Notes from a Portland Protest

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Putting together my notes from the Protest – this is all written from my perspective so it will be my impressions of the events. I attest that this is the truth as I saw it.

On tear gas – The first time I got gassed was actually the first canister that was launched on Friday night. There was no real reason I could discern for that first canister to be launched. The crowd was entirely peaceful at that point. A few agitators had started small fires that were quickly put out by other activists. Other that I saw nothing.

The tear gas was launched at the lawyers and mothers anyway by the Feds holed up in the Federal District Court. I headed toward the gas to document. My overconfidence in the protective equipment I cobbled together was misplaced. Stinging started in my eyes as I got close (luckily it didn’t get into my lungs). It was a weird sensation. Recalling it a week later, I don’t remember it being particularly painful, even though objectively I know it was. Keeping my eyes clenched shut kept the pain at bay. Opening them to find a direction to stumble caused pain to resurface. The pain also brought tears which made it as impossible to see; the same as if I just kept my eyes shut in the first place. If you want a crowd to disperse you’d think you’d want them to be able to see the way to get out but I didn’t design that weapon.

When I finally felt my way to a place I could sit down, a blue haired medic rushed to my side. She flushed my eyes out with what I think was water, and just like that the pain was gone. I’d end up in tear gas a couple more times through the evening, but remained mostly safe due to my respirator. By the end of the night I had only got a small amount into my nose which caused it to run like an unfurled faucet. The tear gas would again irritate my eyes and skin later that week as I had failed to properly wipe down my equipment. It was amazing to witness the fortitude of protestors out there who were getting hit by tear gas regularly with less equipment than I.

Another thing; the tear gas canisters were being used as projectile weapons. The canisters as weapons could be classified as more lethal than “less than lethal” rounds but less so than lead ones.

I had a canister buzz near my head, a couple feet up and to my right. I think they were aiming at the other photographer, Nathan, who had climbed on top of the crosswalk sign to get a better angle. I only know his name because his girlfriend started to yell “Nathan!” while pleading for him to come down and be safe.

How do I know they were aiming at us? The tear gas canister ended up coming to rest in a large pit, the future home of some 3rd and Salmon high rise. The gas that emitted from it would go on to bother no one. If you had spent any time around the courthouse, the pit was hard to miss. There were also very few protestors over by me at the time, and most were milling about checking their phone or moving two and fro. Were were situated by no means in the heart of things. That leaves either gross incompetence, the lack of ability to aim and a complete lack of tactical awareness to pick an effective target, or a malicious intent. Nathan on the crosswalk sign was really the only person you could target at the angle the canister was launched from. Incompetence or malicious intent aside I hope he made some good pictures of his near miss and is happy that he is so loved.

On protesters – “Largely peaceful” is really the best way to describe the situation as there are acts of provocation. I witnessed a counter protester that was shouting the “Words of God” rush into the crowd to disrupt the testaments of violence and racism the black speakers were giving only to be escorted out as kindly as someone like that could be removed. No punches were thrown, he was gently forced out. I saw a man yelling out his car window as I waited at the stop light near the protest that, “No one was listening!” and that we could all “Go Fuck Ourselves!” He then pulled over, continued to hurl insults at the protestors, and he was engaged by the protesters, they listened. Together they talked. He visibly calmed down as they talked it out. At the end of the conversation he was saying, “I love you brother”. He had just wanted to be heard and the protesters took the time to listen. 

Elsewhere, I saw a dance party. The activists largely self-policed the crowd. Small fires that were started were quickly stamped out. People who were throwing things were largely made to stop. The provocations were a few large fireworks made it past the activist interference; exploding in the empty courtyard of the federal building. The fireworks posed no threat to life, limb or property except for, ironically, other protesters.

Things only started to get more aggressive after the feds started to tear gas and indiscriminately fire rounds into the crowd. The protest mediators were driven off. The fireworks increased and people were shaking the fence barrier back and forth to try to tear it down in a symbolic gesture (they were not successful). I can probably assume that people were throwing things, but I didn’t see it first hand. I didn’t stay till the end so the following sentence is second-hand information. When the crowd got small the feds came out of the building, going beyond the fence line, to start to arrest the protestors. A portion of those who were left were the ones spoiling for a fight. 99% of the people I saw were there to change, resist, chant, heal, report, gather, love, drink beer, sell t-shirts and/or witness the chaos a violent government inflicts on its people.

On Feds – I went down to City Hall not only to document but to support the movement because I truly believe Black Lives Matter. I with the hope of witnessing a part of something historic. Something which I hope leads to change not seen since the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. Numbers speak and every +1 helps the message so I added mine. I also went to witness and feel what happens when a well-armed military group turns its power on a group of civilians.

The Feds in general seemed to do their damndest to escalate things. There would be random, semi-frequent volleys of plastic bullets shot into the crowd. They seemed to aim for the head and especially for people with cameras, even though that was specifically forbidden by a court injunction. They would launch tear gas canisters to disperse the crowd but did so in a haphazard fashion. It would push the crowd back but never was serious enough to disperse things. A random canister into the group of drummers and dancers then nothing. A canister shot into the darkness of the park. Canisters around the fence line. No single Federal Agent never tried to engage in a dialogue, not that it would have been all that successful if they tried, as a different agent would likely randomly fire into the crowd or a different agitator would have thrown something. As a foil to the de-escalators and mediators within the citizen protesters, The Feds seemed to do everything in their power to whip the crowd up into a frenzy. Needling a bull to the point it starts to buck.

