Dispatch from Portland

Portland has been the scene of huge demonstrations since the murder of George Floyd, with thousands taking to the streets to protest police violence and systemic racism. The arrival of federal agents, who have used violent tactics and pulled protestors into unmarked vans, has put a national spotlight on the city. We spoke to Tyler Adams, who lives in Portland now but grew up in Sparta and is a UW-La Crosse graduate about what protesters in Portland want, how the city is responding to the actions of federal agents, and what we can learn from what’s happening there.

Tell us about how these protests in Portland began. What are protesters demanding?

First, I want to say that my comments don’t speak for everyone at the protests, or for the movements in general; my answers are just observations from live feeds, recordings, and recollections from friends and acquaintances I know who have been a part of the protests. I don’t pretend to be an expert on socioeconomic issues—I am just willing to share what I know and have observed. Much of this may come across as hearsay to some people, and that’s okay.

The protests started around the same time and reason that everything else started recently surrounding the murder of George Floyd. From what I understand, it started on the night of May 29 in the form of a peaceful gathering organized by the Portland NAACP branch, then continued on through the night with a vigil honoring Floyd. I think that night is when the actual protests began too, and also when small groups of protestors started vandalizing store windows, buildings, etc. That’s been sort of the story of the protests, from what I understand: mostly peaceful, with a small percentage of people doing any actual damage.

From what I understand, the demands seem to be racial justice and the defunding of the Portland Police Department. Hundreds testified in front of Portland City Council advocating for a $50 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau, for example. Having not been a member of the protests myself, I can’t speak too well on that exact topic.

What is it about Portland that has kept protests alive for over 50 straight nights? 

Well, there’s the easy answer: depending on the metric, Portland is usually in the top 10 of blue-voting cities in America. The Trump Administration is seen by many as racist and fascist. The number of blue voters doesn’t tell everything, of course; I know countless progressives here (myself included) who refuse to vote for the Democratic candidates put forth in the last two elections, yet vehemently oppose the tyrannical, racist regime in power currently. This, combined with the ongoing event of police brutality spotlighted by the George Floyd murder, is probably a reason why the protests haven’t skipped a beat.

Also, I think some context of Oregon’s past can help explain this. Even though Oregon (and Portland in particular) is seen as a sort of liberal, “progressive” bastion in the United States, Oregon has an extremely racist history, and I think people here understand that, for the most part. For example, Oregon’s constitution in 1857 barred people of color from entering the state, and this wasn’t repealed until 1926. Other racial exclusion laws, such as a ban on interracial marriage, weren’t repealed until the 1950s. Even though we are a West Coast state as opposed to a Southern state, there was a heavy Ku Klux Klan presence in Oregon until the 1930s.

Even today, Portland, an infamously white city, is home to a large sect of the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, far-right organizations known for violently attacking people of color and the LGBT community. Most citizens of Portland I’ve come across in my circles over the past four years of living here are very knowledgeable about just how racist Oregon’s past is. I think this can give context to exactly why tensions are so high here in Portland, and why our citizens feel the need to continue protests.

Protesters pictured recently outside the federal courthouse in Portland Tedder/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Another reason why the protests have continued here is the amount of instigation/exacerbation of violence by the Portland police. I honestly can’t tell you how many videos I’ve seen from Facebook friends alone that depict very peaceful protests, but once the crowd starts chanting or walking anywhere near the police, they start throwing tear gas into the crowds. The cops have given reports of objects like “rocks” and “sticks” being thrown at them, but, as I said before, this is always a small sect of the protests; a handful of individuals at best. It’s also worth nothing that this is often instigated by those who don’t agree with the movement and just want to fan the flames. A personal friend of mine shared a video that said that everything was peaceful until a far-right instigator, masquerading as a peaceful protestor, started throwing things at police to stir things up. Then the police started throwing tear gas and have shot rubber bullets into crowds, which has led to severe injuries such as fractured skulls. This was even before the federal agents came to Portland, and now it’s even worse.

Did you participate in the protests when they began? Have you been taking to the streets in recent days as well?

Unfortunately, I have not. As someone who tries his hardest to be an ally and feels as though active civil duty and protests are cornerstones of positive change, I wish I could be. As a restaurant manager, the job that I have requires me to be on-site and physically active, rather than at home. With reports of police violence from the very first night, I am terrified of getting arrested, abducted, or seriously injured, and therefore being out of a job during the uncertainty of the COVID crisis.

