Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler talks with protesters near the Justice Center. Justin Grinnell/PSU Vanguard

Diverse voices join resurgence in Portland protests

While protesters continue to decry police brutality and racism, calls of “feds go home” attracted a greater number and variety of protesters than Portland’s downtown area has seen in weeks. 


Nights of tear gas and flashbangs have become commonplace in the downtown area as the city approaches 60 consecutive days of protests. The Multnomah County Justice Center was previously the focus of frustrations for protesters in Portland, but with the occupation of federal law enforcement in the city, the location of the protests, as well as the tone, has shifted. What was once the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement has now grown to include an outcry against a perceived overreach of the federal government.


The protests follow a daily pattern: speakers on the steps of the Justice Center tend to address a growing crowd of protesters around 6–9 p.m. while music plays and the atmosphere in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares resembles a concert or street fair. 


Around sunset, protesters shift their attention to the fence in front of the federal courthouse. They shake the fence and toss water bottles and fireworks over it, whether or not officers are present. Federal law enforcement disperses protesters with tear gas, flashbangs and pepper balls. 


A diverse range of groups now make up the ranks of protesters such as the “Wall of Moms” and the “Wall of Veterans.” On Friday, a group of restaurant workers known as “Chef Bloc” attended protests wearing chef’s coats and holding signs saying “86 feds.”


Chef Bloc organizer Michael Kapski explained the impetus for creating the group came after tear gas drifted into his home when law enforcement used the gas on protesters in North Portland. “If I’m going to get tear gassed, I might as well do it willingly,” Kapski said.


Kapski, currently unemployed, has donated thousands of dollars from his personal savings to different protests organizations, including Riot Ribs—a pop-up restaurant located across the street from the federal courthouse that serves free barbeque to protesters and houseless individuals.


Protesters have different motives for exercising their first amendment rights. “Oregon is our home and we will protect it,” said Michelle, a protesting mother. “This is where we live and we can’t let Trump or any other federal agencies come into our towns and our cities and abuse our people.”


On the other hand, organizers on Friday night emphasized racial justice and police abolition as primary motives for protesting. “We’re not just down here because they called in federal forces,” a speaker said. “When we say Black Lives Matter, we cannot end white supremacy if we don’t have a constructive discussion about innate capitalism because the two are inextricably linked.”


Another speaker addressed concerns about property damage in the downtown area. “The destruction is not the destruction of a building. The destruction is not the destruction of a window. The destruction is not the destruction of a garbage can,” he said. “The destruction is the destruction that is done to human life. We must put an end to this, and the way we do it is abolish the police.”


The federal officers and recent surge in protests have also garnered attention from multiple local public officials, some of whom have attended the gatherings to address the crowd. On Wednesday night, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke before protesters. While there were moments of cheers from the crowd, much of the mayor’s speech was met with frustration and chants of “tear gas Teddy.”


“The reason I’m here tonight is to stand with you no matter what,” Wheeler said. “If they launch the tear gas against you, they launch the tear gas against me.” Later that night, Wheeler stood with protesters at the fence surrounding the federal courthouse as law enforcement threw tear gas into the crowd. With only a pair of safety goggles and a cloth mask for protection, Wheeler was forced to leave the fence when the gas became too much. 


Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has attended multiple nights of protests. She spoke to protesters while standing in front of the Justice Center on Friday, July 24. 


“Because of you, 27 million dollars came out of the police budget,” Hardesty said. “I think you can help me become police commissioner. Who knows more about policing and Portland than a Black woman who’s been on the front lines for 30 years?” Hardesty has publicly asked Wheeler to relinquish control of the Portland Police Bureau over to her. At the time of this article, the mayor still controls the PPB.

The protests show no signs of abating—on the contrary, the presence of federal troops swelled crowds into the thousands. On July 13, United States President Donald Trump claimed he had “very much quelled” Portland, but on Saturday night, as protesters surrounded the federal courthouse, one protester held aloft a sign: “Quelled?”

Law enforcement officer looks out of a make-shift window in the Justice Center. Protesters commonly refer to these windows as “murder holes.” Courtesy of Ashley Isenberg