What You Need To Know About The Battle of Portland

The city of Portland, Oregon is currently in the national spotlight after video evidence of federal agents driving rented vans and abducting activists went viral. This footage was taken in the early morning hours of July 15, and an Oregon Public Broadcasting article published on the 16th brought the matter out of the local social networks of Portland activists and on to the national stage. 

As I write this, mainstream media personalities are beginning to parachute into Portland to cover what some have dubbed the “fascist takeover of Portland”. The word “Gestapo” is trending on Twitter.

The abduction filmed on the 15th did not happen in a vacuum. As other local reporters have noted, it was the end result of more than six weeks of escalating state violence against largely nonviolent demonstrators. I have been in the streets of Portland documenting this movement since the very first riot. Before the national press unleashes a flood of new stories based on their first few hours in town, I’d like to explain what’s been happening:

State and Federal law enforcement are at war with the people of Portland.

The Beginning

Depending on who you ask, Portland’s fifty-plus nights of protests either started on May 27th, when a group organized by several indigenous activists and other activists of color occupied the steps of the Justice Center, or on May 29th, Portland’s first night of large scale protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The evening began with a large, peaceful rally at North Portland’s Peninsula Park. Several thousand citizens gathered there, and marched 4.1 miles to merge with the protesters occupying the steps of the Justice Center.

The Multnomah County Justice Center contains the Portland Police Bureau’s chief headquarters, as well as the city jail. The Youth Liberation Front, who describe themselves as “several packs of feral teens,” had occupied the steps of the Justice Center for a little less than three days at this point. They were all raided by the Police on the night of the 28th, but for the most part police presence was minimal in the days leading up to the 29th.

While several thousand citizens marched from Peninsula Park, a crowd of hundreds gathered at the Justice Center. There were no police in sight. At one point a black man on a Trike rolled up and started playing “It’s been a long, long time coming” by Sam Cooke. A dance party ensued:

At 10:35 p.m. local time, the crowd at the Justice Center marched off into the streets of downtown Portland and, several minutes later, met up with the crowd from Peninsula Park. Together, both groups marched back to the Justice Center and surrounded it.

At a little before 11 p.m., several dozen protesters began to shatter the windows of the Justice Center. They entered the building, trashing the interior and lighting random fires inside. I watched all this happen from feet away, and it is my opinion that the destruction was unplanned, yet more or less inevitable — you could feel it in the mood of the crowd. The 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis had just burned: there was absolutely no way Portland wasn’t going to try to do the same thing.

Of course, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) arrived very shortly thereafter. In one of the more gentlemanly moments of the entire uprising, they gave a warning to people who’d brought their families and dogs, urging them to leave. A sizable chunk of more moderate demonstrators went home. A thousand or more protesters ranked up, and began shouting at the police. At a little after midnight, the PPB launched the first of what would eventually be hundreds of tear gas grenades into the crowd.

The crowd scattered, pushed by police in several different directions at once. They split into several groups. One rampaged through a series of downtown banks, shattering windows and lighting fires as they ran from the cops. Another, larger group of demonstrators tore through the luxury shopping district, sacking the Apple Store, Louis Vuitton, H&M and, eventually, looting a Target. The rest of the night was a messy haze of gas, flash-bangs, and burning barricades. 

The Portland Police have stated that more than a dozen riots took place over the last fifty days, but May 29th remains the only night that truly felt like the actual people of this city were rioting. 

A Very Bad Weekend

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was out of town on what has become known as Riot Night. At 11:49 p.m., less than an hour into the rioting, he posted this angry tweet:

Wheeler declared a state of emergency early the next morning and instituted an 8 p.m. curfew for the entire city. Well over a thousand protesters assembled the next day, Saturday, in front of the Justice Center. Starting at around 6:00 p.m., they occupied the intersection of 3rd and Main, which sits between the Justice Center and the Federal Courthouse. Police mostly held back behind the Justice Center until a little after 6:50, when a group of four activists sat down in the middle of the intersection of 2nd and Main. 

