On Day 50 of the Portland protests, in the middle of July, I caught a face full of aerosolized Mace.
I didn’t yet appreciate the finer distinctions among Mace spray, pepper pellets, and tear gas. The pop-pop-pop sound of the pepper pellets is terrifying; but the sting in your eyes and nose and throat is bearable. Tear gas is much more painful, and the pain hits your lungs in a way the other two do not. Breathe too deeply, and you start coughing, hacking, choking—sometimes even vomiting. Tear gas makes you feel as if you are being smothered in pain; Mace, on the other hand, is a more direct and excruciating pain that sets the inside of your face on fire.
When the Mace hit me, I was in the middle of filming federal law enforcement officers tackling a man to the ground. I was only vaguely aware that other officers were spraying someone with Mace only a few feet away. I didn’t notice at all when they pointed the Mace in my direction. Later, while reviewing my footage, I would get to see the moment that an arc of tan liquid dispersed right over my head.
At the time, I attributed the tears in my eyes to the roiling cloud of gas headed toward me. So I began to retreat—and in my retreat, I walked through more of the Mace.
I spent the next few minutes crying uncontrollably as I stumbled my way over to the next city block, trying desperately to find a patch of clean air. I knelt on the sidewalk while my partner rinsed my eyes with the contents of a water bottle. Near me, three middle-aged white suburbanites, who had flimsy medical masks slung around their necks, were coughing and panting and trying to rinse out their own eyes. “I don’t understand,” one woman sobbed. “How can you go from saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ to getting teargassed?”
In retrospect, I should have known there and then that the entire city was about to revolt against the feds.
When the national media covered “the Portland protests,” it was usually referring to a recurring nightly event that happened over six downtown city blocks. The earlier protests focused on the Justice Center, a high-rise that houses county courts and a county jail; the focus shifted later on to the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse next door. The IRS building—also federal property—flanks the other side of the Justice Center, and was mostly ignored throughout the protests, even though federal agents had commandeered it as a staging area for their crackdowns.
These three buildings face three small, block-size parks. The park in front of the IRS building is federal property; the other two belong to the city.
Most of the viral photos and videos from the Portland protests were shot in the vicinity of the courthouse, the Justice Center, and their corresponding parks. These four blocks make up approximately the same square footage as a standard block in New York City—an unlikely backdrop for the psychodramas and occasionally violent confrontations that assail a “city under siege,” as Portland was frequently depicted in national coverage. But then again, 2020 has been an unlikely year in America’s political life. Between the pandemic, rampant unemployment, and a mass awakening around racial injustice, the occupation of Portland’s downtown by a hastily marshaled and lavishly equipped contingent of federal law enforcement was not nearly as strange as it would have been a year earlier. The ugly and brutal conflict that played out night after night became a symbol of the fraying of the nation’s own civic consensus under the twin pressures of mass dissent and panicked irrational leadership in the White House. And the symbolic confrontations finally turned lethal at the end of August, with the fatal shooting of Aaron Danielson, a member of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, as a pro-Trump caravan of vehicles drove through downtown Portland.
Throughout the second half of July, these four blocks of downtown Portland grew to resemble a war zone—and when lost in a cloud of tear gas, it certainly felt like a war. But when the tear gas cleared, a sense of artificiality settled in. The four blocks are just large enough to operate as a movie set. On camera, Portland was at war. In person, normalcy always intruded into the peripheries of my vision—tall buildings with unbroken windows, cars parked on the sidewalk, a Starbucks sign glowing brightly in the night.
The protesters’ firecrackers and the police’s flash bangs might sound like mortars going off, but the buildings for the most part stand unharmed—they are, after all, built of solid stone or concrete. Based on the recesses of the garage doors in the back, the federal courthouse appears to have stone walls approximately six feet thick.
Although the buildings were never in danger, several protesters have been severely injured. On July 11, protester Donavan La Bella was shot in the forehead with an impact munition, leaving him with a fractured skull. On July 21, I watched as blood streamed down Andre Miller’s face after he was struck in the head right below his helmet. And on July 25, Kristen Jessie-Uyanik, a woman standing with the Wall of Moms, was struck in the forehead, a little above her left eye.
