PORTLAND — The party at the Salmon Street Springs fountain, a riverfront landmark in the heart of Portland, was just getting started.
Dozens of drummers beat out entrancing rhythms and a crowd of hundreds danced joyfully as the setting sun cast a soft pink glow on distant Mount Hood. Poster boards bearing the names of dozens of Black men and women killed by police stirred in a gentle breeze as the energy built to fever pitch and more and more people poured into the square.
Suddenly, 10-year-old Xavier Minor jumped into the center of the circle and started dancing with abandon. The emcee took note.
“Yo, Black kids are the future! Black kids are the future!” he shouted, until a beaming Xavier finally stepped out and into his father’s proud embrace.
A few minutes later, as night fell, the music stopped — and the march to the federal courthouse began.
Two blocks west and one block south, the several dozen federal law enforcement agents guarding the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse could hear the protesters coming.
Under orders to protect the courthouse — federal property that has been increasingly targeted as the city’s protests against racial injustice march on — the agents were accustomed to the drill. But tonight, the crowd was huge, estimated at 4,000 people at its peak and the largest they had seen.
A top commander with the U.S. Marshals Service peered out a window facing the Willamette River and watched the sea of humanity sweep toward him. It was going to be another long night.
The courthouse, a stately building with large windows and a white marble interior, looked like a feudal castle under siege. The outside was boarded up with thick plywood; narrow slits at the top of the plywood, accessed by a mechanized scaffolding, gave the agents inside a view of the crowd and an opening through which to fire pepper balls.
The terrace outside the front door was littered with garbage, the steps leading to the courthouse splattered with paint. A mixture of anti-police and Black Lives Matter graffiti covered the building’s outer walls and columns to a height of about 10 feet (3 meters).
Tear gas from the previous nights’ protests still hung in the air and coated the floor with a slime that had been hurriedly mopped up by custodians earlier that day. A few sickly looking potted plants still decorated the lobby, a reminder of a time before the courthouse was a battlefield.
In the no-mans-land outside stood the fence: A thick, black iron installation, erected six days before, a dividing line between protester and protector, a stark separation between two radically different world views.
To the protesters, the men inside the battened down courthouse are at best thoughtless political minions, at worst murderous henchmen. To the agents inside, the demonstrators that pack the downtown each night are violent anarchists, an angry sea of humanity bent on hurting — or even killing — federal agents doing their job.
“It’s scary. You open those doors out, when the crowd is shaking the fence, and … on the other side of that fence are people that want to kill you because of the job we chose to do and what we represent,” said a Deputy U.S. Marshal who has been protecting the courthouse for weeks. He requested anonymity because protesters have identified him and posted his personal information online.
“I can’t walk outside without being in fear for my life,” he said. “I am worried for my life, every time I walk outside of the building.”
This weekend, journalists for the Associated Press were both outside, with the protesters, and inside the courthouse, with the federal agents, documenting the chaotic fight that has become an unlikely centerpiece of the protest movement gripping America.
The nation is seething with anxiety and deeply divided about the role of police, the value of Black lives and the limits of federal authority in an election season like none other. In Portland, on a single city block owned by the U.S. government, that anxiety has turned to turmoil.
Is this the beginning of the United States transforming into a military state, where federal agents flood the streets and overrule local authorities? Or is it a battle to keep the violence in Portland from becoming the new America, a frightening vision painted by President Donald Trump of what the future will hold without his leadership?
Fear and uncertainty about the answers to those questions have exploded in Portland in a surreal armed conflict that plays out every night.
The chaos in Portland spread this weekend to other cities, from Oakland to Aurora, Colorado, to Richmond, Virginia as the nation reels under its division.
At 10:15 p.m. in Portland, the protesters made their first foray into conflict: A man tried to climb the fence and was quickly arrested.
Thirty minutes later, the fence rocked and leaned sharply as dozens of protesters pressed their weight against it, some of them throwing their bodies against it at a running start. The fence, designed to absorb the impact from a car going up to 30 mph (48 kph), undulated like a wave and tilted dangerously before springing back.
Behind the front lines, the drummers that had whipped demonstrators up at the fountain regrouped and led the crowd in dancing and chanting.
