This article was produced in partnership with Underscore, a Portland nonprofit newsroom focused on collaborative journalism.
For nearly two months, a small portion of downtown Portland has smelled like tear gas. Nights are filled with the sounds of explosions and drums, police warnings to clear the area, and the shouts of protesters.
Outside the Multnomah County Justice Center — now blanketed with graffiti calling for the abolition of the police or death to cops — riot-control police square off against citizens wearing gas masks and homemade armor.
Clashes playing out in the city, and amplified by social and traditional media, have put Portland on a national stage and have led to President Donald Trump's decision last week to deploy militarized federal police.
Reports surfaced quickly of unidentified officers in unmarked cars abducting protesters off the street. Other agents, dressed in the camouflage of soldiers deployed to a war zone, seem to have little restraint — or were told to leave it at home.
A few nights ago, one officer smashed his baton repeatedly against a U.S. Navy veteran who was not resisting, before a second officer sprayed the protester's face with a chemical agent.
Portland's chaotic situation, although contained to a tiny area of the city, has already led to more than 400 arrests and cost the local government millions of dollars. The arrival of federal officers has made a bad situation worse, galvanizing protesters and reportedly drawing reinforcements from places like Washington state, Texas and Arizona. It has also led to second-guessing among the local protest community and the Portland Police Bureau alike: How did we get here? Could it have been avoided, and are there any lessons to be learned?
Gregory McKelvey, a longtime protest organizer — and who is campaign manager to Sarah Iannarone, the challenger to Mayor Ted Wheeler in the November runoff — attributes the staying power of the protests and clashes to pent-up community grievances about Oregon's history of racism, as well as excessive use of force by the Portland police. He also thinks a lack of leadership and a mishandling of the protests have poured fuel on the fire.
"Each protest ended up being a protest of the previous night's police escalation," McKelvey said. "Had those escalations not occurred, we would not have had a situation in which Donald Trump was looking to Portland as a staging area."
Wheeler, for his part, has defended his handling of the protests and community concerns. After an initially muted reaction to federal policing of Portland streets, however, he made it clear last week that he wants the federal forces removed from the city. "We can handle better than they can what's going on in our streets," he said on July 17. "The impact they've had over the last several days is to make things much, much worse."
Read more about this issue: How Portland's insurgency neutralized police crowd tactics
Limitations of crowd control
The May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered a national upheaval. In Portland, though, protests and sometimes violent clashes with police have continued, even though conflict in many other cities has subsided.
On May 29, the second night of protests over Floyd's killing and, more generally, police brutality, a vigil in North Portland was followed by a march downtown. A small group of protesters broke into the Justice Center, setting a fire inside the ground-floor lobby. Looters also ransacked downtown businesses, and dozens of people were arrested.
Since then, protest gatherings have continued almost every evening at the Justice Center, often culminating in nightly violence. At the same time, the large peaceful protests that took place on the east side of the Willamette River have mostly faded away.
Even before federal law enforcement agents arrived, the Portland Police Bureau's reliance on conventional crowd-control tactics — namely tear gas, riot munitions and intimidating bull rushes down city streets — simply wasn't working. For every city block cleared, protesters dug their heels in further, while video footage of police tactics only served to reinforce the conflict.
According to experts on mass demonstration and crowd control, central to the police bureau's failed approach is a focus on crowd, instead of individual, behavior. When police use force on an entire group of protesters, many of whom haven't been committing crimes, "you're essentially radicalizing the crowd," said Edward Maguire, professor in criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University. "There is a psychological change that occurs [among more moderate protesters]: Their views get more extreme. Their perception that violence and disruptive behavior is warranted tends to increase."
Instead of focusing on tactics of overwhelming force that only serve to anger people, Maguire said police departments like Portland's need to step back and think about the longer view. "We need to rethink our strategies," Maguire said, "and that's not happening."
Andrew Riley, a spokesperson for Unite Oregon, a nonprofit that focuses on equity and justice and that helped organize the protests in Portland, agreed that the heavy-handed police response helps explain the unprecedented activism seen since Floyd's death. "If the goal of the crowd-control tactics is to suppress dissent or to quell the movement, I think it's backfiring."
Two Portland police officers, speaking under condition of anonymity, say the sheer intensity of the protests, in combination with protesters' late-night tactics specifically, created a seemingly untenable situation. "They've challenged the traditional method of crowd management, and that's the unique factor here," one longtime officer said. "This is very different than all the other demonstrations that we've seen over the years because of its sustained level of aggression."
Officers say a small, organized group of anarchist-identifying agitators have set more than 100 fires downtown. This subgroup of protestors is also setting off large fireworks and using slingshots to launch ball bearings, bottles of frozen water, and containers of urine and feces — all deliberate and repeated attempts to injure officers.
Riley, an activist in Portland since 2004, has been puzzling about why the recent unrest feels so radically different: "Some of it could be that it's a pandemic and folks are already run ragged. They're already feeling robbed, all the things the pandemic has exposed in terms of American racism and what have you."
Riley has also noticed that, instead of more talk about moderate police reforms, other local activists now listen when the conversation turns to abolishing police: It "doesn't get you laughed out of the room — and that to me is a really critical change."
The police say they believe only a small fraction of the people coming downtown each night are there to fight and antagonize. A second and much larger group is there to protest police actions and to support the more aggressive protesters.
Yet there is a third category of attendees as well: the curious. People who want "to see what's going on and be there for whatever happens," as Deputy Chief Chris Davis put it in his testimony last week to the state legislative Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform.
Meanwhile, the duration of the protests and the vitriol directed toward police officers could have a lasting impact separate from police reform. For many of the officers involved in the nightly protests, particularly younger ones, the experience could leave them feeling alienated from the community and the work itself, according to Norm Stamper, former chief of police for Seattle and the author of two books calling for police reform.
"If you've got a young police officer facing the kind of conflict that we're seeing on city streets over this past month, that's going to be bewildering — to put it mildly," Stamper said.
While calls for police reform intensify, fights over leadership — or accusations about its absence — continue. Sal Peralta, a secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon, who has watched the situation closely, said, "I have not seen Portland's elected leaders, with the exception of [Portland City Commissioner] Jo Ann Hardesty, really try and put their shoulder into getting things moving in a more pro-social way."
Even before Hardesty urged Wheeler last week to turn the bureau over to her if he couldn't restrain police, she called for police reform and accountability, holding a vigil outside the Justice Center and supporting nonviolent protests.
Teressa Raiford, the longtime community organizer who leads Don't Shoot Portland, faults Mayor Wheeler. Instead of "having a conversation about the demands of protesters or how he could work to dismantle the systems that oppress us, his response was violence and then the disingenuous division tactics," she said. "He's literally the one that we're looking to for leadership on all levels."
Wheeler bristles at the suggestion that he's not providing the leadership Portland needs. "Since this began, I've been discussing not only the tactics, but I've been holding meetings regularly with people who've been leading demonstrations," Wheeler said. He cited the council's decision, which he supported, to defund the Gang Violence Reduction Task Force, as well as making other changes, such as restricting the use of tear gas. Wheeler has also said that he's "committed to further reforms around police accountability and oversight."
For now, he said, the short-term path is clear: "We get rid of the feds. Number two, we contain and de-escalate the situation. Number three, we clean up downtown. And number four, we open up for business. That's the plan."
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