Police quickly shoved the demonstrators out of the intersection and then occupied it themselves, ensuring it was still just as closed to traffic as it had been when the protesters occupied it. Groups of protesters began to move in to confront the police and laid down in front of their riot line:

This situation very quickly turned violent. Police began by pulling people up from the ground and then pushing forward into the crowd behind them, shoving with their nightsticks until, at about 6:58 p.m., one hour before curfew, police started hitting people. The crowd retreated at first, but eventually formed up and halted, waving protest signs in the officers’ faces. Police swung several times at crowd members, driving them back, and eventually charged into the crowd with abandon, even striking at people who were on the ground. At one point an officer lost his baton and charged into the crowd, pummeling a demonstrator with his gloved fists.

Following this, the Portland Police ordered the crowd to step back from the road and into the parks. They then began launching tear gas, coating the parks and also dousing dozens of random motorists who had the misfortune to be anywhere within several blocks of downtown. 

Again, the demonstrations continued for hours. The crowd was eventually chased down to the waterfront and broken apart by a curtain of tear-gas. Thousands of Portlanders watched the day’s violence on livestreams by various journalists and came out the next day, Sunday the 31st of May, to register their displeasure. An enormous demonstration, between 7-10,000 people, rallied at Laurelhurst Park. 

By the time the crowd started marching they were all in violation of the curfew. But there were far, far too many people to arrest, and the Police kept their distance almost the entire march. They seemed to panic at one point, when the crowd began marching across the Burnside Bridge into downtown, towards the Justice Center. Several riot trucks, loaded down with officers, came roaring in to block the bridge. When they got a good look at the sheer size of the crowd, they turned back around.

The crowd eventually reached and surrounded the Justice Center. A tense, hours-long stand-off ensued. Activists demanded the police take off their riot gear, then amended that to asking them to take a knee. The police were unmoved. Eventually, the crowd thinned out enough that the PPB felt secure dispersing it. The evening ended with small groups of protesters running through the streets, pursued by officers hanging off the sides of riot trucks and shooting wildly at everyone they saw. It kind of sucked — I have no other words to describe it.

The Cycle of Violence

After that first terrible weekend, the situation in Portland began to stabilize into something predictable. On Monday, June 1st, a second mass rally, similar in size to the one on May 31st, assembled at Revolution Hall near the middle of the city. These people attempted to march to the Justice Center, but by that point the police had called in for an enormous chain-link fence, to wall it and the Federal Courthouse off from the rest of the city.

The protest on June 1st was distinctly different from anything that had come before. A new group of inexperienced activists took the wheel, and they placed great emphasis on talking with the police and avoiding any confrontation. In this they were successful, and the crowd marched across the Hawthorne bridge, toured downtown, and marched back to Revolution Hall with barely any sight of police officers. 

This would prove to be the beginning of a split within Oregon’s protest movement. On one end were more moderate liberal marchers, who sought to avoid conflict with the police while engaging in “peaceful protest.” On the other end were more radical demonstrators, who found the rally on June 1st to be pointless. After this night, the two parts of the movement grew further and further apart.

The more moderate demonstrators coalesced around a new organization called Rose City Justice, which continued to lead mass demonstrations for the next couple of weeks. Most of their marches followed the same basic pattern as the one on June 1st, although they also occupied chunks of highway on several occasions. They succeeded in avoiding conflict with the police, but their numbers rapidly dwindled. On June 30th, they announced an end to their nightly marches. 

Meanwhile, the more extreme members of the movement gravitated towards a series of nightly protests around the fence walling the Justice Center and Courthouse off from the rest of the city. Thanks to a joke I made during a livestream, they began calling it the “Sacred Fence.” It has a Twitter account now. 

The rallies at the fence were met with intense police violence from the very beginning. On June 2nd, after another mass rally by the group that became Rose City Justice, about a thousand activists peeled off and approached the fence. They demanded to be allowed to protest at the Justice Center, and were forced away from the fence by a barrage of police impact munitions and tear gas. 

The crowd reformed, repeatedly, and continued to march on the fence. The police eventually responded by an indiscriminate barrage of grenades, kettling the crowd on all sides with walls of tear gas. The amount of gas used was so overwhelming that a photograph of the resultant nightmare was used for a New York Magazine spread:

Again, large numbers of motorists stuck in traffic were tear gassed by the police, temporarily blinding a number of them and helping to spark eight lawsuits seeking to ban the use of tear gas by the PPB.  

