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Nov. 23, 2020

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‘You have to shut it down’: Determined core carries Portland protests into 7th month

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In the last week, demonstrators engaged a Portland city commissioner at his home late at night. Others met outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to demand an end to deportations. Still others returned to downtown to hold a candlelight vigil at the Justice Center.

More than 130 days of protests against police violence and systemic racism have come and gone, as have the “Wall of Moms”, dads with leaf blowers and thousands of others outraged at squads of federal officers pushing through the streets.

But a determined core remains.

It’s a cadre whose numbers have dwindled since the summer but whose resolve has hardened into an unwavering vision for the future, one where policing is drastically reduced or eliminated altogether and racial inequities exorcised.

Behind the effort is a multiracial mix of younger activists and seasoned leftists, including anarchists, anti-fascists and other radical groups long at the center of Portland’s street protest scene.

Meanwhile, the diffuse and largely leaderless movement at times continues to diverge on tactics as it barrels headlong into next week’s elections.

“We wouldn’t still be out there if the cops weren’t still killing people,” said Mac Smiff, 39, a music journalist, promoter and parent in Southeast Portland. He’s been a consistent presence in the streets the last six months.

“If you have a system that’s not working properly,” he said, “you have to shut it the hell down.”

‘WHAT’S AT STAKE IS OUR HUMANITY’

The incremental reforms offered or enacted by Oregon political leaders following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May have thus far failed to meet the urgent demands of the moment, say some of the protesters still gathering now.

The Portland City Council slashed the police budget by millions and scrapped several of the bureau’s units long perceived to target people of color. State lawmakers began to tackle a host police accountability measures that they had set aside for years, including a ban on chokeholds and restricting the ability of arbitrators to overturn police discipline.

Meanwhile, other changes appear on the horizon. A local ballot measure expected to pass in November would revamp Portland’s police oversight system. The city is poised to renegotiate its police contract. New budget cuts to the Portland Police Bureau are also on the table.

Sara Oram, 42, an Iraq war veteran and social justice activist who has attended the demonstrations since they began, said that’s not enough.

“It’s tokenism,” said Oram, who lives in Beaverton and identifies as Indigenous. “It’s like giving a cracker to someone who’s starving. It may keep them alive but they’re not OK on any level.”

Those protesting continue to push for more ambitious proposals. Among them, they want to see the city take $50 million immediately from the Portland Police Bureau to fund programs that aid communities of color and reduce the number of interactions armed officers have with the public.

“We should be doing everything we can to eliminate the need for police,” said Smiff, whose legal name is Fahiym Acuay. “Defunding forces actual policy and procedure changes.”

But there is also a moral component to the movement, one that acknowledges and seeks to reconcile the disproportionate harm that the U.S. criminal justice system and other institutions have caused non-white people.

That includes not just Black, but also Indigenous, immigrant and other historically marginalized communities.

“What’s at stake is human life. In truth, what’s at stake is our humanity,” Oram said. “I have a responsibility to see change happen.”

How people pursue that change continues to be an issue where protesters sometimes disagree. A few organizers have made the point of holding events earlier in the day that include speeches, marches with a designated route and wrap up after an hour or two.

Others remain committed to so-called “direct action,” which at times includes vandalism against private businesses and government buildings, as well as rocks, bottles and fireworks thrown at officers from some people in the crowd.

The police response is often aggressive and indiscriminate, activists say, galvanizing many to return night after night.

Nearly two dozen lawsuits filed against the city since the protests began outline allegations of excessive force by police, inhumane use of tear gas, unlawful dispersal orders or other violations of civil rights.

“I have witnessed, personally, the violence inflicted by police,” said Marie Tyvoll, 59, who runs a medical tent for protesters most nights. “I’ve witnessed harassment and intimidation tactics against people who aren’t posing a threat to anyone.”

‘HOW CAN WE STOP?’

The long duration of the protest movement has also given rise to more radical demands that reflect the views of its most dedicated participants.

Many now call for the abolition of police, prisons and capitalism. They want the return of land to Indigenous communities. They support reparations for Black people and their descendants as well as those held in immigration detention.

A mix of those ideas and their proponents converged during a rally and march to the ICE building in South Portland on a recent Saturday night.

Indigenous speakers began the event at Willamette Park by talking about the U.S. government’s long history of mistreatment toward Native American people. Several young Black activists then led a crowd of about 100 people — many of them dressed in black and wearing face coverings — in a series of chants as they moved north.

“Black Lives Matter! No justice, no peace!” “Whose lands? Stolen land! Whose streets? Indigenous streets!” “No borders! No nations! Abolish deportations!”

Demonstrators that night planned to fasten 193 mylar balloons filled with helium to an entrance gate at the ICE building to symbolize the number of people who died while in immigration detention between 2004 and 2019.

As they tried to do so, about a dozen federal officers opened the gates and charged at them and unleashed a barrage of a pepper balls and smoke bombs. The rival factions spent the next several hours locked in a back-and-forth struggle in the streets, with protesters occasionally throwing playground balls and rocks and the federal officers firing less-lethal munitions at them.