The four weeks of federal occupation in Portland—from July 4 to July 30—became an all-consuming vortex of conflict. A crowd might begin the night in a sleepy, peaceful lull, only to be jolted awake by a canister of tear gas. There would then be a sudden rush of collective adrenaline among the demonstrators; a handful of protesters would then typically proceed to set off fireworks, rattle fences, and pelt water bottles, vegetables, and eggs at the police. You’d then see much the same fight-or-flight response take hold on the other side of the fence—but the police had real munitions instead of water bottles, and real armor instead of a motley array of DIY plywood shields. Any kind of response would have been disproportionate; in practice, though, federal law enforcement rarely held back. Many new demonstrators who arrived on the scene with naïve notions of peaceful protest would return the next night ready to loudly chant, “All cops are bastards!”
Robert Evans of the investigative website Bellingcat, a prolific live-streamer and former war correspondent, has said that the protests are as close to a simulation of war as you can get without introducing live fire into the mix. Combat veterans I interviewed on the ground agreed with that assessment, particularly on the fraught nights when protesters faced off against the battalions of federal law enforcement.
But many of the people claiming that Portland is “under siege,” or labeling the protests as “riots”—like acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf—have no military background, let alone firsthand experience of wars or riots. For most Americans, wars and riots are more metaphor than reality—they are fictionalized allegories, deployed to evoke the collapse of an individual’s conscience into the behavior of an unthinking violent collective. The reality of the Portland protests cannot begin to live up to such contrived and hyperbolic imagery.
For starters, have you ever heard of a war where the combatants pick up trash in the midst of battle? Can you imagine a riot where the rioters apologize for jostling each other?
George Floyd was killed on May 25 by Minneapolis police; the video of his death circulated widely the next day. A protest on the following day ended in tear gas and rubber bullets. More protests erupted in cities across the country on May 27 and continued throughout the summer. In early June, Portland was just one more city in the United States where people turned out to chant that Black lives matter.
Portland is 77 percent white, one of the whitest cities in America. Only about 6 percent of residents are Black. This is not by accident. The state of Oregon was founded as a white supremacist utopia. In 1857, the state adopted a constitution banning Black people from entering, residing in, or owning property there. The exclusion clause was repealed in 1926.
“Oregon was a Klan state,” Otto Rutherford, a Black community leader, said in 1978. “It was as prejudiced as South Carolina, so there was very little difference other than geographic difference.”
The twentieth century brought with it subtler and more insidious forms of discrimination—redlining, predatory lending, and the use of interstate highways to divide and demolish Black neighborhoods. Today, the city’s Memorial Coliseum and Moda Center—venues that host both concerts and sporting events—sit atop a vast sprawl of desolate concrete, built over what used to be part of Albina, a district that historically contained many of Portland’s Black neighborhoods and Black-owned businesses. But economic discrimination did more to devastate Albina than the bulldozers could; redlining combined with predatory lending generated what the city called “urban blight.”
In the 1990s, the city finally began to invest again in historically Black neighborhoods. But the revitalization of Albina came with yet another, all too familiar form of Black erasure—gentrification. Alberta Street used to be full of Black businesses; today it is known as the Alberta Arts District, a blindingly white epicenter of twee lined with quintessentially hipster establishments.
The Portland of the Alberta Arts District is the city most Americans know from the parody of its excesses in Portlandia—a city of coffee, tattoos, and indie bookstores. This Portland is also queer: In 2015, it had the second highest percentage of LGBTQ residents, lagging only behind San Francisco. And needless to say, this Portland is liberal: In 2019, 71 percent of the voters of Multnomah County—where Portland is seated—were registered Democrats. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 73 percent of Multnomah County.
Businesses within the metropolitan area commonly place posters in their windows featuring rainbows and anodyne slogans like NO HATE, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE, and RESIST. Outside the city, however, there are still ample signs of the old, racist Oregon, most notably the Confederate flag. It’s this geographic mix of concentrated extremes that produced the 2017 TriMet murders, when a white supremacist stabbed three men for defending two teenage Black girls from his verbal threats. The same political climate has spawned a long-running series of open, frequently violent clashes between right-wing groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, and Portland’s various anti-fascist organizations.
In the breathless, apocalyptic pronouncements of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham (or Donald Trump and William Barr, for that matter), antifa is a monolithic force field of violence and terror. They’re able to muster this Fox-friendly impression of an alien invading force in part because the label “antifa” itself looks vaguely foreign (it originated as an abbreviation for “Antifaschistische Aktion,” or “Anti-fascist Action” in German). Portland’s antifa contingent is a decentralized movement of various small affinity groups, numbering maybe some hundreds of organizers and activists, many of whom are not engaged in physically fighting “the fash.”