Monica Arce gyrated to the music and waved her cell phone flashlight in the air with hundreds of others. The professional midwife had left her 14-year-old son at home and joined her sister-in-law, a teacher, to protest the presence of the federal agents and to support Black Lives Matter.
“We are not here being violent or being destructive. We have a positive message — there is nothing to quell here,” she said, referencing Trump’s statement that the agents were there to quell unrest. “The people of Portland are saying, ‘We don’t want this presence here and we don’t think we need them at all.’”
As she spoke, small pods of three to four protesters dressed in black circulated in the crowd, stopping every few minutes to point green laser beams in the eyes of agents posted as lookouts on porticoes on the courthouse’s upper stories. The agents above were silhouetted against the dark sky as dozens of green laser dots and a large spotlight played on the courthouse walls, projected from the back of the crowd.
Thirty minutes later, someone fired a commercial-grade firework inside the fence. Next came a flare and then protesters began using an angle grinder to eat away at the fence. A barrage of items came whizzing into the courthouse: rocks, cans of beans, water bottles, potatoes and rubber bouncy balls that cause the agents to slip and fall.
Within minutes, the federal agents at the fence perimeter fired the first tear gas of the night.
Inside the courthouse, it was dark, pitch dark except for one narrow ceiling bulb that cast a cone of light over the stairs.
Without lights, the agents hoped they would be better protected from people in the crowd who were firing metal ball bearings through the windows with sling shots. Thick ribbons of green light from blinding lasers crisscrossed the courthouse lobby, forcing the agents who were resting in between deployments to the fence to duck and weave to protect their eyes.
Agents on scaffolding fired pepper balls through the window slits at the crowd while others sat quietly on marble benches in the lobby, alone or in small groups, and waited for their turn at the fence.
No one talked much over the whir of the industrial fans set up to blow the tear gas back outside. The men who weren’t on the front line sat with helmets in their laps but left their gas masks on so they could breathe, the air still thick with chemical irritants.
Every few minutes, a huge boom from a commercial-grade firework tossed over the fence caused the walls to rattle; the crowd outside cheered as explosions of red, white and green flashed against a thick curtain of yellowish tear gas.
The Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were tired and frustrated. They didn’t want to confront the crowd; they just wanted to go home. For weeks, the chaos at the courthouse had flipped their sleep schedules, turned their family lives upside down and left them scared each night that they would be hit by a firework or flare or blinded by a laser. Many were sent from out of town to reinforce the local agents — some are members of an elite Border Patrol tactical team sent in as reinforcements. But others were already stationed there and said they had chosen to live in the Portland area and call it home.
“You see a lot of commentary on social media about, ‘Well, they’re wearing protective gear so that it’s not going to hurt them.’ Okay, I’ll put the same protective gear on you and I’ll throw a brick at your head and you tell me if you feel comfortable with that,” said a senior U.S. Marshals Service official who’s overseeing the response in Portland.
“They can put out 10 seconds of something (on social media) that unfolded over several minutes, and those are the 10 seconds that look bad for us, whereas the rest of it would look bad for everybody,” he said, speaking of the protesters. “They use what serves their narrative.”
Outside, a young woman with long blond hair wearing a halter top and jeans who had been gassed threw up in the gutter.
The tear gas pushed back the people assailing the fence and throwing fireworks at agents, but tendrils of acrid smoke also seeped deep into a park across from the courthouse.
The vapors, indiscriminate, hit a man biking past, a middle school teacher, a musician, a volunteer medic and dozens of others who’d been far back in the protest crowd dancing to the drums and chanting.
“I think what people fail to realize is, us in Portland, we’re still playing defense so anything we do, it’s a defensive maneuver. We are protecting ourselves at the very most and each other,” said Eli Deschera, 21.
“I think that using chemical warfare on civilians is anything but protecting and serving, which is what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Deschera, of Portland.
One of the people at the very front of the fence was Travis Rogers. The former U.S. Air Force veteran recently quit his job as a Medicaid case manager, in part because he would have been fired anyway if he got arrested.
On this night, Rogers wore a helmet and carried a blue shield made out of the side of a plastic barrel. Like most days, he spent most of the protest trying to take down the fence and screaming at the federal agents guarding it, asking them to explore their conscience.
After six years working for the military, Rogers said he felt better equipped than many to find talking points that might make the agents think about their mission more critically.
