“IT CONSUMES YOUR LIFE”. INTERVIEW WITH A PORTLAND PROTESTER
July 25, 2020 by ABNER HÄUGE
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‘TRANS RIGHTS’ is, in my opinion, a brilliant alias. That’s what my interviewee chose to call herself for this article.
Before I even asked a question, there were a few things TRANS RIGHTS wanted to make clear: She’s white. She’s trans. She lives in Portland. Portland is stolen Chinook land. Oregon was founded as a literal ethnostate. While it was founded as a ‘free state’–meaning no slavery–black people couldn’t live there by law. The 14th Amendment wasn’t ratified until 1973.
“Even accepting this interview is kind of centering my white voice in this conversation that is not about me,” TRANS RIGHTS told LCRW. “Whatever we talk about, whatever happens, I want that to be the context.”
“This city has a really, really bad history and is really, really racist and has only recently been thought of as progressive,” she said.
“Alright. Hi,” TRANS RIGHTS said, concluding her preamble. I smiled. I started asking questions.
TRANS RIGHTS has been out night after night at the protests in Portland while police and now federal agents wage a relentless assault against demonstrators. As of this writing, it’s been over 50 days of teargas and special impact munitions, reporters, legal observers and peaceful activists being assaulted and arrested and the city generally being terrorized. She spoke to LCRW about the experience and detailed the psychological experience of having your city be under siege.
LCRW: So in general I just want to know what you’ve been experiencing during this whole thing.
TRANS RIGHTS: I’ve out in the Portland protests I think since riot night (shortly after riots kicked off in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd.) I think I was out after the brunt of that. I saw the Chase building on fire and fire coming out of the windows. So yeah, that was a fun time.
Really, kind of what was galvanizing–I’m going to get my timeline wrong. My timeline is going to be all screwy–but Portland Police specifically are extremely brutal. We’ve had many police killings in Portland. Patrick Kimmons, Quanice Hayes, Kendra James, Jason Washington–many more than that. Those are just the ones at the top of my head.
So in the first few days of the Portland protests, this brutality was on full display. I was running from teargas on riot night and after that the Portland Police actually just teargas block after block after block–building a wall of teargas and just running protesters miles and miles across east side. The Portland Police have been going really hard. I think the first Saturday after riot night, there was a pregnant black woman who got beaten down with truncheons. There’s been a lot of BIPOC and mothers there this whole time. It’s been incredibly brutal. And so the stuff that’s been on the news recently from the Feds is something we’ve been seeing from the Portland Police this whole time. The Feds are not a new thing to the activists on the ground. The Feds are just the next iteration of what we’ve been facing for weeks down here.
I’ve personally been very anxious about being arrested down here because of the whole trans thing. I’ve been–I don’t go on the front lines. I’ve not been that kind of aggressive, but I’ve seen so many activists and so many fighters and I’ve been inspired by. One I want to call out specifically, this woman who goes by Kohzkah on Twitter. She’s amazing. She had this video from a couple of nights ago where she’s walking up to the feds and yelling at them and taunting them. She’s been on the frontlines. She’s indigenous. She’s just a fricking badass.
Just the brutality of what we’re going through–the teargass–the teargass really sucks. Teargas has been used well over half the nights we’ve been out here. KozKah and others have been out here literally every night getting teargassed in this fight. Gosh–so you’ve been asking me about what it’s like down here.
TRANS RIGHTS: So there’s this really good article by @1Misanthrophile of DefendPDX–it was basically an emotional retelling of the experience of being out here. And it is extremely traumatizing. The first time I heard flashbangs go off, the first time I got teargassed, shot at with pepper balls–that was the Saturday after Riot Night. The police came out an hour before curfew and started dispersing the crowd. It was–that shook me up. Now, flashbangs are still scary but if a door slams, I freak out. I haven’t even been on the front–I haven’t been putting my body on the line in the same way the others have and I have become very, very traumatized by this experience.
Sorry. I’ve been protesting eight weeks now and my brain has been a little fried.
LCRW: So–over fifty days now–over fifty days now of this continuously happening and now there’s Federal troops. So one thing I just really want to ask is like–when you say it’s been deeply traumatizing for you and people around you–How does that play out? What do you see happen that you can tell that this is just fucking people up?
TRANS RIGHTS: There’s so much to answer that question it’s hard to know where to start. One thing about modern policing of protests is it’s heavily militarized. That’s one of the things we’re protesting against right? They got their sound cannons, they got their stormtrooper gear–they got all this shit. Over the 50 days of protests, it started to feel like a warzone. My girlfriend the other day, I was just talking about my feelings about this and she said “You sound a lot like a combat veteran. You sound like someone who’s seen combat and the craziness of it.”
The thing about it is it’s so dangerous and so necessary that it kind of consumes your life. The day the Feds–the day I got shot at with a pepper ball. It was not insane at all. It was just like a big yellow/purple bruise. That day shook me really deeply. I think a lot of white people have had a somewhat similar first experience of police brutality and finding the kinds of like “Oh my god, this is what black people go through every day. Oh my god, oh my god.” For me, it was a big call to action. I went out and bought a gas mask that night because I was so scared.