In all likelihood, to judge by the allied salvos launched from the Trump White House and the right-wing news media throughout the siege of Portland, the moral panic over antifa was what marked Portland as a target for the Department of Homeland Security. There’s certainly no compelling alternative explanation that leaps to mind to account for the deployment of federal forces to a midsize American city best known for harboring baroque forms of hipster culture. But if DHS really thought they could fly out to Portland, bust some heads, and root out antifa, they were operating on some deeply flawed premises. There was never going to be a way to defenestrate a leaderless movement. But even beyond that, antifa groups, while a notable presence at Portland’s Black Lives Matter protests, were never the activists at the core.
As Confederate monuments toppled all around the United States, President Trump signed an executive order targeting the vandalization of federal property. A section at the very end of the June 26 EO requires provision of federal personnel “to assist with the protection of Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.” A few days later, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf formed the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) with the intention of enforcing the executive order. “We won’t stand idly by while violent anarchists and rioters seek not only to vandalize and destroy the symbols of our nation, but to disrupt law and order and sow chaos in our communities,” said Wolf in a DHS press release.
The June 26 EO doesn’t mention Portland at all; but the internal DHS memo acquired and published by The Nation name-checks the city in the first bullet-point in a list of defacements by “rioters” across the country. “In Portland, mobs tore down statues of our Founding Fathers—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson,” says the memo. (The statues in question belonged respectively to the local German American Society and Jefferson High School—neither of which is a federal monument.)
A mish-mash of federal law enforcement agencies arrived in Portland sometime in late June or early July, ostensibly to protect the Hatfield courthouse, which had been repeatedly graffitied over the previous month. The U.S. Marshals are the agency charged with serving as both security and enforcement for the federal judiciary, and they have offices inside the courthouse. They were joined by reinforcements from Homeland Security Investigations (a law enforcement branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC, a militarized tactical force inside Customs and Border Protection), and Federal Protective Service (a division of DHS that provides security for government buildings). There were between 100 and 170 federal officers over the course of the month—some local, some brought in from outside Portland.
No one seems to know exactly when the feds arrived, but they made their presence known on the Fourth of July—a boisterous night during which Portlanders set off fireworks at the Justice Center and Hatfield courthouse. Federal agents—sporting signature camouflage and gas masks that would become all too familiar—emerged from the courthouse. They used tear gas on the protesters throughout the night, filling the parks with plumes of smoke—a denser, more sustained barrage of tear gas than what the Portland police would usually deploy. The protesters were undeterred; they regrouped and even built bonfires.
The events of the Fourth marked a turning point in the protests. The unprecedented heavy use of tear gas gave birth to new mutual aid groups like Riot Ribs. Lorenzo, a former Portland Black Panther who asked not to be identified by his full name, came out to grill barbecue on the Fourth of July—he continued to grill through the night even as the tear gas flowed and the Portland Police Bureau declared the gathering a riot. He returned the following nights to grill and feed protesters and homeless Portlanders who gathered in the park. Over the next few weeks, the ad hoc restaurant attracted volunteer cooks and donations of food and equipment. Riot Ribs continued to distribute food, even as law enforcement seemingly began to target its operation, slashing at supplies and macing the insides of grills.
It’s important to note that long before the feds became the poster children of excessive force, the city’s own Portland Police Bureau was gassing and beating protesters with official impunity. At the same time that the city’s four-week confrontation with the Department of Homeland Security reached its pitch, Portlanders continued mounting protests against the excesses of the PPB all over the city, not just at the downtown Justice Center.
In a standoff that inadvertently foreshadowed confrontations to come, the Portland Police Bureau spent much of early June defending a flimsy chain-link fence in front of the Justice Center. Both the demonstrators and the local cops shared a single-minded obsession with the fence—each night, people would attempt to scale the fence, cut through it, or throw things over it. And the police guarding the flimsy structure would respond with tear gas, rubber bullets, or sheer force, which would then further agitate the crowd.
Eventually some official had an epiphany about the endless cycle of provocation, and had the fence removed in mid-June. From there, the downtown protests began to wind down. State and local politicians were beginning to respond to the demands of activists to defund the police and to curb police aggression. The city council approved a $15 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau’s budget. The Oregon state legislature passed a bill banning the use of tear gas unless the police have declared a riot. The Multnomah County district attorney announced his early retirement, allowing the reformer DA-elect to take office sooner.
