Kenton Park is a rolling, twelve acre, green-space in this tightly-packed city. People from the neighborhood had begun quietly assembling on Sunday, August 9 2020, in socially-distanced and masked groups at the north end of the park since around 6 PM. Unlike the visually packed spaces in the city center so famous from national and international headlines, this scene is more reminiscent of pastoral, little “a” anarchists on holiday during the plague times. Another stark contrast to what national news shows and talking heads discuss, this crowd is noticeably diverse. Portland is a majority white city in the whitest state in the country. The larger number of BIPOC activists present here is indicative of both the neighborhood and the continuing dedication of activists of color to not only control the narrative but to create it.
A snack cart moves through the crowd helmed by a woman in bright purple and gesturing with a lacrosse stick. Someone asks her for a burrito and she serves it with the stick to some light laughter. Nearby, a couple of folks assemble a literature table covered with zines, new and old. It’s ruffled by a pleasant breeze.
The volunteers are distributing them for free. A low murmur of voices fills the air but it is still quiet enough that the delighted screams of children at play a short distance away and the muffled dribble of a basketball are still clearly audible. As the sun begins to set a small loudspeaker begins playing a recording of someone explaining the oft-discussed Oregon “Lash Law” and the crowd begins to tighten in.
Now, in the light of a fading sun with an American flag flying upside down to display the assembled crowds’ distress, new activists and veteran protesters hardened from months of street skirmishes and police riots listen to a tiny woman wearing a facemask and tactical body armor. It’s almost certainly a safe bet she had a third of her bodyweight worth of safety gear on. The gear marks her as a longtime survivor of multiple protest seasons.
She addresses the crowd without a bullhorn, a strident voice ringing into the darkening night, educating them on the goals of the march and observations from the last several weeks. Her speech is direct and short. There is no flowery language–This is not the speech of a politician but that of a sergeant in the field. She observes that their numbers have dwindled, and it’s objectively true. People are exhausted, they’re tired of marching somewhere to yell at empty buildings and eventually get beaten by police or Federal agents. Despite that, this group of folks haven’t seen the changes they want and need. Even though there are barely two hundred people here, a vote is taken. Hands shoot into the air in the affirmative and, as a drum corp begins warming up, the crowd decides to march on the Portland Police Association. A gaggle of press silently shrugs shoulders to each other and begins to prepare for the march.
The march itself is smooth. As Portland’s protesters like to remind themselves and everyone else, “Stay together, stay tight, we do this every night.”
Outriders on dirtbikes, scooters, and bikes flank and sweep ahead of the march while a rolling barricade of four-wheeled vehicles comes at the very rear. In the fore of the march, black activists with a megaphone lead chants backed up by the aforementioned drum corp in the body of the crowd. They chant remembrances to Michael Brown of Ferguson (today marks the anniversary of his death.) They call for police abolition. They yell for racial justice and equality. Homeowners yell support as the march continues towards the PPA. Some offer water or snacks. Drivers honk their support and raise fists out their windows to show the movement their solidarity. As the crowd nears their final destination the familiar refrain of “No justice, no peace. Take it to the streets and fuck the police!” rings out over the traffic noise. The activist on bullhorn duty explains that they are going to take the intersection and occupy the street in front of the police association building because, “Whose streets?”
With an eager cry of, “Our streets!”, the crowd surges into the intersection and it is officially another night in Portland.
Fairly quickly barricades are assembled from Portland’s much-abused dumpsters and normal city debris to close the intersection at North Denver and North Lombard. In many ways, it’s like watching a timelapse of industrious, black clad, gnomes–They gather and move along a line and the fence just kind of…appears. Chain link fence sections, construction barricades, trash cans, dumpsters, and random debris are all fodder for the street engineers to effectively close Lombard Avenue to vehicular traffic temporarily.
While this is happening without violence and with zero vandalism thus far Portland Police respond almost immediately by sending in an LRAD to address the gathered crowd and inform them they are taking part in an unlawful assembly. Because this LRAD officer sounds fairly green, there is a decent amount of scattered laughter before activists go back to defending their chosen space and drumming and chanting. Shortly afterwards a speaker that appears to be coming from the donut shop conspicuously across the street from the police union headquarters informs the Portland Police that they have been declared a fascist assembly and should quit their jobs. Additional laughter ensues among the protesters. The LRAD officer audibly sounds a little confused to have this happening to him.
As all of this is winding up neighbors come from their homes to offer water and thank folks for their work in the streets. The level of support from the non-activist citizenry is truly stunning and heartwarming after this amount of time with active protests–this much violence inflicted by the city, state, and federal government. After about eighteen minutes, (and one dumpster fire in the middle of the east barricade line) riot officers begin quietly infiltrating and forming up lines, first to the north near Heavenly Donuts and then to the south on North Fenwick. A shield phalanx forms in response at the front lines of the protest nearest the riot lines. After quick communications, the officers withdraw as quickly and quietly as they formed up.
