arrival of federal agents, she believed local police officers brought their own form of hypermilitarization and repressive tactics. She was arrested on Thursday by local police after breaking caution tape the police had put up to close two locked parks next to the federal courthouse.
Naranjo-Rivera said the protests needed to continue.
“If this movement doesn’t succeed right now, we are just kicking the can down the road to the next civil rights uprising,” Naranjo-Rivera said.
The city’s protests in June were largely about local policing, with crowds denouncing a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms Black people and a Portland Police Bureau that has embraced aggressive tactics to contain unruly crowds. The police have said the crowd had flung objects at officers, including bottles and fireworks.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner and is largely reviled among protesters, said last week that he believed police had at times made mistakes in the past, including using tear gas indiscriminately, and he hoped the departure of federal officers brought a chance to bring renewed peace.
“My hope is we will all do an outstanding job of de-escalating tensions,” Wheeler said.
At the precinct on Saturday night, the crowd stood on the street and chanted. Officers set up bright lights to shine into the crowd, angering some. When it appeared one of the officers had brought out what looked like a camera to film the crowd, some protesters pointed lasers at the device. Police said someone threw a glass jar or bottle at officers.
The protest crowds have remained much larger than they had been in the days before federal agents had arrived.
While protest crowds numbered in the thousands in early June, those figures waned over the month. But with the federal courthouse among the targets of some of the remaining demonstrators, and President Donald Trump issuing an executive order to protect statues and government property around the country, federal agents deployed at the beginning of July.
Their presence and tactics, including firing crowd-control munitions and swinging batons, infuriated the city, drawing thousands out to the streets once again to stand against what many saw as a troubling federal incursion into a city that didn’t want them. At that point, the epicenter of the protests shifted from a county justice center to the federal courthouse across the street.
Clashes at the courthouse, with nightly volleys of tear gas, continued to draw more people out to stand against the federal presence, including lines of mothers linking arms and a group of military veterans.
Last week, in an agreement between Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon and leaders from the Department of Homeland Security, the state found a pathway to withdraw federal agents, with Brown vowing to put state troopers in place to provide security around the courthouse.
Since that plan went into effect on Thursday, there has been a minimal law enforcement presence on the streets. Protesters have continued to show up outside the fenced courthouse, chanting and giving speeches around a bonfire in the middle of the street. While some have occasionally thrown bottles over the fence toward the empty courthouse entrance or burned flags, others in the crowd have confronted them to keep things peaceful and focused on the Black Lives Matter cause that drew millions to the streets after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Demetria Hester, who led a group of women in chants in front of the federal courthouse over the weekend, said she was going to continue calling out people who lit fires, threw objects or burned flags.
“How is that helping?” Hester said. “The protest right now is about Black Lives Matter. Burning a flag is not about Black Lives Matter.”
Federal agents haven’t fully retreated. Federal leaders, including Trump, have said the agents won’t be gone until local officials contain the unrest.
On Saturday night, as protesters downtown marched peacefully through the streets, they noticed through the windows of a different federal building that Homeland Security agents were standing inside watching them. Some in the crowd stopped to flash lights through the window. One agent appeared to respond by raising a middle finger.
Then the crowd continued on.