“Tear Gas Tuesday,” as it came to be known, was also the very first night where Portland crowds were able to repeatedly reform after being gassed and dispersed by the police. As one activist told me after a particularly heavy bout of gassing, “It’s only really scary the first time. Then you get used to it.” The crowd at the Sacred Fence started to bring more traffic cones to douse gas canisters — they also brought umbrellas and shields to deflect impact munitions. They continued to march on the fence, prompting the police to reduce its size to just covering the area immediately around the Justice Center and Courthouse.

The nightly demonstrations took on a predictable cadence after this. Crowds would assemble around the fence and heckle the officers inside. On some nights, the police would choose to start firing impact munitions into the crowd, and eventually gassing them. On other nights, they would not. Every use of force was justified by the police due to the crowd throwing something over the fence: fireworks, water bottles, even a can of beans one time. And, apparently, a half-eaten Granny Smith apple.

The Portland Police removed their fence on June 15th, as the nightly demonstrations at the Justice Center had faded down to just a few hundred individuals on a good night. The Justice Center protests became a regular outlet for activists, a place where someone could always go to have a confrontation with the police. As often as not, the nights there ended in violence.

Yet through the latter half of June and into early July, protesters began experimenting with different tactics. Some small groups of activists started destroying statues, starting with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington on June 14th and 18th. On June 25th, spurred on by the creation of the Seattle autonomous zone, several hundred Portland activists attempted to occupy the North Precinct before being forced out by tear gas and batons. At one point, Portland police broke the window of a protester’s car and pulled them out into a cloud of tear gas.

After being pushed out of the precinct, the crowd set an enormous dumpster fire, which they used to ward off a police advance for several minutes. 

For unclear reasons, a small group of activists moved over to the Mid-K Beauty Supply, which abuts the North Precinct, and set fire to the plywood covering its windows. This was a contentious decision and angered several members of the crowd. As the police advanced and began to fire tear gas, a larger group of activists beat the fire out before fleeing.

The next day, June 26th, a number of black community leaders in Portland issued a statement condemning the demonstration at the North Precinct. One of them, Pastor Dr. Steven Holt, called the fire at Mid-K Beauty Supply “a terrorist activity.” Together with Mayor Ted Wheeler, this group held a press conference in front of the burnt plywood façade of Mid-K.

As June ended, Portland protest culture settled into an odd rhythm. There were nightly gatherings at the Justice Center, which sometimes ended in police violence and sometimes ended in parties. Several times a week, new rallies at places like the North Precinct or the Portland Police Association headquarters would occur. These were often heavily promoted by the anti-fascist group Youth Liberation Front, who are probably the strongest consistent voice for Portland’s radical protest scene. On any given day, Portlanders could generally find some sort of peaceful rally or, if they choose, wind up in a skirmish with the PPB. 

The Battle in the Courts  

On June 11th, a federal judge in Portland issued a two-week restraining order on the use of tear gas. This was a partial granting of the request of a local activist group, Don’t Shoot Portland. Under the terms of the “ban,” Portland police were only able to use gas as a “life-saving measure.” This ban came with a loophole, however. Riots are assumed to be life-threatening situations, and so the PPB increasingly started making riot declarations to justify their use of tear gas. 

In one five-day period, from June 30th to July 4th, the PPB declared three riots. The justifications for this were often questionable. For example: the rally on June 30th was a march of about three hundred people that ended at the Portland Police Association headquarters. The PPA is Portland’s local police union. It is a private entity, but the city seems to deploy significant resources to protect it.

By the time the marchers arrived at the PPA building in North Portland, it was surrounded by a riot line, with numerous police vehicles and riot troopers waiting in reserve. The state troopers who guarded the front of the building wore no identifying numbers or name tags. Within minutes of the crowd’s arrival, the police declared an unlawful assembly and demanded the crowd disperse. They justified this by citing “criminal activity” in the crowd, but what that meant was unclear. 

Within an hour, and with no clear justification, the PPB declared a riot and began firing tear gas into both the crowd and the neighborhood around them. Local residents were kept out of their homes, and some wound up stuck outside their houses and apartments in the gas cloud.