Despite the extravagant pyrotechnics of the Fourth, the number of people at the downtown protest was steadily dwindling throughout early July. Things were likely headed to a quiet, natural close—until, that is, two events escalated the standoff once more.
First, the feds used a rental van to snatch and arrest a random protester off the street while he was on his way back home. For much of Portland—and indeed, for many Americans who saw footage of the incident—the image of agents in military camouflage seizing a man and dragging him into an unmarked van in the middle of the night was a bridge too far. People who had never protested in their lives began to show up downtown. The new protesters were not necessarily anti-police. But they saw the federal agents in military camouflage as outside invaders sent by a hated administration, and readily joined with the more radical activists on the ground.
The next point of escalation was a sweep clearing out the homeless population in the park across the street from the federal courthouse. The sweep—all too reminiscent of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brutal eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in 2011—took out Riot Ribs, obliterated the tents and belongings of several homeless people, closed down the parks, and generally enraged the dedicated activists of Portland’s burgeoning mutual aid community.
Like Riot Ribs, Team Raccoon grew out of the ashes of the Fourth of July. On the morning of July 5, Cyncerie Cruz returned downtown and surveyed the damage, and saw contractors washing the graffiti off the Justice Center, while broken glass and refuse still littered the streets. “All day, people were driving by, taking pictures of what was in the road, taking pictures of graffiti being cleaned off, and telling a specific story,” said Cruz.
Cruz met up with Morgan McKniff that afternoon, and they began to work together to clear the street of the burned boards left over from the bonfires. From there, they formed Team Raccoon, a mutual aid group that clears trash at and after protests.
The team organizes a cleanup on Saturday mornings, with 20 or so volunteers who show up each week. The group provides trash-grabbers, gardening gloves, trash bags, and safety vests. They also provide headlamps for volunteers who choose to do “live cleans”—that is, to pick up trash during a protest after nightfall. “A lot of people want to help protesters in the city, and they’re not really sure how,” said McKniff. “They don’t want to be down there getting gassed, or they don’t have the ability to put their bodies on the line. And a trash cleanup is one way they feel like they can really impact a lot of positive change.”
Cleaning up trash might seem like the height of peaceful protest, but Team Raccoon has developed an inexplicably adversarial relationship with city officials. (Cruz and McKniff suspect that city officials would prefer to promote a narrative where the protesters are trashing the city, and that their work undermines that.) Although they started out just picking up litter, they soon branched into homeless outreach, and they attempted to intervene when local officials came to serve eviction notices to the homeless people who had encamped in the park across the street from the federal courthouse.
At 5 a.m. on July 16, the police swept the park, confiscating tents, clothes, sleeping bags, and Riot Ribs’ grills and supplies. Nine people were arrested. The parks were declared closed—officially—for the purpose of repair.
Morgan McKniff arrived at 7:30 that morning, with a trash-grabber in hand, and was promptly threatened with arrest for trespassing. McKniff said that other people in the park did not receive the same warning. (Two weeks later, McKniff was threatened with arrest yet again while attempting to clean the park.)
The park closures meant that the areas were fenced off with freestanding chain-link segments. Whatever lessons the PPB had learned from the misguided erection of a chain-link fence outside the Justice Center had by now been completely forgotten.
Oregon Public Broadcasting published the first story about the unmarked van arrest on July 16. The same day, acting DHS Secretary Wolf visited Portland to tour federal facilities; while he was there, he met with the head of the local police union.
On July 17, the fiftieth day of the protests, hundreds of Portlanders gathered at the Justice Center for a rally that included music, dancing, and a speech from City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the sole Black commissioner on the city council.
By 8:45 p.m., while the summer sun still shone bright, a handful of protesters began dismantling the fence segments around the park, and piling them up strategically in the intersections to deter automobile traffic.
Commissioner Hardesty had left at this point, but much of the afternoon crowd—including some of Hardesty’s staff—lingered to listen to music. Most of the protesters regarded the breakdown of the fences as little more than a playful background activity carried out by a small number of people.
There was no sign of coordination, let alone antifa plotting, in the fence-dismantling initiative. No one seemed to be giving orders, or otherwise orchestrating the actions of the protesters. Piles were made, then unmade, then remade into new standing structures.