Shortly after this the police riot lines, staffed by both state and city officers, reform in front of the LRAD and a sizable amount of police vehicles to the east of the protest on North Lombard Avenue. As the officers begin their advance, the loudspeaker that was previously heckling the communications officer begins playing the Imperial March. The police call for protesters to disperse and, in an orderly fashion to the rhythm of the drum corp, the crowd complies with the orders. While the crowd begins to march back where they came from a riot is declared.
Protesters and press alike look at each other and question how this comparatively organized demonstration qualifies as a riot. Thus far, only a dumpster has had its life or property endangered. With surprising equanimity there is a great shrugging of shoulders and the crowd continues their peaceful withdrawal. This continues for almost a block before police begin shoving down protesters that were complying with their withdrawal orders and arresting them– typically three to five officers per citizen.
In response to the violence against protesters, fireworks are thrown into the oncoming wave of police. Two sharp detonations shower the crowd with sparks and throw lurid flashes of illumination onto the pavement. Officers push harder now, driving protesters ahead of them while a string of SUV’s and riot trucks follow the LRAD vehicle and a holding van up North Denver towards Kenton Park.
Around the time the protest reaches North Schofield the police seemingly can no longer contain themselves. Officers destroy barricades set up by local restaurants and bars to accommodate coronavirus restrictions as they charge the crowd–who, again, are complying with their orders. Officers fire crowd control munitions and use mace wildly, charging the crowd and chasing individual protesters into alleys and side streets. Police taunt protesters as they are being arrested, driving up onto sidewalks to make flying tackles from running boards like they’re auditioning for the next John Wick sequel.
As journalists follow the police alongside and behind their lines, officers attempt intimidation tactics to illegally close streets and prevent journalists from filming arrests. A business owner in the area, taking his trash out for the night and closing down, is threatened with physical force by police officers for leaving his building. Riot police, disembarking from a truck, intimidate protesters into leaving the area. Protesters comply, but police physically assault them while their backs are turned.
As the police return to their vehicle, parked haphazardly over the sidewalk and in the front yard of an apartment complex, a woman estimated to be between 17 and 19 emerges from her apartment to see what was disturbing her family and dog. When she confronts a female police officer, the officer punches the woman in the face and shoves her into a bush. What appears to be the woman’s mother rushes out and ushers the dazed teenager back inside. No words are exchanged. The mother looks shell-shocked and the police continue to tell her she was lucky they weren’t arresting her. They tell her brother that he needed to control her.
At this point in the evening I attempt to photograph and recover spent crowd control munitions used by police on peaceful protesters that were complying with orders. An officer sees me doing this, ignores my explanation that I’m a journalist as well as my press pass and shoves me down into the street while telling me to leave the area if I don’t want to be arrested. I get up and began moving away from the officer as directed, then ask for assistance from a local resident in recovering the shell casings. The local leaves his business and casually enters the road to recover the crowd control shell casings. Police notice him, but not as quickly as they noticed me, and do not see him recover the shells. They move forward, yelling at him to return to his business and hurling profanity while threatening him with arrest. They repeatedly shout over him to stay away from anything on the street and not to touch anything. They push him back into his business and return to bullying the neighborhood. I wait until they have begun hassling protesters attempting to disperse and local residents on their own porches and lawns before sidling over and checking on the resident that helped me. He is a little shaken, very upset, and incredibly happy to hand over this latest batch of riot Pokemon.
Shortly after this I attempt to photograph and film additional arrests and encounters between police and neighborhood citizens. That lasts almost a full two minutes before officers notice me and bounce me off the Kenton Club before threatening me with arrest again. They tell me my press pass means nothing. At this point the police have begun trying to further divide the main body of the demonstration. I was several blocks behind so I walked back to the PPA building.
Despite missing the reforming of the protest and another riot declaration for criminally standing on sidewalks later in the evening, the walk back to Lombard and Denver was also illuminating. Signs of the destruction caused by the police were everywhere –damaged barricades at the restaurants, spent ammunition casings, detritus from a protest chased off so quickly they could not clean up after themselves. Small groups of protesters that broke off from the main body during the worst of the police riot were standing in front yards of the citizens that took them in and offered them shelter, commiserating together over the brutality of the police and brokenness of the system that built it. Street medics huddled in small, quiet, groups on corners treating unhoused folks and protesters injured by police alike. Sirens rang out in the distance and pickup trucks with cops hanging off the running boards on both sides zoomed silently up and down side streets. There was an apparently targeted arrest of a prominent local BLM activist and organizer: Demetria Hester, who survived a hate crime attack by convicted murderer and affiliate of various local alt-right groups Jeremy Christian. Later in the night, more arrests would be made and more brutality would be inflicted on lawfully demonstrating citizens.
But for me, the night was over.
James O’Ryan is a Portland-based journalist who’s going to be writing for LCRW on ongoing local issues such as far-right violence and police brutality. You can contribute to his work at @PunchableFace on Venmo.
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