“From my perspective what’s happening in Portland is a microcosm of what happens to Black, brown and Indigenous people all over,” said Tyvoll, a self-described “person of white privilege” and a Southwest Portland resident. “How can we stop protesting while that’s going on?”

Protest activity has continued almost every day since the Saturday night clash outside the ICE building on Oct. 17, though sometimes with less fanfare.

Activists, for example, held a Northeast Portland rally in honor of Black men and women killed by the city’s police force last Thursday and a Black Lives Matter march Sunday in Lake Oswego, one of Portland’s most affluent and whitest suburbs. Others have returned to the ICE building several times.

On Tuesday night, nearly 200 racial justice protesters gathered outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown for a vigil in memory of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man shot and killed by police in Philadelphia the day before.

Several hours later a group of black-clad demonstrators marched to the home of City Commissioner Dan Ryan to demand that he support funding cuts for the city’s police force in an upcoming vote.

“Every day we have a reason to be out here, every day we wake up to find brothers and sisters gone,” said Demetria Hester, 46, who led the Lake Oswego march and who spoke at the Justice Center. “We can’t let this keep going on. Our next generation needs to be set free.”

Hester, whose Moms United for Black Lives calls for the end of racism and hate, said the array of causes supported by the movement provides strength to them all.

“We’re all suffering from the same thing — oppression,” she said. “We’re all sticking together. We keep building momentum.”

‘MOVEMENTS WALK A FINE LINE’

A poll conducted earlier this month by DHM Research for Oregon Public Broadcasting found 60% of Portlanders said they approved of the ongoing protests, including 36% who did so strongly. The survey polled 1,000 people in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, including 338 Portland residents.

Still, a number of escalating acts of violence and property destruction by a handful of the movement’s most militant activists have alarmed some residents, elected officials and a number of Black and civil rights leaders.

Several protesters in late August smashed out windows at the Pearl District condominium tower that was then home to Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, and threw burning debris into the building. Others have hurled Molotov cocktails at police officers at different demonstrations in recent weeks.

During an event earlier this month billed as a “Day of Rage” for Indigenous people, protesters toppled statues of two celebrated U.S. presidents, fired gunshots into a Black-owned restaurant and broke windows and threw flares into the Oregon Historical Society, one of the state’s most treasured cultural institutions.

“These acts are obscene,” Wheeler said following the Oct. 11 melee, which he characterized as “anarchist behavior.”

Eric Ward, a longtime civil rights strategist and executive director of the Western States Center, a Portland-based organization that monitors right-wing extremism, is among those who believes the demonstrations have lost their footing.

“We have reached a point in street protests in Portland where it appears it is no longer being driven to support Black Lives or policing reforms. It’s being driven by adrenaline addiction and nihilism,” Ward said. “At the end of the day people are voting with their feet: Less and less of them are showing up.”

Tyvoll, echoing the opinion of many of the demonstrators, believes the anger directed at property destruction is misplaced.

“It can’t even compare to the nightly brutality and unconstitutional behavior inflicted on protesters,” she said.

Smiff is also reluctant to condemn such behavior, even though he personally doesn’t engage in it.

“As crazy as it can be sometimes, it keeps the pressure on and the Portland police in the news,” he said. “Realistically, if people aren’t pushing hard on the front there’s no action in the middle.”

Dustin Ferreira, 37, who has been on the city streets since late May, said he doesn’t condone or condemn the nightly violence, but said that peaceful pleas for change for years haven’t resulted in much action. He said he’s taken to the streets to support the Black Lives Matter movement and call out police aggression.

Ferreira often yells at officers on the front lines, his taunts frequently filled with vulgar language.

“I don’t feel I’m mouthing off,” he said. “I am reacting to the absolute unjust violence and illegal activity to which they just did.”

But others in the movement appear intent on steering clear of such conflict. Black-led groups Rose City Justice and PDX Black Youth Movement helped organize a Black Lives Matter march Wednesday at Gabriel Park in Southwest Portland.

One of the speakers, who did not provide his name, seemed to take aim at confrontation.

“Action is better, man. It really is,” the speaker said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean going out and doing ‘direct action.’ Action is having a conversation. Action is having those moments with yourself in the mirror.”

A group of several dozen people later marched around the perimeter of the park, carrying signs and shouting support for Black lives.

Joe Lowndes, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon who studies social movements, said finding the right balance is often a challenge.

“Protest movements walk a fine line. They need to be militant enough to continually make headlines and draw out their opponents to use violence against them and to gain public sympathy and attention,” Lowndes said.

“On the other hand, if movements are too militant they have the potential to drive people out of and turn public sentiment against them.”

How that dynamic plays out in the days leading up to the presidential election and after remains to be seen.

Regardless, Smiff said he will be in the streets.

“As soon as we leave, people will stop paying attention. It will be some other news or pressing issue,” he said. “We’re focused on the hard things right now.”

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