A few weeks later, on July 14th, a second march again formed up around the Portland Police Association headquarters. On this occasion the riot declaration was made after a police officer slapped the phone out of an activists hand and sent it careening into the window of the PPA building. It broke a window, which the PPB used as justification to declare a riot and deploy tear gas.

Portland Police have also been taken to court for their treatment of local journalists. They have regularly targeted press during demonstrations, with the worst night so far being the first protest at the Portland Police Association. Three reporters were arrested within the span of a few minutes: Cory Elia, Lesley McLam and Justin Yau. 

Video taken by Elia shows that his encounter started when he walked past an officer he recognized, John Bartlett, and mentioned his name while livestreaming. Officer Bartlett knocked Elia’s phone out of his hands. Several minutes later, a group of officers grabbed Elia, tossed him to the ground and arrested him. He was charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer.

I filmed Elia’s arrest and saw no sign of any resistance. You can judge for yourself here.

Justin Yau was arrested the same night for filming an arrest himself. He was also charged with felony riot. Lesley McLam also initially faced felony charges, but the District Attorney rejected these charges. These arrests came after weeks in which Portland police assaulted a number of local journalists. Sergio Olmos was shoved repeatedly by police on the night of June 6th. Cory Elia was thrown into a wall and kicked while on the ground the same night. Reporter Donovan Farley was assaulted on June 7th while attempting to film an arrest. Officers beat him on the legs with truncheons and maced him as he tried to leave.

On July 2nd, less than 48 hours after the march on the PPA building, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon issued a temporary restraining order against the city, banning police from arresting or using force on anyone they “know or reasonably should know” was a journalist or legal observer. Two weeks later, on July 16th, Portland Police arrested local reporter Andrew Jankowski while he was covering a demonstration. 

At this point, most of the Portland press corps, including myself, are actively suing the Portland Police Bureau. The federal injunction does seem to have moderated their behavior, but at the end of the day the level of the anger of individual officers seems to be the only real factor that determines whether or not a journalist spends the night in jail. 

The Edge of All-Out War 

On July 4th, Portland’s thirty-ninth consecutive night of protests, more than a thousand people assembled in front of the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse downtown. They began launching dozens of commercial-grade fireworks into the concrete facades of both buildings, prompting a response from the police and federal agents inside both buildings. 

What followed resembled nothing so much as a medieval siege. The windows of both government buildings had been covered in plywood weeks ago, after the first riots. Officers inside fired out through murder holes cut in the plywood, pumping rubber bullets, pepper balls and foam rounds into the crowd, while the crowd formed phalanxes of shield-bearers to protect the men and women launching fireworks back in response. Federal agents dumped tear gas into the street, but Portland’s frontline activists had long since lost their fear of gas. The feds and the police were eventually forced to sally out with batons to drive the crowd back. 

I reported on the fighting in Mosul back in 2017, and what happened that night in the streets of Portland was, of course, not nearly as brutal or dangerous as actual combat. Yet it was about as close as you can get without using live ammunition. At times, dozens of flash-bangs and fireworks would detonate within feet of us over the course of a few minutes. My ears rang for days afterwards. My hands shook. I could not write for days.

The whole situation prompted the first major federal response to Portland’s nightly protests. It started in the media, with CBP commissioner Mark Morgan going on Fox News to denounce local activists as “criminals.” 

“These are not protesters, these are criminals, who got together and actually brought weapons, they brought shields, they brought frozen water bottles, rocks, lasers, weapons with the intent to destroy a federal building and harm law enforcement officers.”

I take some issue with this, because there was never any real chance of either the Federal Courthouse or the Justice Center being seriously damaged by fireworks. Both buildings are, at this stage in the protests, essentially fortresses. Before federal agents opened fire, activists in the park actually seemed much more interested in shooting fireworks at the Justice Center, to provide a show for their friends incarcerated inside.

I also take issue with the next thing Mark Morgan said:

“One of the criminals, that were actually trying to assault one of the CBP employees while he was being arrested, the report right now is that a pipe bomb- a fused incendiary device and a machete was actually discovered during that search. Think about that… Think about the deadly consequences from these criminal actions.”