As twilight fell, protesters began to prop up fences against the side entrance of the Justice Center, and the front entrance of the IRS building. It was about 10 p.m. when the Portland police emerged from the Justice Center in riot gear, to the derisive jeers of the crowd. The police removed the fences, and then retreated. They were not about to gas a crowd that still contained a city commissioner’s aides. The night was poised to be uneventful.
A few minutes later, federal law enforcement wearing black uniforms and gas masks stormed out of the IRS building in a tight military formation, holding their rifles. Someone in the crowd began to play “The Imperial March” from Star Wars on a boom box. “Get back! Get back!” feds bellowed as they dragged the fences down. Meanwhile, another contingent of officers in camouflage had emerged on the street between the two buildings. In the next few minutes, protesters alternated between chanting and simply slinging insults at the feds. Portlanders stood in the street, holding up cameras, holding up phones, or simply holding their hands over their heads.
This is the part where I got maced.
As national attention began to focus on Portland, people started to ask a very obvious question: Why are Portland’s BLM protests so white?
The simple answer is that Portland itself is overwhelmingly white. Although people of color—both downtown and in other parts of the city—are disproportionately represented at the protests, they remain a minority in a sea of white bodies.
From what I’ve seen, most of Portland’s white protesters take accusations of silencing Black voices very seriously. Failing to “center Black lives“ or “uplift Black voices” is an offense that can exile an organizer from the scene. (About a week after the Wall of Moms appeared downtown, its founder was accused of exactly that, and the moms who protest now go by the name Moms United for Black Lives.)
These practices, of course, don’t mean much when what the media craves most is footage of violence. One of the slogans of the movement is “white bodies to the front”—the result of course is countless images of white people being beaten, gassed, or otherwise standing off against the police. The Reverend E.D. Mondainé, the president of Portland’s NAACP, has denounced the upshot of this tactic as a “white spectacle,” which he also links to property damage and vandalism.
But although Portland’s Black community is proportionally small, it is hardly a monolith. Gregory McKelvey, a Black activist and a co-founder of the Black Millennial Movement, told me he felt that property damage was not worth discussing in a movement protesting the deaths of Black people. “Graffiti and vandalism happen every night in Portland, regardless of whether there is a protest or not,” he said. “It’s very easy for our elected officials to focus upon those problems, because then we don’t have to talk about the reasons why people are so angry and have continued to protest.”
As for the white bodies who rushed to the front every night, McKelvey said that although it was important for white people to refrain from centering themselves, he did find it inspiring to see white people “put their bodies on the line, and put their privilege on the line to protect Black life.”
In 2017, while riding a Portland TriMet train, Jeremy Christian launched into a racist rant at a Black woman named Demetria Hester. No bystanders intervened. When they got off at the same stop, Christian threatened her. She maced him, and he struck her in the eye in retaliation. Hester reported the attack to the police, but Christian was not arrested.
The next day he boarded the train again and began to harass two Black teenage girls, one of whom was wearing hijab. When three white men stood up in their defense, Christian stabbed them with a knife. Two died of their wounds.
Demetria Hester can often be seen at the protests—a petite Black woman carrying a bullhorn and wearing an Animaniacs backpack, a gaggle of moms in yellow following closely by her side.
In some respects, Hester’s presence at the protests closes the loop on the TriMet murders. Three versions of white Portland had manifested in May 2017—a racist Portland, an indifferent Portland, and a Portland that was willing to protect Black girls even at the cost of white lives. In May 2017, Hester had run up against the first two; in the summer of 2020, white moms defend her as she demonstrates against the police.
Hester’s confrontation with Jeremy Christian was a crystallizing event for her. She believes the TriMet murders could have been prevented if the police had taken her seriously when he assaulted her. “It made me want to see this system torn down and brought back up by people of the community.”
It was a Friday when she told me that she believed she was being targeted by the police, and that she was one of the activists they would “come after first.” The following Sunday, she was arrested by the Portland Police Bureau.
In 2018, Jo Ann Hardesty became the first Black woman to be elected to Portland’s city council. From the moment she assumed her position, she made a point of pushing against the police. “We don’t all experience the police the same way,” she said in her first city council meeting, criticizing the deployment of force against anti-fascist protesters earlier that year. “We cannot have a police force for white people, and then a police force for everybody else.”
