It has been difficult for me to get a grasp on what has been happening every night in downtown Portland, so I talked with a friend, Caleb, who had participated in some of the demonstrations, and he agreed to show me the ropes. We met at a fountain in Tom McCall waterfront park, which is next to the Willamette River, which splits Portland East-West. We live on the East Side, but close to downtown, which is on the west.
I took the bus downtown and walked to the meeting place, going by the Justice Center (which is the County Jail and Courthouse in one building, about 7 stories tall.) Next to it was the Federal Courthouse, named for former Senator Mark Hatfield, also about 7 stories. That is one of the properties Federal police were sent in to protect.
There is a park next to these buildings, which was full of tents and such. There are a couple of groups that cook food for whoever wants it (one is dubbed “Riots Ribs”) and there are medics, water bottles, and a tent for legal aid lawyers. This looks like a permanent encampment.
Along the way, I walked by a newly painted gray wall on the side of a building. As I went by, I was surprised to see a man walk up with a spray paint can and start spraying on graffiti. It was broad daylight and no cops were around. I had told myself that if I saw vandalism or violence, I would speak up, but I was so taken aback by the brazenness of this act that I didn’t do anything but walk on.
The Hatfield Courthouse was ringed in a fairly heavy fence, where the sections are linked together with pins. I was told this is a heavier fence than what was there earlier this week- one often torn down as the night went on.
I met Caleb and a few of his friends about 8:15 pm. We agreed on his ground rules: We stick together, and if someone in the group feels uncomfortable, we all leave together. Several hundred people were there, some identified by the colors of their shirts. The “Mom Wall” wears yellow, there is a Dad wall (some equipped with leaf- blowers to push tear gas away from the crowd- a clever idea), veterans in white shirts, some with American flags, health care works in scrubs, and teachers in red.
A handful of black folks. draped in American flags got in the middle of us with a megaphone and small public address system, led us in some “Black Lives Matters” chants, and then gave us the plan. We were going to walk the three blocks to the Justice Center/Courthouse pair, listen briefly to a speaker, and then go another few blocks to the Marriott Hotel. The plan was to reduce our exposure to tear gas by not hanging around the legal buildings, and to show up at the Marriott, which is where the Federal police forces are being housed. The thinking was that the tear-gas might not be stored at the Marriott, so people would be safe from it.
Off we went. There were various chants, started by someone leather-lunging (circus term for giving a talk without a microphone) in the marchers. “BLM,” Say his name “George Floyd” say her name, “Breonna Taylor” were the most common. At one point someone started the “All Cops are Bastards” chant, but Caleb and others taught me a technique: Instead of challenging the chanters, Caleb did his own leather-lung procedure of just having a conversation with an unidentified person: “They aren’t all bad” and “many are trying their best.” That chant soon died out.
Other groups coming from other directions all met at the Justice Center, and the crowd was big, bigger than the marches against the Iraq War I participated in back in 2003.
There is some serious work being put in to these demonstrations. One thing that impressed me was some video projections high on the walls of the downtown buildings. I took a photo of one “Fed Goons Out of PDX” (PDX is our airport code, and a nickname for the city) which was projected up on a high atrium window of the Justice Center. The image was I would say 20 feet high from top to bottom.
People in the crowd showed me where security cameras were, and pointed to the top of the Hatfield Building. On Friday night, the Federal police released tear gas/CS gas from up there, drifting in clouds over the crowd once things got rowdy. I am guessing this strategy was used because it avoided firing canisters of the gas, and it kept Federal Police safe from the attacks they faced when they were coming out to shoot it from street level.
The public address system for the speakers was woefully inadequate, and the talk was just a vague noise- and I was about 50 yards from the speaker. The Oregonian (our daily paper) had said the Black Lives Matter people were trying to bring the focus of their demonstrations back to police violence against African-Americans, but I can only guess that is what the speaker was talking about.
We then marched to the Marriott, which is a block or two away. There were more speakers you couldn’t understand, some chants, and a lot of standing around. Caleb and I talked about his school teaching plans, and a little about bird-watching, that’s how weak the public address system was. At at quarter past 10 I decided I had seen what I wanted to see, said ‘farewell’ to my group and turned to cross the Hawthorn Bridge over the Willamette to get to the East side and catch a bus home.
A few observations:. I saw no violence. I saw a lot of graffiti, much of it vulgar. I didn’t see anyone writing graffiti except for the person I mentioned. The fence around the courthouse had the words “F… the police” spelled out in flowers, but the crowd I was with was well-behaved. Mostly white, but no small number of black folks. Most of the group was young, but there were some older people. Everyone wore COVID masks-, and many had bike helmets or construction helmets on (I had my bike helmet in my backpack.)
On my way over the bridge, I was passed in the opposite direction by a number of people dressed in black clothes, headed for the courthouse, or perhaps the Marriott. About 50, all told. One was pulling a child’s wagon that looked like it was carrying cans of fizzy water, but I’m not sure of that. These are the self-called ‘anarchists’ and they are the group that uses violence and vandalism, always attacking around midnight.
On the east-side, I caught a bus home and went to bed, about 11:30 or so. Mary told me that earlier, a big parade had come down Martin Luther King Avenue (which is about 5 blocks from our house) and they were loud enough that she could hear them chanting. They joined the downtown crowd later on, but I was gone by then. This is when the big group started doing the “All Cops are Bastards” chant and that was when rest of my group went home.
I’m glad I went, even though, oddly, little actually happened. If I could have heard the speakers I might have had a different opinion. In some ways, I am sorry I didn’t hang around longer to witness the outbreak of violence. One thing I did decide, after a few days thought, was that the non-violent protesters are being used as a screen by the violent ones, who mingle with the crowd and use that anonymity to throws rocks, shoot fireworks and the like. I decided that while I am sympathetic to the protests against police brutality, I will not participate again until the violent element is expelled or ceases their tactics. Otherwise, I am nothing but a stooge for those who seek only to destroy.