On Agitators – A lot has been said about a relatively small group. Most of the people causing the issues have been either white kids who know the police aren’t around to stop the trouble making or white young adults who think the only way forward is through an armed revolution. It’s ironic how much they have in common with their identified polar opposites. 

After the Feds left the agitators were largely pushed out of the protests, only causing issues on the fringes or outside the protest proper. What enabled them before was the previous touchiness of the Feds. For example, the time honored tradition of burning a flag in effigy would have invited a barrage of tear gas and plastic rounds by the Feds. This had the effect of driving those who were not geared for battle away from the front, leaving only those looking for a fight remaining. 

In contrast the state police have been measured in their approach. Flag burning is an unpunished form of expression. This allows the organizers to push out the agitators. This refocuses the story on the fact that we are here to say “Black Lives Matter” instead of the narrative of conflict that has been pushed out nationally.

Exiled from the protest the agitators go blocks away to start small fires and light large fireworks. Often protesters will act as a defacto fire department to stamp out fires set by agitators before the flames get out of control.

The state police’s measured approach is working. The Federal building now is peaceful. The only flare up was when the PPD declared an “unlawful assembly” at a different protest at a different location. The PPD proceeded to beat people with batons. The lesson here is that when there is no one to fight no fight breaks all. Who would have thought?

On The Media – Sometimes it feels like there are more journalists in an area than protestors. These journalists are split into two camps, the professionals and the citizens. I am part of the problem of an overwhelming media presence. I also hope to part of the solution by portraying the truth that isn’t beholden to showing just the dramatic images I know will sell.

Little known fact, when I started getting serious about being a photojournalist, I wanted to be a conflict correspondent. I read books like “Once Upon a Distant War,” watched documentaries on James Nacthwey and Robert Cappa, listened to the stories of the former conflict correspondent on staff at the UO and made plans to follow in their footsteps. I joined the now defunct Lightstalkers to find fixers. I learned the quickest way to get your feet wet on the “how-to” of conflict coverage (at that time) was to visit Israel during the summer. They were always inflicting violence on the Palestinians and would occasionally be met with the small response that group could muster. Israel was by far the dominant power and you could stay in the city and basically commute to war while enjoying the comforts of modern living. Student Loans (my excuse for not doing many things in my life to date) and Cost (another ol’ chestnut) kept me from following that path. But that path found me. That path is now in PDX.  I get to cover conflict on a scale that I never thought I would be able to here, in the states, let alone the city I live in. Many of the media members that have been flown in have been walking the conflict path for years. You’ll see their images grace news articles around the world. 

Then there are the citizen journalists. Often they come equipped with a point of view, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As opposed to the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of some jaded professional journalists, the citizen journalists can get to the truth of the matter better because they are focused on the stories of injustice. They hear and transmit the stories that exemplify why society doesn’t feel Black Lives Matter and how we should change society so Black Lives Do Matter. Yet the images the citizen journalists make of the tears on a stage aren’t as dramatic as tear gas in the streets. 

The citizen journalists reach is different as well. You won’t see their images on Fox News. Their audience eschews younger. It is made up of those for whom a “digital self” is no different than their “real self”. On nights I didn’t protest or left early I could crawl into bed and pull up the protests on Twitch. On the feed I watched the protests continue to unfold and there were 2,000 other people watching with me. That feed was one of many. This was all powered by citizen journalists. It enables us to see the truth live in a way that we haven’t been able to since Viet Cong member Nguyễn Văn Lém was executed on TV by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan during the Vietnam war. It’s easier to form an unfiltered opinion if you pay attention and invest the time to watch.

I strive to report on the “objective” truth, yet being traditionally trained I feel the siren song of the fire fights. I will make the best images that I can that encapsulate the chants and the conflict. I will provide this testament to the people who will listen. Hopefully for those of you whom I am close yet feel differently this first hand account will help change your mind. It may not though. I do know this, when I slip into bed at night chants of “No Justice, No Peace” are my lullaby.

In Conclusion – What the people in power don’t realize, or maybe some of them do, is that they are walking down the path of history repeated. An officer loses their shit and fires their side arm into the crowd. Tragedy. An officer loads up their gear for the nightly protest but instead of grabbing the rubber bullets mistakenly grabs the real ones. Tragedy. One officer who’s had it up to here grabs real bullets “accidentally”. Tragedy. The ghosts of Kent State and Bull Conner loom large.

I plan to go back to protest. I have purchased the body armor I looked at 12 years ago. My respirator is being upgraded to a borrowed CBRN gas mask, but I will probably end up purchasing my own. My ski helmet will end up getting replaced with a ballistic helmet. This isn’t over and won’t be over soon. It’s going to be a long November; a long December and I hope this time that there’s reason to believe that maybe next year will be better than the last.