This is rather interesting, because the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security actually posted a picture of this “pipe bomb”:

You may notice that this “bomb” has no hole for a fuse. When I showed this to activists on the street, most of them suggested this was probably a device for breaking windows. That seems very likely now that we have the charging document from that weekend. The man with the machete is Andrew Faulkner. He is charged with assaulting a federal officer by shining a laser pointer at their face. Neither he, nor any other Portland protester, have faced any charges related to the possession of a pipe bomb. 

Mark Morgan referred to this device, and the other “weapons” of these protesters, as deadly. However, so far, the only person who came close to dying as a result of these demonstrations is Donovan LaBella. On Saturday, July 11th, LaBella attended one of the nightly rallies in front of the Justice Center. People who were in attendance at the time described the general mood as subdued, and the crowd as passive, when Federal Agents with the U.S. Marshals began charging out to arrest and shoot protesters. 

In the video below, Donovan can be seen holding a set of speakers above his head. Federal agents fire a munition towards him, and he gently tosses it away. He does not throw the munition towards officers, merely away from himself. After this, a federal agent shoots him directly in his skull with a rubber bullet. Donovan collapses instantly, his skull shattered.

Use of force experts interviewed by Oregon Live say the agent likely did not intend to hit Donovan in the head, “since the risk of serious injury is high.” Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department commander, stated: “In this particular case, there is no rational way to say that deadly force was authorized.” On July 18th, the New York Times reported on a leaked DHS memo which warned that the agents deployed to Portland had no training in riot control or managing protests. 

On July 10th, one day before Donovan was shot, President Donald Trump had congratulated the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, for crushing the protest movement in Portland. At a meeting of military commanders in Doral, Florida he praised Wolf by stating: “It was out of control. The locals couldn’t handle it, and you people are handling it very nicely — so nicely that the press doesn’t want to write about it.”  

Yet of course the protests and riots have continued, even after LaBella’s brutal maiming. As I type this, hundreds of Portlanders are engaged in a series of pitched skirmishes with federal agents and police officers, just as they have been most nights since the end of May. As federal forces have failed to contain the unrest, the Trump Administration has turned up the heat on their rhetoric. Acting secretary Wolf visited Portland on the 16th. He called protesters “lawless anarchists.” In a statement issued the same day, he wrote that:

“A federal courthouse is a symbol of justice — to attack it is to attack America. Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community. This failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day.”

This is untrue. Virtually all crime, including violent crime, has been lower in the city of Portland during the last several weeks. The Acting Secretary’s statement was filled with a number of other inaccuracies as well. The bulk of the letter is a dated list of all the alleged crimes committed by Portland protesters, who are generally referred to as “violent anarchists”. Under the heading for 07/05/2020:

This is certainly very sneaky. By stating it “appears” to be a pipe bomb the statement avoids addressing the fact that no actual pipe bomb has ever been found and no one has been charged for possession of one. Despite the Acting Secretary Wolf’s claims that these demonstrators are intensely violent, the vast majority of the crimes he attributes to them are simple acts of vandalism:

Perhaps this will change as the protests continue. But thus far, the only escalation seen recently has been the federal agents now roaming the streets of downtown Portland in rented vans, arresting activists seemingly at random. These men display no identification, no name tag or badge number or anything else that might be useful identifying them. That fact has rightly shocked Americans across the country, but at this point, it is nothing new to Portland protesters. 

Portland Police have been hiding their names for weeks, instead using numbers that cannot be correlated to names by any means available to citizens. Members of multiple different law enforcement agencies, all with different rules of engagement from the PPB, have been policing demonstrations since the very beginning. As Tuck Woodstock, a local reporter, noted on Twitter:

“This is the natural escalation of the last 7 weeks. This is what has come of Portlanders protesting police brutality for 50 days: more bizarre acts of police brutality. Portlanders are risking everything every day. Please notice.”

That is, in the end, what both the Portland press corps and the people out in the streets, protesting every night, seem to want from the rest of the United States. Please pay attention to the videos of officers ripping people’s face masks off to spray mace directly into their mouths. Please pay attention to the video of Donovan LaBella, blood gushing from his head, seizing on the ground. And, yes, please pay attention to the videos of men in full combat gear abducting activists off the street.

Pay attention, because it is my belief that all of this will not stay confined to Portland. Your city might be next.