In 2018, Hardesty was a radical; by June 2020, she was under fire from activists who demanded a $50 million cut to the police budget. The council ultimately adopted a $15 million cut that had been engineered by Hardesty herself. The budget cut’s perceived modesty alienated her from the left.
In Portland, the members of the city council each take on responsibility for different city commissions. So Ted Wheeler, for example, is both the mayor and the police commissioner. The budget fight drew Hardesty closer to the mayor, and thus she further alienated herself from the protesters who were getting gassed every other night under the authority of Wheeler’s police commission. But when federal law enforcement gassed the protesters who had gathered for the rally she had spoken at, Hardesty changed course and publicly demanded that Mayor Wheeler give her control of the police commission.
Over the next few days, members of the city council sought to score points against the feds in their own way. Using her power as fire commissioner, Hardesty banned the use of fire departments as staging areas by law enforcement, both local and federal. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s Bureau of Transportation fined the feds for blocking a downtown bike lane with an unsightly fence. (On August 3, PBOT notified the federal government of a fine of $528,000, one that the bureau continued to increase by $500 every 15 minutes.) The mayor forbade PPB from working with the federal forces and then undertook an ambitious gambit to placate protesters: After more than 50 days in which his police teargassed his city, he got himself teargassed by feds as a photo op.
To Wheeler’s credit, he took it like a champ, staying in the gas for a long time with only a thin medical mask to cover his nose and mouth. The federal forces had always been prone to use excessive amounts of tear gas, and, at this point in July, they were using so much tear gas that I had ordered a gas mask online. (Portlanders who shopped for protest gear at brick-and-mortar outlets reported that local stores were all sold out of gas masks and respirators.)
Tear gas isn’t just painful; standing in it can make you feel violently ill. Protesters I interviewed—all young, hale, and hearty—reported headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and other symptoms after being teargassed.
Although Wheeler had assured the crowd he would not leave, no one should blame him for retreating into a municipal building after breathing in that much gas. But he should definitely be blamed for what followed: After he left, his Portland Police Bureau declared a riot and then threatened the crowd with dispersal by tear gas.
The downtown protests weren’t marked so much by leadership as they were by infrastructure. Rallies and marches that happen in other parts of the city are planned and executed intentionally by a group of organizers; however, the protest downtown was often “led” by whoever happened to have a microphone or a bullhorn.
But the person holding the microphone rarely had any control over—and sometimes very little insight into—the logistics of the protest. Volunteer crossing guards in high-visibility vests directed automobile traffic at the intersections when dusk fell. “Security” often roamed the perimeter, looking out for threats to protesters, defusing intra-protest conflicts, and occasionally ejecting someone from the crowd.
A medic station provided hand sanitizer, face masks, and earplugs; in the event of tear gas, medics roamed the crowd offering people saline rinses. (For skeptics of traditional Western medicine, a group of witches also provided free remedies.) As the weeks progressed, the offerings on hand grew increasingly dystopian: free shields, free respirators, free respirator filters, free umbrellas, free lacrosse sticks, even free combination umbrella-lacrosse sticks. (The umbrella is to shield from gas and munitions; the lacrosse stick is to catch a tear gas canister and then fling it back.)
The Wall of Moms first showed up on July 18. On July 19, they emerged as a bigger, more visible bloc. At this point, the use of tear gas and munitions by federal agents had become so indiscriminate that the moms brought helmets and respirators. They wore yellow, and some carried sunflowers. Many were from the suburbs. Most were white.
An ugly, solid metal fence also made its debut on July 18. It was much heavier than the jury-rigged chain-link partitions that the crowd had played with the day before. It turned out that the fence was a rental that could cost upward of $200,000. Nevertheless, protesters managed to dismantle the entire thing in less than two hours, stacking its constituent parts against the entrance of the courthouse.
It was reassembled the next day in pretty much the same form. As had been the case with the Portland Police Bureau’s ill-fated Justice Center fence in June, cops and protesters alike began to fixate on the fence. The nights of protest began to follow a ritualized formula. The moms would show up. The moms would line up. Someone would chuck something over the fence. The moms would get gassed. The crowd would go berserk. The fence would come crashing down.
