Portland is back in the spotlight — for all the wrong reasons.
After reports that protesters have been snatched off the streets by federal officers in unmarked vans were first surfaced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, national media flocked to the city once dubbed Little Beirut like moths drawn to a flame during a protest on Friday, July 17.
But the city was hardly engulfed in fire, with protests mostly confined to a few blocks. Instead, the night repeated many of the themes established over 50 preceding performances, with black-clad protesters chanting for hours, interspersed with brief bouts of confrontation and violence.
Federal officers wearing patches from several agencies unleashed pepper ball munitions, sent wafts of pepper spray into the air, spread tear gas from a device swung like a censer on a chain and made arrests as demonstrators laid siege to the federal buildings that flank both sides of the downtown Justice Center.
The first dispersal happened around 10:30 p.m., but crowds reformed after clouds of tear gas eventually blew away. Local Portland Police Bureau officers later charged into a crowd around 2 a.m., according to videos posted on social media.
Portland Police bull rush protesters pic.twitter.com/rLsY7oEZ6v— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) July 18, 2020
In the meantime, rallygoers had plenty to do disassembling fences intended to close off two parks and a plaza, with the chain-link instead becoming their play-thing. Protesters blocked off doorways at the Justice Center and federal courthouse using the fences and sandbags, and the barricades were left untouched for hours as officers holed up inside.
Other protesters spent nearly as much time engaging with an anguished street preacher, who was hoisted aloft and carried away multiple times by demonstrators, only to return again and again.
Protesters just lifted up and carried a street preacher away from the crowd in Portland pic.twitter.com/0UVFkdUz7T— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 18, 2020
Several national reporters were among the crowd, as the country's leading newspapers and cable news outlets leaped on the story that federal police are making arrests — allegedly without probable cause — using unmarked vans.
The use of unmarked cars has been documented here on camera, and federal prosecutors have publicly charged at least 13 protesters.
Local reporter Sergio Olmos, who has documented the nightly protests from the beginning, received a co-byline in the New York Times earlier on Friday. Olmos's articles often appear in the Portland Tribune.
Unmarked vehicles are hardly an unheard of tactic for agencies housed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one such agency, has been known to use that tactic for years.
Federal police are using the censor(?) smoke device again tonight in Portland pic.twitter.com/HWq9NTYQz0— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 18, 2020
Whether arrests have been made indiscriminately, or without probable cause, is now under investigation both by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and, at the order of District of Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, the inspector general of the DHS.
The protest on Friday began with a peaceful prayer vigil led by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
"This is not about 'f' the police," she said. "Portland will continue to fight once we get rid of these federal occupying forces."
American Civil Liberties Union observer questions feds' role in policing protests:
Mark Ginsberg is a Portland-based attorney with Berkshire Ginsberg LLC who observed Friday night's protests as a legal observer for the ACLU. He said it was unclear what the federal agents were trying to achieve when they crossed the street toward a crowd in front of a federal building on Southwest Third Avenue.
"They pushed them all out, with no warnings," Ginsberg said of federal officers who disbursed protesters quickly with munitions. "The Portland police used their L-RAD to say, 'We're gonna move the fence,' and then they moved the fence with no problem, and then the unmarked federal agents launched both smoke and gas at people with no warning, pushing everybody westbound."
An L-RAD, or long-range acoustic device, can be used as both a loud hailer and as a sonic weapon, emitting sounds at a higher volume than a loudspeaker.
Ginsberg said he's been to roughly half the protests since they began on May 30.
"We're on the 50th night and I've definitely seen an escalation, since the beginning, especially by the federal agents since they arrived," Ginsberg said.
"They didn't tell anyone what they were doing, they just launched everything."
Earlier that day, the ACLU announced it was amending a June 28 lawsuit filed against the city of Portland over use of force against journalists and legal observers to include complaints against federal agencies.
— Courtney Vaughn
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.