“The due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government.” – George Washington. Etched into the Justice Center in Portland, Oregon.
Today, October 5, marks the 131st day of continued protest in Portland, Oregon.
“This is the federal protective service. Do not attempt to damage, remove, enter or climb the fence around the federal courthouse. Failure to comply with this lawful order may result in arrest or use of crowd-control munitions.” The automated machine-like voice rang out of the speaker system and into the humid summer night.
“This place is for you, just like it is for me,” an indigenous musician spoke to the crowd. “Land, air and water, that’s how we’re connected.” The audience erupted in applause, but as the native drum circle finished, and the musicians melted into the crowd, the mood shifted.
A skinny man stood head-to-toe in black – pink hair poking out from under his hardhat. Next to him was a young girl, pale skin illuminated in the artificial light. Her upper lip curled as she yelled profanities, revealing a clean set of braces. A number linked to a crowd-sourced bail fund was scrawled messily on her arm.
Tension grew as night fell. Protestors banged on the metal fence separating the crowd from the courthouse. A plastic water bottle was thrown at the concrete highrise, letting out a thin smack as it came against a graffiti tagged pillar. An upside-down American flag burned over the fence.
Multiple stories up, a police officer leaned over a guard rail, and pointed a rifle down at the crowd.
“I bet you can’t hit shit, boy”, the skinny pink-haired man craned his neck upwards and yelled. A number of green lasers, projected from protestors, lit the officer, forcing him to retreat back.
The crowd lurched about. A short person, skin only visible through a thin eye slit, tossed a firework over the fence, exploding in an array of violet sparkles. As they walked away, a circled-A shone white on their all black outfit – a symbol of anarchist ideology.
“This is the federal protective service, in an attempt to harm officers and destroy federal property, this has been declared an unlawful protest. You are now subject to arrest or use of crowd-control munitions.”
The crowd strapped on their gas masks. A step in the dance that we had not yet learned.
In front of us, five older ladies clad in yellow shirts and football helmets, stood locking arms with each other – members of the Wall of Moms.
An air horn sounded, and through the grated fence we could make out a door opening in the courthouse, and a number of armed men stepped out.
White light exploded, followed by an ear-rattling boom, as the officers tossed flashbangs into the crowd. Another explosion, and thick white smoke began to stream. We reached frantically for our gas masks.
Shrieks echoed from the crowd, as protestors shouldered their way out. In front of us, a sawed-off plywood plank, fixed with a duct tape arm strap, lay abandoned in the street.
Picking it up, we stood half-crouched behind the DIY shield, and peering through a thin rectangular slit carved from the wood, we could see federal agents advancing. The sound of compressed air – spitting projectiles – rang in the night. Pepper balls burst through the lattices of the fence, spraying synthetic toxins into the crowd.
The month prior, President Trump signed an executive order, allowing various organizations beneath the Department of Homeland Security umbrella – ICE, CBP, BORTAC, and others – to descend on Portland in an alleged effort to quell violent anarchists, antifa members, and other left-wing extremists.
Instead, the presence and actions of federal agents only amplified protest numbers (which had been steadily diminishing prior to federal presence), morphing the movement into a Black Lives Matter / anti-Federal law enforcement hybrid. The main scene of conflict had been at the Federal Courthouse, the building that housed the majority of the visiting Federal Agents, and in front of which we currently stood.
Behind the newfound shield we advanced to the fence, propping the shield against it to block pepper balls from hitting the crowd behind. A canister exploded at our feet, hissing gas and enveloping us. The highly concentrated CS particles burned cold against bare skin.
Completely engulfed in the poison fog, sucking air through Swedish military-issue gas masks, we tucked further behind the shield as the crisp pop of pepper balls sounded off the plywood.
Under cover of thick smoke, the Feds had opened one of the many gates in the fence, and now streamed out 20 yards parallel to where two of us once stood, but now only one remained. Our two-man team had been reduced by half. Panic set in – Gabe was gone and I was fucked.
* * *
At first it was an itch in the throat – a slight discomfort causing a shallow cough. A sour taste ran quickly up the tongue, through the sinus and into the eyes. Eyesight began to blur, and as itch turned to burn, coughs became uncontrollable. There was a leak in my gas-mask.
I looked for Sean, but with gas obstructing vision, he was nowhere to be seen. I dropped the shield, and began striding in a direction only identifiable as away. The adrenaline and quick movement caused breaths to quicken. Hyperventilating, I sucked in, but there was no oxygen in the mask – fumes had flooded the chamber. Panicking I ripped it off my head, gasping for air.
While we were at the fence, sucked into kaleidoscopic visions of flashbangs and federal agents, canisters had been launched behind us into the back lines. The entire field was a sea of gas, and everyone without masks had cleared the park minutes earlier, dispersing into the streets multiple blocks up. Eyesight severely blurred, I had underestimated how thick the smoke was when I abandoned my mask.
I stood somewhere in the middle of the field, completely blind, immobilized and wheezing, as the gas filled the stomach and lungs. Drowning in fumes, a chemical burn inside the body – it felt like being deep underwater, wading through toxins, dazed, muted sounds ringing in the periphery.
* * *
I flipped around and dashed in search of Gabe, weaving crooked through the gas soaked park, desolate with bits of trash and scattered belongings. Split vision between the search for my partner, and the feds marching in formation at my back, I cursed myself as I sprinted – I had committed a few cardinal sins of protesting: stay alert, stay together and don’t run. Adrenaline and an acute desire to not be arrested had taken over.
I found Gabe at the corner of the park, hunched over on hands and knees retching on the sidewalk. Nausea set in, he heaved and burped, mucus streaming out of his nose. A well-intentioned citizen had pulled him out from the gas, and was showering him in milk in an attempt to ease the pain. Grabbing him away, we cleared the block and ducked around the corner. I sat him on the ground, and fumbled for a bottle of proper eye wash.
