With federal agents off the streets, Portland protesters refocus

Why We Wrote This

The deployment of federal agents pushed Portland’s protests into the spotlight, marking a new chapter in the national conversation around race and policing – and the limits of the federal power. Now that agents are pulling back, what happens to demonstrators’ original goals?

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
A temple-like memorial holds photographs of 216 Black people who died due to racial violence, including George Floyd, Aug. 1, 2020, in Portland, Oregon.

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As federal agents pull back in Portland, protesters say it’s the end of a distracting standoff over the federal use of force – but one that, for some, underscored their sense that they can bring change.

Violence escalated sharply after the Trump administration deployed tactical teams of federal agents to Portland in early July to protect federal property from damage by protesters. Since Oregon officials negotiated a phased withdrawal, however, there has been an easing of tensions and reduction in violence.

With the chaos receded, Saturday’s protest drew a diverse crowd of locals and out-of-towners, young and old, veterans, blue-collar workers, teachers, artists, mothers, and families – with a range of political persuasions from anti-fascists and communists to mainstream Democrats. In addition to demanding an end to systemic racism, they called to shift funds and responsibilities from the police to community services. 

Quan Walters, an illustrator with the Portland Street Art Alliance, paints a mural near the courthouse where protesters and federal agents faced off. He’s joined street marches, but prefers to protest through art.

“It’s like chess pieces,” he says. “Everyone has their own position on the game board, and mine happens to be art and imagery.”

With federal agents, tear gas, and other crowd-control munitions notably absent from around Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland, protesters here are celebrating what they hope is the end of a distracting standoff over the federal use of force.

Several successive nights of peaceful demonstrations drawing thousands of people signal a welcome turning point in the Portland movement and an opportunity to refocus on issues of racial justice and police reform, they say – relieved, but also motivated, by the agents’ pullback.

“The focus was taken away from the real thing, which is supposed to be Black Lives Matter,” says Carolyn Welty-Fick, a fifth-grade teacher from Hood River, Oregon, holding a large sign saying “RESIST” in bold letters under a black fist, as people all around her chant “Black lives!” The contrast on Saturday night was striking, she says. “It’s great. It’s a lot more peaceful. Last week there was a lot more tension in the air,” she says. “We were in full combat gear – helmets and that sort of thing, there was gas coming.”

At the same time, protesters say the aggressive tactics of federal agents without insignia, who injured some people with crowd-control munitions and dragged protesters into unmarked cars, generated widespread outrage and a media spotlight that has energized support for their movement.

“It got people more angry,” says Matt Robbins, a Portland security officer who acts as a medic during the protests. Demonstrations were “dying down,” with just 300 or 400 people a night, but “as soon as the Feds came it was a few thousand. Last weekend we had 11,000 people.”

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrate for police reform and an end to systemic racism in downtown Portland, Oregon, Aug. 1, 2020.

Furthermore, protesters can now claim the withdrawal of those agents from the Hatfield courthouse as a tangible victory – and a sign that their activism can produce concrete change.

“It’s a small victory,” says Mike, an organizer dressed in black clothes and boots, who like many protesters declined to give his last name to protect his privacy. “That’s proof this works. That’s proof that being out here and occupying space and showing them ‘we are not afraid of your police brutality’ … and we will fight until we get change – works.”

Summer of protest

As Portland’s demonstrations enter their 10th week, protesters say they will continue to press forward. Protests against police brutality erupted in Portland May 29 as unrest swept many U.S. cities after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. That night, a peaceful vigil by thousands later devolved into what police declared a riot, as some protesters broke windows of a jail and set fires inside. Early that morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency.

The following weeks saw a mix of large, peaceful marches and unrest targeting government buildings, with Portland police firing tear gas and other munitions and protesters hurling rocks, bottles, and commercial grade fireworks and setting fires, injuring officers, according to the police.

“As a Black man and a public servant, I have a unique perspective,” Chuck Lovell, chief of the Portland Police Bureau, wrote in an Aug. 3 New York Times op-ed, stressing he is committed to leading police reforms. “This violence is doing nothing to further the Black Lives Matter movement.” 

Throughout the protests, some demonstrators have also voiced concern and disagreement over the movement’s tactics, and argued that the original focus on racism and policing have been overshadowed.

