Portland BLM Protests at the Justice Center

July 24th 2020

I didn’t want to go to the protest. As an introvert, and someone who deals with depression and anxiety, I dislike large crowds and festivals in general, (I don’t even really like going to shows anymore) not to mention that there was a whole pandemic going around. It’s just hard to get up the energy to go get tear gassed you know? Not to mention, why did I want to go? Just to say that I went and post some pics and assuage my white guilt for a night. Maybe. I would have much preferred to sip a drink in the comfort of my home and read a book on inequality and racism, maybe write, or watch Dark. But I felt compelled to go. For once I needed to get out my head, put my books and words and restless thoughts down, and hit the streets.

Cat and Evangeline and I had gone to smaller, local neighborhood BLM protests but I had yet to make it downtown after some fifty + nights of protesting that was happening at the Justice Center on SW 3rd in downtown Portland.

As I biked with my black mask and yellow helmet through the streets and neighborhoods of downtown Portland I was struck by how many people were outside, all eating and drinking on patios. It was like any other summer night—as if there were no protests or pandemic. The sun was setting as I biked across the Burnside bridge, and I am still, always, in awe of how beautiful Portland is with its bridges and river.

I locked my bike up by Voodoo doughnuts, hung snowboard goggles around my neck in case of tear gas that was sure to hit the streets as the night wore on, and walked a few blocks down third avenue.

The first thing you notice when you get to the Justice center is that it is not just any protest. It feels like a street festival. The smell of charcoal and ribs float through the air. Small tables are set up selling shirts, masks, and gear. It’s like some strange mix of Saturday Market and a protest. My favorite part is Riot Ribs. There are multiple gazebos that make up Riot Ribs, a large food tent made up of entirely free food donations and staffed by volunteers who hand out free water, hot dogs, and ribs cooked on some bad ass Traeger grills. The whole atmosphere was like a street fair, only one that ends in tear gas. I grabbed a water and walked around. I would have felt safe bringing my daughter with me for the first couple hours.

Chants of “Black Lives Matter,” “Say His Name” “Whose Streets, Our Streets!” “Donald Trump Go Home!” “This is what democracy looks like!” filled the air. The energy was electric. Something special was definitely happening in Portland. You knew that just by being there you were a part of something special in history, and the speakers reminded us of as much.

Now, there are two main buildings where the action happens—the courthouse and the justice center. Literally, everything is contained to two square blocks (and Portland blocks are tiny). The graffiti is even limited to these two blocks. You could walk three blocks down third and go to a bustling pod of food carts if you wanted and not even be bothered by the protest. Anyone who claims the protests are hurting local businesses (which is what most of our local and even national news says) is getting these protests twisted with covid-19, which is why many stores were already boarded up in the first place. Downtown has been a ghost town since April. But on Friday night those two blocks were PACKED. I would say two-three thousand people easily. Most everyone wore masks. Some had gas masks and plastic shields.

Riot Ribs sits in a park in front of the courthouse where a large black fence was recently set up by the Feds and where the federal agents employed by DHS are holed up until protestors start provoking them later on in the evening.

I walked to the next block of the Justice Center to hear black speakers give speeches and lead chants. The rapper Amine (I’m pretty sure?) spoke along with Portland’s first black city council woman Jo Ann Hardesty. One man spoke about connecting the dots between the police, the military-industrial complex, patriarchy, and capitalism.

The wall of moms soon showed up, donned all in yellow and the crowd cheered. There was also a street preacher who kept trying to steal the spotlight (literally) and the crowd booed him multiple times. One thing I noticed was that within minutes of being down there I started sneezing and coughing. Not a lot, just as if my allergies were acting up. No tear gas had been set off yet but it felt like the whole two blocks of this city were still poisoned with cs gas from previous nights. What is the long term effects of that going to be?

Around 11 protestors started lighting off fireworks and shaking the fence. I flinched when the fireworks went off. They were very loud. A small burst of tear gas filled the air and some flash bangs soon followed, tossed out by the feds. The flash bangs were also loud.

I was pretty far back in the crowd by this point but I got a strong whiff of spicy air. I pulled the googles over my face. More tear gas and several members of the crowd began to retreat and after a few more minutes of watching protestors throw some random things over the fence, I joined them. As I walked away with the first wave, there was already a second wave of protestors who were walking towards the justice center, all donned with gas masks and plastic shields, and dressed in black, as I was, and yes, most of them were white. If this night is like most other nights, a familiar pattern and cycle will occur. The feds will eventually emerge. A riot will be declared. Some protestors will battle them with umbrellas and leaf blowers.

What if, for once, those in power did not escalate the situation? What if they just stayed put? Why not try it? Just once? The head of DHS says that protestors would burn the building to the ground if they didn’t “defend” it. What I saw instead was a community in action, engaged, and unwilling to back down or be intimidated. I didn’t agree with everything I saw. But you can’t deny the movement that’s happening. This will not be ending anytime soon. 

Could the whole thing devolve or has it? into a spectacle or performative activism that detracts from black voices, yes, that is a possibility. But I don’t think that’s happening, not yet.

What I saw was a largely peaceful protest. Yes, some shit goes down later at night into the early hours. But the present conflict we inhabit is always messier than the past we often sanitize and present in our future textbooks and analysis of history.

I love Portland. I love that if the Feds, or the Proud Boys, DHS, the President, or any other alt-right political stunters want to come into our city to stir shit up, Portland is going to show up and hold it down.

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