Instead, I choose to listen to actual reports from people at the protests, both by way of personal friends and acquaintances that have been there, as well as first-hand accounts from other people in the city. I try to stay away from the news reports that glorify the violence and underreport how mostly peaceful the protests are, save a small group here or there; in my opinion, that’s anti-protest propaganda purposefully painting a negative picture.

Do you know anyone taking part in the protests since federal agents were sent in, subjecting citizens to tear gas, violence, and detention without due process? What have they experienced?

I know several people who have been taking part in the protests since federal agents were sent in. A friend I mentioned before has reported multiple times that protestors were peaceful and nothing was thrown at police, yet the federal agents still directed police to shoot pepper rounds at protestors. Several people confirmed his story, and added their own accounts of unprovoked tear gas being thrown at their groups of peaceful protestors.

No one that I know has personally been abducted/detained by federal agents. I have, however, seen first-hand reports from people on a friend’s status that said, “I saw some of my friends get rounded up. They were further away from the group. They have been missing for three days. No paper trail, no arrest receipts. They haven’t responded to calls or texts- and nothing on Facebook.”

This same person said later, “They’ve been telling us to text or write to our families that we aren’t committing suicide – just in case. We just don’t know what is happening.” This resonates as true when you take into account other accounts of people being detained, such as the Beaverton (Portland suburb) attorney who took part in the famous “Wall of Moms,” and was detained without the agents identifying who they were or reading her rights. The agents didn’t allow her to call an attorney, make a phone call or text, or even grab a blanket or flannel from her bag.

How are the public and residents of Portland responding to what the government is doing to protesters there? 

From everything I’ve seen, the residents are by and large livid about the situation. As stated before, hundreds testified that they wanted $50 million cut out of the police budget. While $15 million was agreed to be cut by the Portland City Council, citizens clearly don’t think that is enough. Mayor Ted Wheeler was at a recent protest, and though it had been announced for over a month that the cuts were happening, several chants of “defund the police” started when he spoke. Now reports have come out that he, too, was tear gassed, in what he called an “egregious overreaction” by federal officers.

In your view, what is the best-case scenario in how these protests are resolved? What about a worst-case scenario?

Best-case: Federal agents are kicked out of cities. Police presence is rescinded from protests, as they are doing nothing but exacerbating the situation. Awareness of the situation is enhanced, and police forces (not just in Portland) are greatly defunded until their cities and states—led in a concurrent effort by both citizens and elected officials—can pinpoint exactly how to make them better. Money put towards funding police departments goes towards intricate, incredibly detailed research on disparities in policing, with focus on profiling, over-policing of certain areas, and unnecessary violence and escalation. I don’t pretend to be an expert on police matters, but there is an obvious policing issue in America, and though it affects most, minorities are unquestionably hit the hardest.

Worst-case: The federal and police presence increases, and cities become a martial law, tyrannical warzone. More and more people are stripped of their constitutional, procedural rights, and protesting becomes too dangerous to engage in for most. Protestors begin to die more and more. We are effectively silenced, and the tyrannical government wins, instilling authoritarianism. This may seem like a reach to some, but when you read firsthand accounts of what federal agents are doing—or worse, you’re the one tied up in a van and thrown in a holding cell with your rights essentially ignored—you realize this is all a step in that direction.

The city of La Crosse, where you used to live, has also seen numerous, large protests calling for an end to racism and for more investment of resources into the community. What lessons can La Crosse learn from what’s been happening in Portland?

Don’t give up—those in power who want to silence you are scared. Record everything, both through video evidence when possible, as well as a written record. Relay everything to people you trust. Tell people where you’re going. Don’t go alone. Make your recordings and notes public. Don’t talk to the police—ask for an attorney. Seriously—invoke your 5th Amendment Right to protect yourself against self-incrimination, and ask for an attorney. Protect yourself, and don’t let them instigate violence from your end; they want a reason to blame you and charge you. The more people that stand up, the better our chances are. Keep. Fighting.

Interview by Adam Schendel. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. Please consider supporting our journalism by becoming subscriber for as little as $5 a month here. Top image: Graffiti in Portland, Oregon/Another Believer/CC BY-SA 4.0.

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