PORTLAND, Oregon – Life has been a series of adjustments for protesters in Portland as they clash with federal agents every night.
“We came here in T-shirts and fluttering Hula-Hoops and stuff, and they started gassing us, so we came back with respirators, and they started shooting at us, so we were. came back with vests, and they started targeting the leader, so we started wearing helmets, and now they call us terrorists, ”said Mac Smiff, a black local organizer in Portland. “Who makes this worse? It is not us.
The protests in Portland have been going on for two months, but the situation escalated when federal agents – from the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and the US Marshals Service – were deployed to the city from the weekend of July 4.
Since then, officers have used tear gas, pepper spray and “less lethal” ammunition, sometimes indiscriminately, on crowds. The city saw its biggest protests turnout last weekend, when more than 5,000 people gathered in front of and around the U.S. Mark O. Hatfield courthouse, which was heavily guarded by federal agents.
As the nights turned into weeks and months, the protests evolved. The Moms Wall appeared last week, dressed in yellow and holding sunflowers while binding their arms to form a physical barrier separating protesters – some, their own children – from federal officers. The next night, they were accompanied by the Wall of Papas, carrying leaf blowers to fire tear gas back at federal agents.
Not knowing if they will be warned before the tear gas fills the air, some protesters are prepared with gas masks and sprays filled with eye drops.
At one point, Navy veteran and protester India Wynne thought it had started raining in the middle of the night while they were wearing their gas masks. It turns out that was the density of what appeared to be pepper spray from federal agents.
“My skin started to burn. Federal agents escalate way ahead of us, and they escalate to the point where it doesn’t have to be, ”Wynne said. “I know crowd control tactics, and that’s not what’s happening. You don’t need to deploy 20 or 30 rounds of tear gas … And they don’t care who they gas.
Armed officers in heavy riot gear clashed with protesters who created their own makeshift shields and shields, including helmets and bulletproof vests labeled “Press,” after a prohibition order was issued. approved preventing federal agents from arresting or attacking journalists and legal observers.
Jayla Lindseth, a black protester, urges people to come to the protests with at least a few other friends who can help protect each other and “stop”.
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“When I say de-arrest I mean if you see your friend get caught [by officers], get them back, ”Lindseth advised. “We are fighting here for change.”
While many have preached a nonviolent response to the use of force by federal agents, others retaliate by setting fires and hurling mortar-type fireworks over a fence the agents have erected. around the Federal Courthouse.
“Yes, there are people throwing stones and bricks, water bottles and fireworks. But it’s a small, small fraction of the people here to protest, ”said Paul Swortz, one of the Navy veterans standing by the veterans wall. “It’s a handful of thousands, and you don’t judge thousands based on the actions of a handful. “
The Portland Transportation Bureau filed a cease-and-desist order calling on federal agents to remove the fence on Tuesday, alleging it was erected illegally and interferes with the city’s public right of way. The agency added that it had already started imposing a maximum fine of $ 500 for every 15 minutes of fence obstructing the street, which has already totaled nearly $ 200,000 in penalties.
The Trump administration has deployed the unsolicited and seemingly unwanted federal response to the city to counter protests and protests denouncing police brutality following the murder of George Floyd while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The officers, many of whom wore dark-colored uniform emblems, making it difficult to identify the agency they work for, have been accused of grossly abusive actions against the protesters, according to a lawsuit filed against several organizations for the purpose. nonprofit, including Protect Democracy, Don’t Shoot Portland. and Wall of Moms, filed on behalf of protesters Monday.
The complaint alleges that federal agents have greatly exceeded their limits beyond protecting federal property with the use of pepperballs and flash bang explosives, and other similar tactics.
The presence of federal agents has been heavily criticized not only by protesters but also by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has repeatedly called on Trump to remove them.
This week, Wheeler called for an “immediate meeting” with the Department of Homeland Security to discuss a “ceasefire.”
Department of Homeland Security officials did not return a request for comment on the meeting.
The Department of Homeland Security and the Marshal’s Service said they were already identifying agents who could rotate or supplement agents in Portland.
As of Wednesday, at least 114 federal agents were known to be in the city by a judicial filing by the government.
Attorney General William Barr also weighed in on the use of federal force in Portland during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
“Following the death of George Floyd, violent rioters and anarchists hijacked legitimate protests to wreak senseless havoc and destruction on innocent victims,” he said. “The current situation in Portland is a prime example. “
Barr added that they had to increase the federal presence in the city in order to “protect federal offices and federal buildings.”
Meanwhile, passions become more resolute for protesters who have been demonstrating for days, if not weeks.
“I’m so sick of this. I am so tired. I lack sleep because I’m a single mom and work full time and have to come spend my nights with you because I can’t stand on my own street and say, “Black lives matter,” a woman, wearing a signature yellow t-shirt with the Moms Wall, said Monday evening. “Black lives matter, which is why we are here. We are not here because of a building. We don’t care about the building, we don’t care about your stupid fence, we care about black lives.
Maura Barrett and David Douglas reported from Portland and Safia Samee Ali from Chicago.