By July 22, the fence was reconfigured so the segments were welded together, and the base was pinned to the ground with concrete barriers. As the night progressed, despite tear gas and rubber bullets, protesters figured out how to break open the door in the fence. A handful of daring protesters took advantage of this point of vulnerability to run inside, dance, strike a pose, or even smoke a cigarette. The majority stayed outside, waiting for the feds to come gas them. They didn’t have to wait very long. The feds kept having to reassemble the fence to make it harder to enter and harder to destroy—and in doing so, they gradually sealed themselves into a pen of their own making. Every night, more people showed up with umbrellas and leaf blowers to shield themselves from the fed offensive, and blow the tear gas back. Protesters got better and better at grabbing and flinging back the canisters of tear gas lobbed at them. Soon, the fence had turned into a cage, and at times the feds were trapped in a cloud of their own gas.
Nothing the feds did seemed to deter the protesters—indeed, every night brought with it even more people. The feds gassed the moms, so a bloc of dads, clad in orange and wielding leaf blowers, showed up. The dads, too, got gassed, so a Wall of Vets in white started lining up in front of the fence, standing defiantly at parade rest.
The feds were never popular in the city, but now they were on the local news teargassing middle-aged white women and beating veterans. On weekends, downtown was thick with thousands of people protesting on behalf of Black lives. If they weren’t already with the moms or the dads or the vets, many marched in blocs designated by profession—lawyers, doctors, nurses, and teachers. Each night, I came up with some plausible reason why federal officers would restrain themselves from gassing the crowd this time—yet each night I was proved wrong. My rationale was based on common sense: If they kept gassing people, more people were going to show up the next day.
This, indeed, is the general principle behind counterinsurgency strategy—the idea that you have to be extremely discriminating in your use of force. Some days later, a protester with rifle armor and an ex-military background would rant at me at great length about Field Manual 3-24. “Literally everyone that has gone through military training knows that one thing about counterinsurgency operations,” James D. told me. “But Chad Wolf doesn’t fucking know. Chad Wolf doesn’t need to be fired, he needs to be publicly whipped through the streets for being a fucking moron.”
Field Manual 3-24 is a U.S. Army manual on countering insurgency and was compiled during the Iraq War under the direction of General David Petraeus. At points, the 200-page manual goes into considerable detail in outlining logistics of counterinsurgency operations. At other times, it traffics in general rules of thumb, inviting readers to use their own judgment in determining the right amount of force to quell an insurgency, while cautioning them about the “paradoxes” involved. “Sometimes, the More Force Is Used, the Less Effective It Is” is one such paradox, from Chapter 7. “Any use of force produces many effects, not all of which can be foreseen,” the manual explains. “Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal.”
Other paradoxes scan almost as New Age aphorisms: “Doing Nothing Is Sometimes the Best Action,” and “Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot.” Most strikingly of all for the battle of Portland, the manual counsels that no successful counterinsurgency should count on hiding behind a fence: “Ultimate success in counterinsurgency operations is normally gained by protecting the population, not the counterinsurgency force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and give the initiative to the insurgents.”
Of course, the Portland protests were a far cry from an insurgency—just for starters, they had none of the top-down leadership that characterizes such campaigns, by the lights of Field Manual 3-24. But if the Department of Homeland Security truly believed that Portland was in the grip of violent anarchists, why didn’t it just follow the manual?
Even before the Wall of Vets assembled, I noticed the presence of military veterans at the Portland protests. Much of that has to do with my partner, John, an Iraq veteran, who spent many nights in July nagging me about everything from putting on a gas mask correctly to paying attention to lines of sight.
One night, after we had been gassed and the police had retreated, we sat on a curb while I typed out my notes on my phone. I began to sputter in disbelief as I reviewed the timestamps in my notes—the feds’ first appearance, the first flash bang, the first gas canister. The events that constituted my memory of the entire night for me had all happened in the last 20 minutes. John nodded when I explained. “It’s almost like those 20 minutes are in color, and the rest of the night is in black and white, right?” He smiled wryly. “Be careful of that feeling. Try not to start chasing it.”
According to Trisha Vinatieri, a staff psychologist at the Veterans Administration of Portland, a constant state of alertness becomes necessary to survive in a combat zone. But the body does not necessarily understand when you’ve removed yourself from a life-threatening situation. Normal doesn’t feel normal anymore, often because the adrenaline no longer pumps at the same frequency it used to. Some veterans who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder will engage in risky behavior in order to “feel alive.” Sometimes that means taking up skydiving; other times it results in self-harm.
