I decided to make the 260-mile trip down Interstate 5 from Bellingham to Portland, to attend a nightly protest that had attracted national attention. As I prepared by packing dark, nondescript clothing and watching a video on how to handle a tear gas attack, I worried that I might be part of the problem down in Portland rather than part of the solution.
Over the past couple weeks, the major U.S. newspapers have reported the escalation of the Portland protests, after President Donald Trump ordered agents from the Department of Homeland Security to protect federal property there. The move is widely understood as nothing more than an election-year ploy on Trump’s part to get favorable media attention for his campaign’s law-and-order agenda.
Playing into Trump’s hand, perhaps, protesters who were angered by the feds’ presence and their strong-arm tactics became aggressive. As tear gas, non-lethal munitions, and street abductions became a nightly routine in Portland, protesters retaliated with lasers and projectile water bottles, according to The New York Times.
This same Times report suggested tensions were developing along a different axis as well, between Black Lives Matter organizers and white protesters who saw the Portland drama as little more than an opportunity to lash out against authority. Or maybe they were just there to party.
The Times quoted Black organizer and Multnomah County Democratic Party officer Rachelle Dixon calling the troublemakers (not making the good kind of trouble famously championed by the late John Lewis), who were mostly white, a distraction.
“To see people standing in Portland destroying property and not actually doing the work of advocating for Black people was disturbing,” Dixon said. “I think they’re a distraction from the everyday needs of people of color, especially Black people.”
Then, with our Portland trip only two days away, big news: Trump’s people and the state of Oregon had negotiated a withdrawal of federal forces from downtown Portland, as long as state and local law enforcement could keep the peace. The feds left the door open for a quick return if things got out of hand, but by Thursday night, one night before our trip, relative calm had returned to the streets in front of the courthouse. I put on a borrowed respirator and swimming goggles anyway, just to be safe.
I was uneasy Friday night (actually early Saturday morning, Aug. 1) as our group walked the several blocks from our lodging to the protest site. What was I doing there? A Reuters report from the previous night expressed more frustration from Black organizers: “I’m done with y’all focusing on all these white folk,” a 17-year-old Black woman said in the Reuters story, referring to the media themselves. “This is a Black Lives Matter movement.”
In fairness to myself, I wasn’t a new kid on the block when it came to demonstrations against police abuses. I’ve researched and written on the issue for NWCitizen in the past, and I was one of about 15 who marched through downtown Bellingham in February 2016 to protest racial profiling and police violence—after Michael Brown but well before George Floyd, and before such actions had gained mass appeal among whites.
But why was I here now, in Portland, four and a half hours away? Was a city that is 70 percent non-Hispanic white and only six percent Black really the best place to witness firsthand the demolition of white supremacy—especially since the media was saying the protesters might be losing sight of the movement’s purpose?
The biggest reason for this trip was personal and practical, and not very interesting politically. My 14-year-old had made the trip with friends the previous Friday and wanted to go again. This time, the group was a little bigger, and they needed another driver. If my youngest child was going to get tear gassed again, it occurred to me I would feel better if I could be there. Additionally—and selfishly—as a writer, I thought this would be an experience worth having. The nation was watching, so there must be something worth seeing.
When we arrived, like I said after midnight, it seemed like the crowd’s energy was peaking. A Black woman with a megaphone pierced the air with repetitive chants of “Fuck Donald Trump” and then “Black Lives Matter,” to hypnotic effect. Protesters used cars to block the street for several blocks along SW Third Avenue, to give protesters the run of the place.
The media were there, in numbers large enough to noticeably swell the crowd size. I know this because media members at the Portland protest, like those in war zones, identified themselves with the word “Press” emblazoned in block letters on backpacks, helmets or flak jackets. The roughest of estimates from that night put the number of people in front of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse at 1,000.
The police presence, on the other hand, was effectively zero. I went in expecting Oregon state troopers to be standing between the tall chain-link fence and the courthouse building—the same position federal troops had taken in the videos my child showed me from the weekend before. But the fenced no-man’s land between Third Avenue and the courthouse was empty. Others in my group said that heads belonging to law enforcement would pop up occasionally on the parapet about halfway up the building. (The lines on the courthouse’s limestone facade evoked the Death Star.) I never caught sight of the cops’ heads at the parapet myself, but when they appeared the crowd would shine lasers and powerful flashlights toward them and shout admonitions including, “Quit your job!”
