The anti-racism protests in Portland, OR have now surpassed the two-month mark, but rather than have a single narrative arc, multiple storylines have emerged from these specific protests, together creating a cacophony of sound quickly approaching a deafening decibel, making it hard, at times, to decipher what's really going on.
Over the last several weeks, the talk surrounding the Portland protests has focused on anarchists, law enforcement, a Wall of Moms, local government, U.S. President Donald Trump, federal agents, unmarked vans, and, most recently, the potential deployment of the National Guard. It's no wonder that keeping track of the key players becomes difficult. Still, it's important to resist efforts to oversimplify what is going on in Portland as merely a case of Federal Government vs. Protesters, since that binary, headline-friendly approach leaves a lot of important questions unanswered.
So, what exactly is going on? Because there are so many narrative threads knotted together — in desperate need of teasing out — it's almost easier to say what's not going on. For example, the stories about Portland that are making the national, or even international news, are not all that is happening in the Northwest city. Nor is the real story what President Donald Trump would have the world believe, that Portland is a city under duress, one fire away from being burned to the ground. But, it is important to note that, while overwhelmingly peaceful, not all of the thousands of protesters in Portland are there to promote equity and reform. For all the well-intentioned demonstrators fighting for an end to systemic racism and police violence, there are also some who are there to invite chaos, which, in turn, drowns out the reasons why so many others have taken to the streets.
And then there's everything going on in the background, with local legislators and groups pushing for meaningful changes to be made through reallocated funding, community-based policing, and addressing inequalities plaguing the city. The good news is that the early demands of protesters are being acknowledged. The bad news is: This doesn’t make it into wider reporting. Even in local news, it is seldom stated.
To understand what is happening, we must accept that there is no simple explanation and only some simple truths within the larger, complex reality. We must also ask ourselves: Can a protest ever be anything other than imperfect?
Is Portland really burning?
Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, protests broke out in cities across the country. Portland, OR was among the places drawing in thousands of protesters who came to stand up against systemic racism, police brutality, and demand that things change.
National and international news publications released dramatic photos that looked as though they could have been taken straight from the set of a post-apocalyptic film: A Fox News headline describing recent events stated, “Portland protesters flood police precinct, chant about burning it down.” The New York Post said that Portland protests “have no goal except violence and anarchy.” But, as local press noted at the time, this was not what things actually looked like on the ground.
In mid-July, The Oregonian published a counter to this narrative, running a photographic tour of the city to contrast the more sinister images circulating online. It showed that, by day, Portland is still largely calm; families walk the streets and peaceful protests have carried on without incident. But, by night, a different picture emerges. Tensions flare, almost like clockwork, between law enforcement and a small number of demonstrators. The problem is that, compared to the thousands of people gathering in a dozen or more locations around the city to protest, the focus on a violent few are taking away from the larger message. It also presents a skewed image of the city for those without a knowledge of Portland’s layout.
“Well, first, like any group, protesters aren’t a monolith,” Portland City Commissioner Jo Anna Hardesty told Refinery29. “I have seen with my own eyes the thousands of non-violent protesters demanding fundamental change to our system. I believe that there has been a hyper-focus on things like graffiti to distract us from the real violence taking place carried out by our police and the federal agents.”
Without being familiar with the city, it is easy to see images of chaos and envision an entire city under siege and overcome by violence. In reality, the images populating the news, and social media feeds come almost exclusively from a 12-block area surrounding the city's Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse. Without that context, images and videos of violence can be twisted and contorted into whatever message serves the messenger. For Trump, the images act as justification to send federal agents into other Democrat-led cities around the country.
Even after Oregon Governor Kate Brown negotiated an agreement with Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials to begin withdrawing federal agents from Portland, Trump continues to use fear-filled words to stoke divisiveness. The same day the withdrawal was announced, Trump tweeted that the “sick and deranged anarchists & agitators” would leave Portland “burned and beaten to the ground.” Refinery29 reached out to Governor Kate Brown for comment.
What Trump is saying about Portland
Over the Fourth of July weekend, federal agents arrived in Portland at Trump’s behest, and headlines about agents in unmarked vans grabbing protesters off the streets began to spread like wildfire. Local officials demanded Trump withdraw the influx of officers from the Northwest city to no avail. Why did Trump even send them in the first place, though? Some believe he was motivated by a desire to provoke a confrontation, push the appearance of chaos, and give himself an electorally beneficial edge in the 2020 race as the self-proclaimed “law and order president.” But has this gamble paid off?
Since Trump ordered agents to Portland in late-June, his re-election campaign has capitalized on the subsequent footage and innumerable headlines and spent millions of dollars to produce ominous television ads to stoke the prospective voters' fear. With chaotic, Democrat-led cities as the backdrop, Trump’s campaign ads attempt to associate the confrontation and chaos with rival candidate Joe Biden, reports the New York Times. One ad simulates a home invasion; an older woman waits on hold as she calls 911 while shadowy intruders appear in the background. The subtext not so subtly suggests that, should Biden get elected, lawless anarchy would prevail. It fails to address the fact that all of this alleged lawless anarchy is already happening, under Trump.
