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The Portland Protests: My Second Night on the Ground

Banner at a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Ore., July 31, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
A white man charges a courthouse door, a black man has his blackness revoked, and I reconsider my view of the protesters.

The second night I covered the ongoing Portland protests (you can read about the first night here), I decided to arrive at the hour when I had departed the night before: about 30 minutes past midnight. The crowd was significantly larger now compared with its size 24 hours before but also more dispersed. After protesters started a small fire with cardboard boxes and other random trash, people began to coalesce. The night before, I had focused on individual protesters, trying to grasp their rationale; the second night, I focused on the physical attacks on structures around Chapman and Lownsdale Squares. Three events made me reconsider my view of the protesters, especially those who are still in the streets at 2 a.m.

The first event was the tearing of plywood from the exterior of a kids’-entertainment business, Uncharted Realities, across the street from Lownsdale Square. In the video below you can hear and then see two individuals rend a sheet and a half of plywood from the face of the building and carry their acquisitions — like triumphant Viking raiders returning with pillage — approximately 100 yards, to the street in front of the federal courthouse. After the plywood is removed, one individual tries to enter the building but fails and gives up quickly. The protesters then strive to break a plywood board in half, with limited success; they finally prop it up, allowing them to apply more force and reduce the board to burnable sections, which they used to keep the street fire fueled.

The second event was an assault on the garage doors behind the Federal courthouse and the ensuing confrontation among protesters. With things fairly quiet out front, I wandered toward the rear of the building, located at SW Second Avenue, to investigate a persistent clanging sound. This noise grew as I rounded the corner and came upon an individual with an American flag affixed to a pole; he was slamming the base of the pole against a maintenance cover on the sidewalk. Fifty or so people were milling around, perhaps drawn by the noise. They seemed to have no specific reason for being there. Then, one protester nonchalantly crossed the street and approached the garage doors of the federal courthouse. He stood a moment, as if sizing them up, and knocked on the door.

Why he did so, who can say? Typically, when people knock on a door, they want the door to open and admit them. I had seen no police anywhere in sight up to that point, and the evening was relatively placid so far — provided you weren’t a piece of plywood, and street fires didn’t bother you. Knocking on the door seemed a highly imprudent thing to do. Then, as the video below shows, a white man with a shield and helmet charged at that same door. He slammed the butt of the shield against the garage door, causing it to ripple and sway. His salvos had little effect beyond generating noise. He backed off for a moment, before returning and trying the same tactic.

It is at this moment that a black BLM activist rounded the corner of the building on SW Salmon Street and began to berate the man assaulting the garage.

Content warning: The video below contains obscene language.

The sound on the video is muddled in parts, so I’ll clarify. The activist begins by demanding to know why the shield-wielding guy is charging the door and what he’s looking to solve by this. He turns tail across the street while she follows him, asking, “How does this save my life?” She repeatedly asks him to explain the point of his attack on the door, going on to say, “Why are you antagonizing these people?” (By “these people,” she is probably referring to the police officers inside the building.) When he finally mutters a response, she says, “Are you a person of color?”

He is not, so his explanation is invalid in the intersectional hierarchy. She then tells him that people of color will feel the effect of police action more than he does: “They [the police] are going to come after people of color for the destruction of this shit.” Turning to the crowd, she demands to know who led the group to the back of the building. When no one replies, she asks, “Where are the black people in this group?” Finding a black man among the group, she interrogates him about why these actions were permitted. He says something inaudible, and she declares, “You’re done, you’re a token, you’re done.” She apparently revoked his blackness on the spot. The color of his skin didn’t matter, given that he had betrayed the goals of BLM.

The third event was the new graffiti-tagging of the exterior public-bathroom wall against which I had leaned 26 hours before; now it was  tagged up with all sorts of graffiti that had hadn’t been there the night before. In my reporting on my first night in Portland, I noted the general good behavior of the protesters, so I was sorely disappointed to see the windows and wall now defaced. If a “quiet night” (as I termed the prior evening) had resulted in such vandalism, what would happen on more violent nights? “Generally good behavior” no longer aptly described what I was witnessing.

Portland protest graffiti. Left: Lownsdale Square public restroom wall on July 31 at 12:30 A.M. Right: Lownsdale Square public restroom wall on August 1 at 2:30 A.M. (Luther Abel/National Review)

Also worth mentioning is the attack on the fence surrounding the federal courthouse. Made of steel, the fence is an impressive ten-foot piece of engineering, with bracing on the inside to prevent crowds from easily toppling it. As I was sitting on a concrete block in front of the fence, a handful of protesters tried to push the braces away from the fence. They had some success, but other braces were welded to the fence and did not budge. Most of the protesters just tied brightly colored balloons and flags to the fencing.

The night concluded around 2:45 a.m. with a gathering around the street fire and a BLM activist explaining why the organization seeks to defund the police: “to redirect funds into schools and the community . . . to stop the militarization of a police force that brutalizes black people and people of color.” After he said his piece, people started trickling away, and I headed for my hotel.

 

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