With no police at ground level to interact with, the protesters were often unfocused. Three or four shirtless white men moved with purpose to one corner of the chain-link fence and boosted themselves over, for no apparent reason other than to show that the fence wasn’t going to stop them. No one was on the other side of the fence to greet these daring young men, and it appeared from my vantage point that nothing happened to them. They disappeared into the darkness that shrouded that space, and I didn’t hear so much as a whimper from them afterward.
A large portion of the crowd was orbiting around an effort to start a fire on the pavement in the middle of Third Avenue. When I first saw it, the fire was no bigger than a spiral notebook laying open; in fact, I thought the protesters were making a point of burning documents of some political importance. I thought of the footage of Vietnam War protesters burning their draft cards. But very soon it became apparent the protesters were burning anything they could get their hands on, to start a fire just for the sake of starting a fire. Since nothing else was going on, a lot of the “Press” people had latched onto the fire, their smart phones on selfie sticks springing high up over the heads in the crowd whenever the fire looked like it was flaring up in earnest.
Someone dipped a U.S. flag into the fire. Once it caught, he lifted it up on its metal pole and waved it around, the stripes still visible behind a wall of orange flame. A modest cheer came from the crowd. Swatches of burning cloth flew off the flag as embers, then it disappeared altogether. Immediately afterward, a couple people standing in the fire’s smoke got into an impromptu intellectual debate about the merits of the flag-burning move. The protesters were willing to think on their feet and self-analyze, even if after the fact.
A little later, someone rushed up to the little fire and stamped it out with his or her feet. Even though I was only a few feet away, it was hard to see what was happening in the darkness and chaos. I can’t say I got a good look at the person. The various reports I heard from others indicated the person was either a white woman, or else a large white man I had seen myself—he had a sticker on his helmet that said “Security.” The man stomped off in a huff after someone ripped off his sticker. I saw a Black man confronting a white person immediately after the fire went out, yelling at him (or her), “This isn’t your cause!”
I was at a loss to understand the cause in this moment. What was the point of being out on the street in downtown Portland well after midnight, after 60-plus consecutive nights of street actions in the city since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop on May 25?
The Black man and a few other people redoubled their efforts to start the fire. Someone brought a sheet of plywood that had been painted black on one side—probably ripped from a nearby storefront. All storefronts within several blocks of the courthouse were boarded up. The plywood proved to be crucial. With a significant fuel source, the fire started to really get going. All this time, the police stayed away.
With the crowd now focused on the fire, a young Black man took over the bullhorn to lead a rousing call-and-response: “Black Lives Matter!” It’s impossible for me to know what the group of three Black men who had taken command of the scene were thinking as this was going on. When the sea of white faces, bathed in firelight, reached an especially loud and impressive crescendo of “Black Lives Matter,” the caller with the bullhorn and one of the other men in charge would come together for a quick embrace. To my eyes, they appeared pleased over the energy they had harnessed among their historical oppressors.
Then the speeches started. The man who had confronted the person who doused the fire spoke about how this was only the beginning of the fight. He urged people to stay focused. The third man spoke next, heaping praise on the crowd for showing up to such a significant historical moment. He said we were the chosen ones, a mere 1,000 out of the hundreds of thousands who live in Portland. The rest apparently decided not to take to the streets for racial justice. Ten years from now, he said, you can tell your children, nieces, and nephews you were on the right side of history when the change happened.
A white woman took the megaphone. After checking with the crowd to find out whether any people of color wanted to speak, she went on to list the demands of the movement, which she expressed in a catchy chant: “Defund PPB (Portland Police Bureau)! How much? Fifty percent at least! Where should that money go? To our Black communities. What do we want for No. 3? Protester amnesty. What do we want for No. 4? Kick Ted Wheeler out the door!” That would be Portland’s mayor, in case you happened to be crashing this particular Black Lives Matter party from way up in Bellingham.
“But don’t listen to this white woman,” she said, as she was finishing her speech. “Do your research.”
I left Portland thinking something real was in fact happening in this quirky white city I hardly ever visit and can’t claim to understand. Social justice messages were painted throughout the downtown area, on those plywood boards and on the sidewalks. As for the late-night protest, I’m now confident that meaningful democratic change can happen on the streets—as long as the white folks stay on topic, and the police aren’t there to crush it.