What the Portland protests are really like
In the first weeks of demonstrations, protests were largely peaceful, but local police still exhibited shows of force, including releasing tear gas into crowds, violent arrests, and harming journalists and bystanders. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against local law enforcement for using tear gas and aggressive tactics in an attempt to disperse protesters. This lawsuit would later be amended to include federal agents. Refinery29 contacted the Portland Police Bureau, but they declined to comment.
“[The protests] are very similar in that there are a lot of people lining up in protest for Black lives eventually being attacked and brutalized by the police. Before Donald Trump’s federal officers were here, it was Portland’s police, and now it’s federal officers,” Greg McKelvey, founder of Portland’s Resistance and a vice-chair of the Oregon Democratic Party’s Black Caucus told Refinery29. McKelvey has been participating in and witnessing the protests firsthand. He describes the Portland protests as starting with thousands of protesters, briefly dwindling into the hundreds, but recently resurging into the thousands after Trump sent in federal enforcers.
“It’s incredibly peaceful. You go in and you hear chants intermittently and people holding signs,” McKelvey said, describing the protests. “Oftentimes, especially recently, you don’t see any law enforcement for long periods of time. Every so often you hear a firework. But once you start hearing a firework every few minutes is when you can expect troops to come out of the building,” he continued, referencing the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse. “Once that happens, there’s clouds of gas, lots of flashbangs and grenades, they’re shooting something at us, I’m not sure what it is. It’s utter chaos for some amount of minutes, and then people regroup. That cycles throughout the night.”
Are Portland police tear-gassing people?
On June 30, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a bill into law that bans tear gas, except in situations where police declare a riot and broadcast a warning that tear gas is imminent before deploying it — a pretty big loophole. Just hours later, protesters were tear-gassed by the Portland Police Bureau, and three journalists were arrested.
The Black-led and community-driven organization, Don’t Shoot PDX, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland, reports Willamette Week. “The ink was barely dry on the order before the City violated it,” the filing reads. “There does not appear to be any effort to avoid exposing entire crowds of people to pepper spray; indeed, officers appear at times to be acting in open defiance of that prohibition.”
So when mere weeks later, Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those tear-gassed by federal agents, many protesters did not express sympathy or concern. “How does it taste?” one protester shouted at Wheeler, reports the Washington Post. “How can you let your people get gassed out here every night?” Portland residents called out what they believed to be a double standard. How could Wheeler permit local law enforcement to tear gas protesters one week, then turn around to join the protesters and call the same act at the hands of federal officers “abhorrent?”
Refinery29 reached out to Wheeler’s office for comment, who made it abundantly clear that his administration's stance is that the presence of federal police in the city is unwelcome. “By deploying federal officers in our city, Trump has used Portland as a staging ground to further his political agenda, igniting his base to cause further divisiveness, and in doing so, endangering the lives and safety of Portlanders. By deploying federal officers, the President has made our current situation much worse. His heavy-handed tactics led to a serious injury and inflamed an already tense situation,” reads the statement provided by Wheeler’s office. “The videos, the pictures, the experiences that we are all witnessing here in Portland should be shocking to all Americans. President Trump and the Department of Homeland Security's words and actions have shown that this is an attack on our democracy.”
But, when asked a follow-up question about his actions being perceived as hypocritical by protesters, Wheeler's office did not respond.
Progress is being made in Portland, but it’s behind the scenes
Community demands have included cutting police funding by 50%, addressing income inequality, and getting federal agents to leave the city, but making these things into a reality is complicated — not least because some are short- and others are long-term goals. But also, while protesters have centralized issues they are fighting to change, they do not have a centralized organization.
“For many national audiences, I think it is hard for them to understand. There isn’t one leader or one group. There isn’t anybody who could speak for the protesters,” said McKelvey. “There’s been attempts at that, especially from local officials, to find somebody who brought a megaphone to the protest and then say, ‘Look, the leaders say it’s all over.’”
But, considering the fact that there is no singular governmental voice, with clashing stances taken by city, state, and federal officials, the lack of a singular voice for the protestors should not be an excuse for government officials to avoid listening to complaints and making what changes they can.
And, in fact, they have made some changes already. On June 17 — after over a month of protests, but before Trump sent a single federal agent — the Portland City Council passed its 2020-21 budget with a plan to cut at least USD $15 million from the police bureau, with the goal of reallocating the funds to invest in a community-led review of police patrolling services, implementing a permanent community oversight body, and supporting groups like the Oregon Legislative People of Color Caucus. This move appeared to be at least a partial response to a press release published on June 2, in which the Oregon Legislative People of Color Caucus announced that they were asking the Oregon Legislature to take at least three specific actions to improve police accountability by the end of 2020. “The issue is simply two words: Accountability and Trust,” said Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick. “Both are broken. It will take a major effort to establish them in our society. The myth that the system was sound has been overturned. Now the work begins.”