“I think it is a good idea to try to plant some seeds in their heads for … them to go home and sleep on. These are people’s kids and mothers and wives and daughters that they’re gassing and they’re going to have to go home to THEIR mothers and wives and daughters,” said Rogers, as explosive booms echoed around him. “I try to encourage them to think about the fact that they’re on the wrong side of history and that they will not be treated so kindly.”
But anything Rogers said was lost in the thunderous noise, the booms of fireworks and tear gas canisters whisking his words away into the chaos of the night.
The firework came whizzing over the fence so fast that the agent didn’t have time to move.
It exploded with a boom, leaving his hearing deadened and bloody gashes on both forearms. Stunned, with help from his cohorts, he stripped to his boxer shorts and a black T-shirt so his wounds could be examined and photographed for evidence.
He told his fellow agents he was more worried about his hearing than about the gouges and burns on his arms.
By the end of the night, five other federal agents would be injured, including another who got a concussion when he was hit in the head with a commercial-grade firework. One agent was hospitalized. Several agents have lingering vision problems from the lasers.
After each night of protest, they seize dozens of homemade shields, slingshots, blocks of wood and chunks of concrete.
“My friends have been hit in the head with hammers. I know people who have been shot with fireworks. It’s disgusting,” said the Deputy U.S. Marshal who’s been at the courthouse for weeks. “I’ve never thought I’d have to walk around in my office building wearing a gas mask to go sit in front of my computer.”
Outside, hundreds of protesters surged back from the courthouse with each new round of tear gas, dumped saline solution and water into their stinging eyes, vomited or doubled over to catch their breath, then regrouped to march back to the fence.
“Stay together, stay tight! We do this every night!” they chanted.
The protesters’ numbers, however, were half what they had been just a few hours before. Tear gas seeped in even around the edges of the gas masks many of the remaining protesters, journalists and legal observers wore. Paper and fabric masks that most people wore to protect from the coronavirus got soaked in gas from the air, causing the fabric to burn the skin. Even an apple one protester ate as a midnight snack tasted “spicy” because of the chemicals coating its skin.
“I was just standing right on the corner … listening to the music and kind of didn’t even see it coming. I mean, there wasn’t any announcement or anything like that,” said middle school teacher Azure Akamay, who was coughing so hard from tear gas that she could barely speak. “By the time I just got to this corner here, I basically couldn’t see.”
In the very front, those with gas masks formed a wall against the tear gas and pepper balls with shields and umbrellas. Protesters who began wielding leaf blowers to push the gas back on the federal agents several days ago found that now the agents, too, had leaf blowers.
Kennedy Verrett, a composer and music teacher, had been teargassed twice and was ready to go home. He had to be up early the next day to teach piano lessons but planned to be back for again another night.
“When you are sent to protect property ….” he said of the agents, trailing off. “My ancestors were once property. No one protected them. Tear gas is nothing when you have lived in America as a Black man for 40 years.”
Somewhere, a bell tower chimed midnight — even though it was 12:38 a.m. — and a trumpet plaintively played the taps as munitions whizzed through the air.
The whole world seemed upside-down.
It was 2:30 a.m. A large bonfire was burning in front of the courthouse. Protesters were nose-to-nose with federal agents at the fence. A woman with a megaphone screamed obscenities through the wire.
Tear gas canisters bounced and rolled in the street, their payload fizzing out into the air before protesters picked them up and hurled them back over the fence at the agents, who held their ground.
A woman weaved through the crowd of the few hundred people who remained and told someone on the phone, “We’ve reached some kind of stand-off, I think.”
When the federal agents finally came, they came with force. A line of agents marched in lock step down Third Street, pushing the crowd in front of them with tear gas and pepper balls. People scattered and small groups roamed the downtown as tear gas choked the air.
In less than two hours, it would be daylight.
“I finally get outside at 7 a.m., after being in the building since 3 p.m. the day prior, and I look east and I’m like, ‘Oh, the world’s normal over there and people are driving to work and the city is clean and functioning,” said the Deputy U.S. Marshal. “And I look out on the street and it looks like downtown Baghdad.”
The battle over, the agents and the demonstrators gathered their things and headed to bed, protesters and protectors sleeping in the same city — perhaps even on the same street — resting up for the next night’s fight.
For at nightfall, it would all begin again.