Vinatieri told me that while she hadn’t heard of any veterans using the protests as a way to chase the adrenaline high, she said it wouldn’t surprise her if some were. This isn’t to say that their motives were somehow crass—sometimes personal trauma coincides with deeply held personal beliefs. She herself had spoken to veterans who had attended the protests, and in her view they were driven by the same values that had led them to join the service in the first place—in her words, “to do better and be better and help society.” (Veterans I spoke to echoed this sentiment; a common refrain was that there was no expiration date on their oath to the Constitution.)
The VA was understandably very wary of saying that getting shot at by DHS agents in military camouflage was likely to be triggering to a veteran with PTSD. But this is a fairly commonsense deduction.
It’s also no great leap to conclude that a large number of protesters on the ground are likely currently experiencing, or will soon be experiencing, symptoms of PTSD.
On July 21, a federal agent shoved me down the steps leading up to the federal courthouse, and I went flying, landing hard on my back. I scrambled back up onto my feet with the help of a scared-looking girl with a homemade shield, even as the feds launched munitions into the crowd. About an hour later, John and I were chased up a street by a cloud of tear gas. When I turned the corner, I saw a man bleeding from his forehead. “I’m done, I’m done,” Andre Miller was repeating to himself, as his fiancée tried to help him. A street medic stabilized him on the sidewalk while two other protesters in gas masks guarded them with homemade shields. Once his head was bandaged, two protesters hoisted Miller up on their shoulders and began to pull him toward a medic van parked a block away. Protesters scattered left and right when medics called for them to “make a hole.” Miller, who is very tall, was losing consciousness at this point. He was slumped against the shoulders of his friends, and his feet dragged against the sidewalk as they carried him to the van. After they loaded him into the van, the medics were visibly shaking.
Adrenaline governed the nights in Portland. A night of unrest might begin with a little bit of reckless behavior from a small contingent in the crowd. One flash bang, and hundreds of furious people would be shouting and screaming at the police.
While I would be hard-pressed to imagine a DHS agent feeling threatened by a guy with a leaf blower, let alone a line of moms linking arms, I could see the resentment and frustration in their faces as the protesters returned night after night. When the tear gas popped and their own adrenaline flowed, the crowd blurred into an undifferentiated mass of threats that had to be put down. A single teenager scaling the fence became an adversary breaching the perimeter; a protester holding up a boom box became an enemy with an unidentified payload.
The responsibility to de-escalate the conflict lay on the side that had the guns, rather than the side that was hurling eggs by the carton. But the feds were being directed by officials who were ranting at Congress about violent anarchists and a president who was calling the dweebiest city in America a “beehive of terrorists.” I began to think that there was no way for the conflict to end without live rounds being fired on the crowd. I recognize now that this was the adrenaline talking—but the warped reality I was living was the same warped reality that had sucked in thousands of people in downtown Portland, including more than 140 federal law enforcement officers.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the conflict ended because someone who had never set foot in the downtown siege zone finally intervened. On July 29, Governor Kate Brown announced a “phased withdrawal” of federal forces from Portland. Despite posturing from both Secretary Wolf and President Trump around how the withdrawal would not happen if the state of Oregon could not secure federal property, Governor Brown got her way.
The next night, protesters showed up with their gas masks and helmets, experimentally rattling the fence and setting off a couple of fireworks. No one came out. No one gassed them.
The feds were nowhere to be found.
The day after her arrest, Demetria Hester walked out of the Justice Center, free of all charges. The next day, newly elected District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced that the majority of charges against protesters would be dropped.
No one is getting dragged off the street into unmarked vans, but normalcy has not really returned to Portland. For weeks, protests against the police continued almost every night. Protesters were still being beaten, maced, and arrested by the Portland police. The absence of federal authorities on the streets may have even given way to right-wing vigilantism. A week after the withdrawal, pipe bombs were thrown at protesters in Laurelhurst Park. Right-wing groups began to descend on Portland on the weekends, macing and pointing firearms at Black Lives Matter supporters. Danielson was shot to death on August 29.
The thousands of people who thronged downtown Portland at the height of the federal occupation have not returned to the streets, and in the wake of Danielson’s death, the BLM protests may very well discontinue out of fear of vigilante retribution. But there is meaning and poignancy in the sheer number of Portlanders who have now tasted police aggression, courtesy of the feds. This is a city that has been altered forever. The wounds, both visible and invisible, from weeks of flash bangs and rubber bullets remain. The body remembers, and the body politic will remember as well.