* * *
Reunited, we stood with a group of 30 or so people – others that had been caught in the teargas and congregated at an intersection a few blocks up. Numbers severely cut, we were now in danger of being kettled – closed in on from each direction and arrested.
A scout whom we recognized from Seattle’s collapsed autonomous zone, signaled the presence of police with a trumpet. Looking down the street, back in the direction we had escaped, the road disappeared into a thick cloud of gas. Emerging through the smoke, a line of riot-shield-wielding federal troops advanced.
“Walk, don’t run!”, a man yelled.
A thumping sound pumped, like a vacuum catching a large object, followed by an explosion. Metal clanked across concrete as tear gas canisters bounced into the crowd. “Take shallow breaths”, a woman screamed. A trained person can allegedly breathe in a teargas saturated environment, although we’d yet to see any proof of that.
A firework was thrown into the middle of the police line, sending officers diving to the ground.
The white-noise hiss of gas and ear-splitting explosion of flashbangs were followed closely by a barrage of high-pitched pops, pepper balls and rubber bullets fired indiscriminately into the crowd.
One big push up a block, another rush, and then the feds were gone – retreating back through the cloud of gas.
As we walked back to the courthouse, a group of four black women dragged a dolly-mounted speaker into the crowd. One lady wore a pink spandex romper and ankle boots with fur popping out of the top. They danced casually to Dandy Livingston’s, “Rudy, A Message To You.” In the backdrop, the message “Gas Me Daddy” was sprayed onto the federal high-rise.
* * *
“God damn, they really came at us last night”, the kid remarked, pulling a crumpled cigarette out of his pocket.
We stood in the center of Lownsdale square, the park in front of the courthouse, waiting in line for a free meal. A number of grills were set up smoking ribs, and the mood was amicable. All calm now in what had been a war-zone until the early morning hours. People milled around, smoking and playing cards. A group of teens passed around a blunt.
“You see that one cop?”, the kid went on, eyebrows lifting up, “He didn’t care if it was an old lady, a young kid or nothing, he was just beating, whipping people left and right. Fuck cops, but low-key, that guy went hard.”
“Right…”, we replied, not exactly sure how to respond. The kid wore a backwards hat clipped two notches too loose, and a skateboard hooked onto his backpack.
“Hey, any chance you got a light?”, he asked.
We handed him a black lighter, freshly purchased at the 7-Eleven up the street.
“How long you been out here for?” we asked, as he lit the smoke.
“Day one…”, he took a drag, exhaling into the humid air. “Well I took a while off cause I was in the hospital.”
“You okay? What happened?”
“I was right over there.” He said, pointing to the corner of the park. “Everyone was out protesting, and I was just walking by. They [police] shot me in the head [with a rubber bullet]. I woke up in the hospital the next day.”
“Jesus”, taken aback for a second. “They book you?”
“No, I think it was because they fucked up. They couldn’t have just arrested an unconscious person – they would have had to put me in as something, and they couldn’t. I’m homeless, I don’t have no ID or nothing.”
As the kid spoke, we heard rumblings coming from the corner of the park. A green ray beamed from the sky. On the ground, a man was illuminated, glowing in neon light. It appeared that the ray was coming from high up on one of the federal buildings.
Before anyone could figure what was going on, two unmarked vans accelerated to a quick stop in front of the crowd. The van door slid open, and a number of federal and police agents streamed out. They walked quickly over to the man who had been lit up, grabbed him by the arm, put him in the van, and drove off.
* * *
There had been a large push. A lady was sitting with her back against a concrete wall in pain. Two volunteer medics were on their knees bandaging her leg.
A man strutting by turned to us wide-eyed and said, “Tear gas goes good with eggs in the morning”. We checked the time. Half-past midnight.
Up ahead a line of local and federal police stood face-to-face with a group of demonstrators. A man yelled an obscenity at one of the agents. Two officers aimed rifles at his head.
A military grade gas mask, flashbangs around his belt, a pistol strapped on the body, and finger on the trigger of a fist-sized-grenade-launcher-looking-tube-mounted-assault-rifle – the officer looked like Richard Jewell crossed with Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.
It was hard to tell what the federal troops were doing here in Portland. A tactic by the Trump administration to stoke the culture war, and rally his base for the upcoming election? They have featured several carefully selected videos in campaign ads. Others speculated that it might have been a pilot program, ready to deploy to other states. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Whatever it was, staring at the police officers and federal agents in their state-of-the-art equipment, it was hard not to picture the nurses and firefighters – the essential workers that still couldn’t get an N-95. We weren’t prepared for a pandemic, but we were ready at a moment’s notice to pump teargas into the lungs of a couple angry kids dressed in skinny jeans with dyed pink hair, chanting “Black lives matter”, and throwing leftover 4th of July fireworks at a concrete federal building. Moments like these, it becomes bluntly clear where this country’s money is being spent.
We drove up to Portland in search for whom Trump described as anarchists and agitators, but what we saw instead was a nightly dance – a mix of pink-haired kids cosplaying antifa, George W. Bush era liberal moms out to defeat fascism, Black radical utopian socialists, BLM protestors, and everyone in between.
Each group would chant together and hold their ground, while the feds would gas, shoot, baton, and eventually retreat. The following night, the federal agents left Portland, but the weeks have seen protests continue – the brutality of the federal forces just replaced by that of the local police.
People here weren’t asking for much. While a rare few were heavy on insurrectionary talk, most just wanted to feel safe from police officers when walking down the street, to have clean water in which to fish and swim, to reallocate money from the local police department to communities in need, and for the feds to go home. But meaningful change is hard won, so they keep dancing, fumbling through the dark in search of a better world.