The radicalization of the violence has been huge and it’s normalized it a lot. I would go to the protests in black bloc gear. Feds would stop shooting and I would get out of there because you know, I’m scared. [TRANS RIGHTS laughs a little.] And then I would spend the next three to five hours watching people I meet, people I’ve stood with and chanted with getting beaten down with truncheons, getting hit in the head, having their masks pulled down and mace sprayed in their faces. And my thought was “What if that’s me next time? What if that’s–if I’m not careful, that’s gonna be me next time.” And then with that thought I’d go out again and I’d do it again.
It’s kind of world-consuming. I used to have hobbies. I used to have interests. I used to be able to talk about things. Now there’s none of that. The only thing that’s happening in my life is these protests. And so when I say it’s traumatizing it’s like–okay so after a protest; you’ve been in a protest and like, maybe you got gassed, maybe you got shot, maybe your will breaks or whatever and then you go home and you spend the next three or four hours watching videos of the people you know getting beaten and getting hurt and getting attacked. And then the next morning you get to watch all the stuff you missed because of them getting beaten and getting attacked and getting assaulted. And then you see those people who at this point you’ve been following for a month or two months or three months or whatever it is right now–sorry, time just doesn’t seem to work right now–get being like “Yeah, we’re gonna go out again. We have to stop this. We have to fight this.” It becomes the only thing that happens in your world is just trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
It’s gotten so heavy and so deep and so settled into my life–the trauma of facing police violence–that like, the only time when things feel manageable is when I’m out there on the front lines. Actually, over the last two weeks since the Feds have shown up and started really going, I’ve been getting deeper and deeper and the fear I have is kind of leaving because the Feds are so fucking brutal. Do you know who Donovan Labella is?
TRANS RIGHTS: That dude got his skull fucking shattered by a riot munition. He was just standing there. Literally was the least dangerous person ever and they shot him in the head. And the next day there were people in getting shot in the chest with riot munitions. I’ve seen pictures of that wound and people shot everywhere. Realizing that nothing you do can keep you safe but you need to go out and fight has really pushed me to become a fighter. Last night I was out on the front lines. I don’t have much armor yet but I was watching the cops–the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)–throw teargas at me That’s the only time I feel under control. When I’m going to work, eating, talking on Twitter, all I’m thinking about is, you know, ‘what’s the next traumatic event that’s going to happen?’
And it happens all the time. Cops a week or two were bothering Riot Ribs at noon and 5am and like people are released at midnight and 2am. At every moment this trauma is just happening so deeply it becomes really ingrained. The only time I feel safe and alive and in control is when I’m out there facing it down. I don’t know if that answers your questions about what the trauma is like but it is rough.
LCRW: That’s actually exactly what I was hoping to touch on.
TRANS RIGHTS: Before we move on I just want to say I’m a white person who has not faced police brutality her whole life. Black people go through it–people of color in general do. The stuff about the DHS in umarked vans–all this stuff that’s horrifying everybody in Portland right now; This is standard border patrol behavior. This is standard police behavior in black communities and undocumented communities. I’ve been talking about my feelings and my perspective a lot but I’ve not been on the front lines. I haven’t been holding a shield since day one or taking photos and videos like Sergio Olmos and Tuck Woodstock. If anything, I’m one of the least traumatized people there because I’ve been so focused on keeping myself safe. The experience I have–the trauma that Portland is going through communally–is very, very normal and very, very regular. To me it’s like “Oh you got hit with a truncheon? Ah, not lately? Glad to hear that!”
LCRW: So I had one follow-up to that–I wanted to ask–So everybody’s talking about these federal agents or troops or whatever the fuck they’re called coming in–the BORTAC people, the DHS people. Did you notice if there was a qualitative shift in how things were when they came in? What was that like?
TRANS RIGHTS: Yeah, so–one thing that’s important to understand is the geography of the protest area. There are three parks: Terry Schrunk, Chapman and Lownsdale. They’re all squares. They’re city blocks. And there are a whole bunch of government buildings in the area. In the area, the Portland Police is flanked by the Justice Center on the left and a federal office tower on its right. So for five, six of the weeks the protests have been exclusively about the Justice Center. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paced that building, watching for deployments, seeing where the new fence is. Just back when it started, there was this whole drama with the big ‘Sacred Fence.’ Protesters have been really focused on it.
The government courthouse? It has been vandalized. It’s gotten a lot of spray paint on it. It wasn’t that important. People didn’t really care about it. But–late June or early July police started deploying from the courthouse. I actually remember–there was one night–it was a weekend night; bigger than usual. Somebody had pulled open one of the plywood doors of the Justice Center and smashed the doors in there. The crowd chanted “Stay together! Stay tight!” Everyone was moving towards the back of the Justice Center. The cops always deploy from the back or one of the parking garages so everybody moved back there to–you know–face them down.