Prior to the protests, the proposed budget included a $3 million increase. A week later, lawmakers in the Oregon capitol of Salem passed six police reform bills addressing force and accountability, reports local news outlet KGW. The city also banned the use of chokeholds, removed police officers from schools, and announced it will be moving away from police-based solutions and using unarmed first responders when possible.
This is concrete, meaningful change, but it's not being reflected in the reports of "anarchy in Oregon." Instead, the Trump administration and some news outlets focus more on incendiary soundbites of protesters reportedly trying to burn down federal buildings. “It’s hard because you see things like, ‘Protesters set fire to the building.’ I don’t think that is ever an accurate representation of the protests,” said McKelvey, adding that there is usually a fence around the buildings. “Fires that are started are not usually anything close to something that could ignite the building. It’s so rare in crowds of thousands of people that, maybe every few days, one or two people set some sort of fire. But for it to be portrayed as ‘The protest is trying to burn down a building’ is incredibly inaccurate.”
How Portland sees itself
But enough about how the outside world sees Portland; what about what the city sees when it looks at its own reflection? What is going on in Portland is not only about a president vilifying protestors in order to bolster his reelection campaign. It is about more than police brutality going unchecked. It is essentially about a city trying desperately to overcome its racist history to prove that it has earned the liberal status it proudly displays to the world. By engaging in protests, the city is demonstrating what it means to fight for a cause rather than silence it. Yet, in their fervour, it's possible that some protesters have marched into dangerous territory, and might have lost the thread of the original message.
Dr. Shirley Jackson, a professor who focuses on race and social movements in the Department of Black Studies at Portland State University, cites a few examples of events during the Portland protests that have both helped and hindered the cause. Jackson said that, on June 2, when thousands of protestors laid down on Portland’s Burnside Bridge for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time George Floyd was held in a chokehold by law enforcement, this was one of the most effective actions taken in the protests.
“When the focus was on the police and demands were being made on the changes that the police department needed to make, that was clear. That was something that other cities could also rally around. They understood that because they were also experiencing the same thing,” Jackson told Refinery29.
But, she added: “What we start to see now is some confusion around the meaning of current protest. This movement is now endangering the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s putting in the shadows the work of many of the African Americans who were really pushing that message forward. It is a movement that is no longer clear with respect to its message.”
Jackson cited a number of issues at play that all contribute to the original message of the protests being lost. She mentioned a lack of clear direction after the focus shifted to the Federal Courthouse, a fear of questioning driven by an aversion to appearing “less liberal,” and creating a spectacle without considering its larger context.
“Portland is a city that loves the progressive and liberal labels that have been attached to it,” said Jackson. “At the same time that makes it very difficult for people to have a difference of opinion about the nature of protest when it starts to go in a different direction. Even if you had people who were saying, ‘Wait a minute, this is not the direction of the movement,' there may be people who feel silenced that they can’t say anything or else they will be perceived as anti-Black Lives Matter, pro-federal government, or pro-police.”
There's also the issue of media narratives now centering around grand gestures performed by white protesters. A woman posing nude in front of law enforcement was quickly dubbed “The Naked Athena,” but while some looked on in confusion, others questioned the purpose of her actions. Another example is The Wall of Moms that made a splash on social media for locking arms in protest. “No one seems to pay attention when Black mothers were marching in protest, especially those associated with Black Lives Matter. But now you have a group of white women and everybody is looking at this group as though Black women weren’t doing this sort of thing,” Jackson noted. “To see your movement taken over by people who aren’t understanding that by putting white faces at the forefront, it makes it easy for people to forget Black faces that we try to remember when we have Black Lives Matter protests.”
Then there is the focus on the Federal Courthouse. “I’m not quite sure what the end game is in the siege of this particular location. That’s the thing that needs to be made clear in order to move forward,” said Jackson, adding that the longer there is a focus on the Federal Courthouse, the higher the chances are that things will escalate to further violence. “No one wants to back down. It’s a lose-lose situation. Chances are, the Feds will escalate or the crowds that are engaging in the more violent measures will also escalate. That is such a strong possibility.”
But, What Protest Has Ever Been Perfect?
“I think that we need to move away from a framing in which protests are something to be solved. Instead, look at protests as a tool to be used by our society and by our leaders and elected officials to move our community forward,” said McKelvey. “I don’t think protests are an obstacle that we should even be looking forward to the end of. If protests are sustained for a long period of time, I think that puts us in a better position to put pressure on our local officials as well as for our elected officials to have the capital that they need to move things forward."
The sign of a successful protest isn’t that it's seen as perfect — or even as good — from beginning to end. Protests begin and end and there's a lot that's uncomfortable in the middle. The point is that a successful protest brings about change. But, it's still important for a protest to be self-sustaining, and to progress in a way that indicates the potential for a better future — one that always has room for more change, and more protest.