Violence escalated sharply after the Trump administration deployed tactical teams of federal agents to Portland in early July in order to protect federal property from damage by protesters. But there has been little violence since Oregon officials negotiated a phased withdrawal of the federal teams beginning last week. Portland police are investigating the stabbing of a victim on Monday, reportedly a female protester attacked in Lownsdale Square.

While waning in other urban areas, the protests have been sustained in Portland – a city of 655,000 that is more than 70% white – fueled by activists with eclectic viewpoints and tactics, but united around the core goals of ending racism and promoting more humane policing.

“Killing Black Americans for no reason has got to stop,” says David Anthony, an iron worker at Western Group, who quit his union job to take part in the Portland protests from Day 1.

Raising awareness among the general population is the first step toward ultimately ending U.S. police brutality, he says, which leads not only to deaths, but to “suppressing Black people, and silencing them.”

Toward that end, Mr. Anthony now spends all day barbecuing donated food to feed the Portland movement. “Right now, it’s about people being aware of what’s going on,” he says, as he hands out free chicken wings to hungry demonstrators at a corner stand with a huge Black Lives Matter sign. “We just barbecue with love and send that out,” he says, welcoming Saturday’s more relaxed atmosphere. “Keeping people fed is ground zero to keeping people calmer.”

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
David Anthony, an iron worker from Portland, stands outside a barbecue tent where he cooks donated food for protesters each day in Portland, Oregon, Aug. 1, 2020.

Indeed, with the chaos receded, Saturday’s peaceful protest drew a large, racially diverse crowd of locals and out-of-towners, young and old, veterans, blue-collar workers, teachers, artists, mothers, and families – with some school-aged children leading chants. They also included self-identified anti-fascists clad in black and people of many political persuasions, ranging from communists to mainstream Democrats. In addition to demanding an end to systemic racism, they called to shift funds from the Portland Police Bureau to community services, transferring some police work to social workers and mental health care providers.

Many stories, one protest

Still, the protesters who gather nightly across from the courthouse in Portland’s shady Lownsdale Square are loosely organized at best. Activists who occupied a section of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood called the CHOP in June have recently fanned out to Portland and other cities to offer help.

“They helped us organize a medical supply tent, a propaganda supply tent, and … are helping us get started with a council and assembly,” says Jared, a software developer and Portland protest leader, leaning against a tree trunk with his guitar. “Most of the organization has come from Seattle, and the street fighting has come from Portland,” he says.

Mike, an anti-fascist organizer who arrived in Portland from Seattle six weeks ago, says he helps provide security and “intelligence” to the protesters by monitoring police scanners, flight logs, and license plates, as well as right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and others who have shown up during protests.

Yet mainly the protests are made up of disparate individuals contributing as they see fit to a common cause.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Artist Quan Walters paints a mural of the cartoon character Huey holding his fist in a sign of empowerment, as part of the Portland Street Art Alliance effort to support the Black Lives Matter movement in Portland, Oregon, Aug. 1, 2020.

Near the courthouse, Quan Walters, an illustrator with the Portland Street Art Alliance, paints a huge mural of the cartoon character Huey with a raised fist symbolizing empowerment. Mr. Walters says his art is “a testament to where we are in history and where we want to go.” He has joined street marches, but prefers to protest through art. “It’s like chess pieces,” he says. “Everyone has their own position on the game board, and mine happens to be art and imagery.”

Vietnam-era veterans have formed “walls” in solidarity with the protesters, while urging the police and federal agents, generally much younger, to reject orders to use force. “I stepped forward to tell them why I was here,” says Mike Hastie, a member of Veterans for Peace who served with an Army cavalry unit in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. But as he spoke passionately of Vietnam atrocities to a line of federal agents outside the Portland courthouse in late July, one of them pepper-sprayed him in the face, an incident captured on a video that went viral.

“If we end the militarization [of police], we can have a dialogue,” says another Army veteran, Maurice Martin. “Police dogs, overwhelming force, tear gas – they don’t even use that in the real fighting,” he says. “We … sure should not use it in the streets on unarmed civilians.”

One sign the protests will continue is that they bring together newly energized protesters and those for whom racism has been a life-long struggle. Ms. Welty-Fick, the teacher, says she recently took a class on white privilege at her church, and realized she had been a passive “non-racist,” rather than actively “anti-racist,” and needed to speak out for people of color.

Haseena, a recent college graduate who sells Black Lives Matter T-shirts at the protests, says she is gratified to see so many people advocating for Black lives. “Since I was young, I have seen Black people die and be killed over nothing,” she says. “Change is way over past due.”

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