We’re kind of here to be beaten. That’s the point. That’s what we’re doing here. It was weirdly quiet. The cops came to that door and left and people just kind of ignored it. It was very low-key. Nobody was trying to break in or burn down the building. It was just a broken door and protesters. I was walking near the front of the line as it was heading back towards the front of the Justice Center. And actually cops had been deploying from the courthouse a few times so I was walking in that little awning area it has under the roof. The cops–with zero provocation–there was one or two other people there; I was one of the only people; everyone was focused on the Justice Center and the Feds or the cops slammed open the door and started deploying. It gave me a hell of a fright and I was running out of there. I was like “Oh shit.” I tried to stay off the front lines. Once that happened, the protests changed.
The protesters go where the cops go right? The cops go there, the protesters go there. Everyone surrounded the Justice Center. The cops were deploying. Feds were deploying. Ever since then it’s just been focused on that because that’s where they are. Before July, no one gave a single crap about the courthouse other than to spray paint it. The courthouse had spray painted glass for weeks. No one even–nothing was broken. Nothing was even attempted to break. It was just this–when the cops started deploying from there and getting really mad and running out and grabbing people and dragging them back into the Justice Center and doing the unmarked vans thing. That’s when the courthouse started getting fucked with like we’re seeing. It’s because of the Feds. Every time they come out they escalate, they escalate, they escalate. They’ve only recently started doing some warnings because it’s the weekend. They used an LRAD on us. No one cared about the courthouse until the Feds started brutalizing people outside of it in a way that is way, way bigger than the Portland Police. They would run out of the courthouse at 8PM, grab them and drag them inside for no reason. They arrested someone for drawing a line in chalk saying where federal property is so people would stay behind it. Once they’d started going extremely hard on the courthouse, that’s when people started tearing it up. Before then, no one gave a crap. It was all about the Justice Center.
LCRW: I’ve been trying to follow this for a couple of months and that makes everything click a lot better for me as someone who’s looking at this from the outside. But you were telling me there’s something you want to talk about that’s pretty much the opposite of all this. I think I know where it’s going to go but I’m very interested in hearing.
TRANS RIGHTS: My favorite thing about the Portland protests is Riot Ribs. Riot Ribs is an incredibly special institution to me. It is basically the counterpoint to everything we’ve been experiencing. I’ve picked up trash for them. I still have a roll of trash bags in my backpack that I’m going to use some time again to do that. I’ve worked with them and volunteered with them. The amount of care and love I feel from Riot Ribs is–they care for us, they make us really good food, it’s a really shining example of the community’s care for each other in a very physical way.
Somebody put it to me this way: Eating and feeding is a very intimate act. So just having people out there completely ignoring the carnage all to feed us all to feed us and take care of us–like, it’s a really powerful emotion that that brings out for me and it’s the counterpoint to the terror that we feel. When I’m at Riot Ribs I don’t feel safe, but I feel cared for. I feel like Riot Ribs is the manifestation of the community’s love for each other and the care and the acknowledgement of the trauma and trying to take care of each other.
I will say it’s been deeply traumatic but there are some bright spots in the trauma that have kind of become lifelines. July 10th or 15th or a little while ago the Portland Police swept Riot Ribs and pushed them out of the park and stuff like that. People were so pissed. We just tore down that fence again and again, got Riot Ribs back, they got a ton of donations. Shortly after that happened the unmarked van story broke and people started coming and Riot Ribs got big. So I really want to shout out Riot Ribs, which was started by a black Portlander–for the record don’t talk to me, talking to him.
LCRW: Oh, I’m trying to!
TRANS RIGHTS: I’m trying to de-center my voice even as I’m centering it by having this conversation. So yeah, like Riot Ribs really, really keeps me going emotionally through the horror of it all. It’s a real big fuck you, you know? Like “Fuck you, you can’t scare me. We’re gonna care for each other no matter what.” It’s such a powerful symbol in so many ways and the fact that the city has tried to shut them down and people refused and now it’s so big–it’s a very interesting dynamic. It’s something very, very radical and very, very important to me and the Portland protest community. I’ve seen people say on Twitter that they’d die for Riot Ribs. And you know what? I would too. If Riot Ribs started getting fucked with in an existential way, my body is going on the line. Because that’s us. That’s the people right there. Riot Ribs is the people. We will not let you fuck with us.
LCRW: Well it’s a shame we’re in a situation where we have to protect your identity and can’t share the audio of your voice. You’ve got a fantastic way of speaking.
TRANS RIGHTS: And you know what the thing is about that? I don’t do illegal shit. I’m a trans woman. If I go to prison, I’m going to get fucked up because that’s how it is for trans women–as well as BIPOC and other people to–but also for trans people. But I still feel the need to do this. I’m 100% sure I’m on some list with the FBI somewhere as a potential troublemaker just because I’ve been so publicly in it. And I don’t do illegal shit! I’m not a rioter! I don’t break plywood! I don’t shoot lasers! And I am absolutely terrified of being targeted. And that’s the vibe on the ground. [She laughs.]
But that’s why we’re fighting! If you really want to understand the energy of the protest crowd, you need to read the DefendPDX article. I’ve read it like fifty times–I’m gonna send it to you now. It’s everything I’ve been feeling–especially the part where it says ‘The sort of people who would protest and would batter at the gates of the federal courthouse would not survive a fascist regime. So that’s why we have to fight now–because if they win, we’re all dead.’ That is really the energy on the ground right now.