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Portland protests smaller, calmer, tear-gas free after federal withdrawal

Hal Bernton
Seattle Times

Portland, Ore. — Through most of July, Black Lives Matter speakers would take to the steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center and talk about their movement to people — sometimes numbering in the thousands — who gathered in a nearby street and park.

They often appeared to be second to the main act that would unfold later in the evening in the next block north by the federal courthouse. There, cadres of protesters would shoot off fireworks, shine lasers, throw water bottles or — on occasion — pull down sections of fence and set fires. Sooner or later, federal law enforcement agents would emerge from the Mark. O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse to fire canisters of tear gas, shoot protesters with less-lethal rounds of ammunition and beat some people with batons in a dangerous nightly spectacle that drew the nation’s attention to this Oregon city.

A line of protesters block the street in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse during a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday, in Portland, Oregon. Portland's nightly protests have remained peaceful following the announcement that federal officers would begin a phased withdrawal from the city.

In the aftermath of an agreement reached July 29 between Gov. Kate Brown and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for a phased withdrawal of federal tactical teams, the nightly crowds in front of the federal courthouse are much smaller. They are calmer, and Black activists often command center stage. On Saturday, these activists walked down the street in front of the courthouse and denounced those Black, as well as white, protesters whose tactics they did not like.

“Grow up — knock it off,” yelled Dan Thomas through a bullhorn, to a small knot of protesters who started a fire by the courthouse fence. “It’s over. I don’t want to see the feds here again.”

Some federal law enforcement agents remain inside the courthouse, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Portland reports that, as of Tuesday, 70 people face criminal charges — and another 10 have received citations for actions related to the protests.

But the first law enforcement response to the protests — under the agreement negotiated by Brown — are now Oregon State Police, who have about 100 troopers stationed in Portland. So far, during the nightly protests, they have been rarely seen.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has continued to stoke passions around protests as he has defended the federal response. In an interview with Axios taped July 28 and made public this week, he derided as “fake news” a now-notorious video of federal agents beating an impassive peaceful Navy veteran.

The makeup of federal courthouse gatherings also has shifted.

Many of the most organized and disciplined of protest participants, who often wear black, appear to have at least temporarily moved on. Some have joined protests in east Portland, where Saturday and Monday evening gatherings in front of a building that houses a sheriff’s office resulted in Portland police declaring unlawful assemblies and arresting four people.

Their tactics have been championed online by the Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front, a militant group based in Portland that embraces the anarchist movement and whose online postings have promoted gatherings and spotlighted videos of some of the most outrageous federal behavior. One video, for example, posted on the group’s Facebook page shows federal officers pushing away two clearly identified medics from a protester slumped motionless on the ground, then shoving them to the sidewalk and kicking them.

The group’s recent social media posts have included some moments of reflection, noting in late July that the group needed to be “mindful of our place in this black insurrection” and announcing — in a tweet last weekend — that the group was taking a few days off to work on some internal issues.

The group continues to express scorn for those who try to tamp down the protests, and tell others how to act.

They also are trying to share their knowledge gained from the weeks of protests.

This week, the Youth Liberation Front posted a link to a lengthy “tools and tactics report” that summarizes the lessons learned.

The report includes a detailed look at the efficacy of leaf blowers in clearing tear gas: For best results, make sure they have strong fans and use several together. In the fine-points-of-dressing-in-black block: Make sure all tattoos and other unique traits and logos are shielded and “cover your whole face, not just your mouth.” It also offers a lexicon of terms, including a new expression, “swoop,” to describe what happens when a reformist with a megaphone “makes a power play to hijack a gathering.”

Portland was catapulted into the spotlight by Trump’s highly publicized deployment of federal law enforcement agents, including teams that — as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting — picked up protesters in unmarked vans.

But before these teams arrived, Portland police were locked in a weekslong series of confrontations with protesters that resulted in many arrests and extensive use of tear gas in dozens of different incidents largely in the downtown area near the courthouse and justice center.

On June 9, a U.S. District Court judge, in response to a court order, restricted the Portland police’s use of tear gas to situations where public or police safety were at risk, a move that slowed but did end the use of the gas.

Then, on July 22, the Portland City Council passed a measure that required the Portland Police Bureau to stop any operational support or collaboration with the federal law enforcement agents sent by the Department of Homeland Security. This sidelined the Portland police during some of the most intense responses by federal law enforcement, who had free rein to roam several blocks away from the federal building and shoot less-lethal rounds and fire off tear-gas canisters.

In the aftermath of these protests, the impact of all that tear gas on people and the environment is receiving more scrutiny. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that 26 protesters, in interviews, said they believe regular exposure to tear has caused irregularities with their menstrual cycles, including blood clots and debilitating cramps.

And Oregon Democrats U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Karin Power have asked for a detailed review of what gas was used and in what quantities, whether some of the cartridges were expired, what environmental reviews have been conducted and what cleanup will be done.

“We are extremely concerned about the potential environmental and public health impacts of these gas discharges, and we require your immediate attention to this matter,” they wrote in a letter sent to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Business owners in Portland’s downtown, battered by the pandemic shutdown, a deepening homeless crisis and more than 60 days of protests, are hoping for a rebound.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has developed a plan that aims to restart retail, remove graffiti, step up trash removal and take other steps to restore the area.

“What people want right now is to get back on their feet,” Wheeler said in a written statement.

On Monday night, Itchy Trigga, a Black Lives Matter activist who has attended the protests for weeks, spoke to about 100 people in front of the county justice center. Trigga, a Portland artist, said he has tried to steer people away from provocative actions like firesetting and fence-cutting, and even embraced Mayor Wheeler — scorned by many protesters — when he showed up at a July protest.

Trigga said that the mayor had declared that Black lives matter, “so I felt like owed him a hug.”

On Monday, after Trigga stepped down from his perch on the justice center, the protesters gathered by the federal courthouse where a woman led them in a chant denouncing police.

Their attention soon was distracted by events a block to the west, where several Oregon State Police troopers had detained a 15-year-old suspected of threatening people with a gun that later turned out to be a replica. They gathered around the troopers, demanding that the youth be read his rights.

The troopers called for backup, which quickly arrived in riot gear, and formed a protective line around the other officers.

Many in the crowd cursed and chanted in a brief, tense standoff. One glass bottle struck a trooper in the head.

But there was no gas, and the troopers withdrew.

The crowd then moved back down to the street in front of the courthouse, where someone had set up a basketball hoop.

A spirited half-court game quickly got underway.

“That’s not protesting,” said one man as he walked away in disgust.

“It’s not fireworks. … It’s a ball. It’s OK,” a woman responded.