An NR writer walks the streets of a protest hotspot.
The first sign that something was up came from my Lyft driver, Shawn. At O’Hare, I had seen little to confirm the stereotype beyond a guy doing yoga at the gate. On the flight, I saw mostly young families and middle-aged to older folks. And, even when we descended into Portland, I could see no billowing plumes of smoke, destroyed cop cars, or shattered storefronts, just the city’s picturesque setting in the Pacific Northwest, soaking up the sunlight on an ordinary Thursday.
But Shawn, a black gentleman originally from Southern California, made it clear that all is not well in the City of Roses. “Those people will protest about anything,” he said, shaking his head, as we got to talking on the drive from the airport. “Just give them a subject and they’ll protest.” Shawn is not happy with the status quo. He is, he told me, no closer to getting a job in the Oregon government now than he was when he moved here with that hope several years ago (he suspects that the state is pre-filling the jobs and then advertising them after the fact so that it can tick the right boxes), and he remains upset that until 2002 the state of Oregon had the terms “negroes,” “mulattoes,” and “whites” in its constitution. And yet, while he sees evidence of “systematic racism,” he is no fan of the protesters either. A father himself, Shawn is particularly frustrated with the parents who have brought their children to the protests and then complained when their kids got a whiff of tear gas. “What did y’all think was going to happen?” he asks. In addition, he condemned those who have unknowingly torched the cars of black Lyft drivers who are off to protest elsewhere.
All told, he wished the Portland Police Department would start cracking down on the protests and on homelessness — both of which he regards as impediments to civil society. A few years ago, he told me, he had saved up enough money to purchase a food truck, from which he was planning to sell burgers and hot dogs at first — “everyone eats hamburgers and hot dogs” — and then branch out into gumbo and jambalaya. Unfortunately, soon after he bought it, a homeless man broke into his truck and ransacked it. When Shawn accosted the culprit, the man said, “I’m homeless,” as if this were an excuse. The truck had to be sold off as the interior had been stripped and it wasn’t worth it to build it back out.
Shawn was fascinating to talk to, but I was about to get my own sense of the situation on the ground. The moment we arrived in downtown Portland I saw where all of the state’s lumber is being put to use. A majority of the businesses along 4th, 5th, and 6th Avenues between SW Madison and Washington St. — ironic — had covered their windows with plywood, with some even covering their front doors. So complete was the wooden shielding that many businesses had affixed a “Yes, We’re Open” sign on their exterior, lest the property look to outsiders as if it had been foreclosed. Despite this, the streets were busy with regular people going about their regular lives. I wondered: Was this the new normal?
From my hotel window high above Pioneer Courthouse Square, which has served as one of the main gathering places for the protesters, I could see couples strolling through the square, a handicapped woman in her motorized wheelchair soaking up the sun, and coffees being sold by street vendors. At 2:30 p.m., at least, there was no garbage strewn around, and a pleasing absence of vehicles on fire — but, as Clare, the front-desk clerk, had warned me, this would likely change dramatically at around 10 or 11 p.m. It was Thursday, July 30, the day by which the governor of Oregon and the mayor of Portland had wanted federal officers to leave the city. Shawn had figured there’d be a demonstration as a result. Clare, on the other hand, told me she was hoping for the first quiet night in two months.
Both were right. After dropping my bags and getting in a nap before a long night walking the streets, I set out to see the status of the neighborhood. At 7:30 p.m., almost every store was closed, with the exclusion of a few restaurants.
The town center was not only devoid of tourists and shoppers, it was missing the typical bar patrons and homeless as well. (One of the few homeless men I did meet asked me what time it was — a peculiarity of the homeless community. Having lived in San Diego and interacted with the homeless there, I found they’d almost always ask the same question.) After walking the streets for a good while, I circled back to Pioneer Square, expecting protesters to have begun arriving. It was deserted. In the distance, I could hear the sounds of an assembly and, upon following the noise, ended up in front of a Portland police precinct in a crowd of perhaps a thousand people. They were listening to a speaker who was standing on the steps at the building’s entrance, microphone in hand, employing the cadence of a Baptist preacher in an attempt to cajole and energize the crowd before him. Looking around, I saw not a single police officer.
I say “attempt” because this particular speaker seemed rather torn about the prospects for racial equality and at one point said something so manifestly at odds with progressive dogma that he felt obliged to spend a solid minute apologizing for his transgression. He was not, let’s say, the finest example of the rabble-rouser genre, but he did have a talent for call-and-response routines. “America was never great, but we can make it great,” he would say, and the assembly would respond, “Abracadabra.” After a few minutes of this, he finished with an assurance: “Say abracadabra and 3 million dollars will be in your pocket.”
I checked my pockets just in case, but still had only the 15 dollars with which I had left Wisconsin.
More the fool me. It was a trick. “That’s how they control you,” he said, swinging from positive incantation to assuring the crowd that magic was in fact a mechanism to keep the masses down. The crowd seemed confused and a little disappointed by this shift, but a few chants of “Black Lives Matter” got everyone in the spirit again.
The speaker had a handful of people up on the steps with him, all African-American as best I could tell. As I was turning away to assess the crowd, another speaker came to the microphone. This time it was a gangly white guy, who seemed to be doing his best impression of a Soviet commissar. He had a good deal of vim and plenty of vigor, but his message — muddled by his hurried speech and zeal — was unfortunately lost on the crowd. Sensing that he was losing the audience, he exclaimed, “We are like the French Revolution!” I’m given to understand that this was a good thing.
The crowd itself was a fascinating cross-section of humanity, in its organization and in its factions. They stood in a semicircle, with a tightly packed knot of the most vocally supportive attendees out in front. This knot was almost entirely white and young, and featured a dozen or so of the now-famous “protest moms.” The farther back one traveled from the speaker, the looser the formation became, and, with it, the looser the devotion to the cause.
There was some uniformity among the most vocal. Head protection, goggles, and dark clothing were ubiquitous, which gave me the impression that this represented a social outing of sorts — a chance to cosplay Revolutionary with one’s friends. But combat gear does not a soldier make, and the protesters’ tendency to use rubber ducks as signals — squeaking the ducks as a means of finding one another in crowds — suggested a softness that would find hostile circumstances overwhelming.
A supply-and-support corps was active among this crowd. There were snack and water distributors, handing out provisions indiscriminately. A few young women were going around and writing the phone number to call if you needed bail money on one’s upper arm, and there appeared to be medics of a sort, with red or green crosses on their backpacks.
The sub-faction that left the largest impression, both physically and otherwise, was the group I’ll call the “Praetorian Guard.” Numbering a couple of dozen, this group would drift in and out of the crowd, watching and waiting and rarely cheering. My charitable impression was that this faction sees itself as the protectors of the protest. My less charitable impression was that they were left-wing anarchists who wanted the police to show up so they could start a fight.
Each member of the Praetorian Guard was kitted out with dual-filter respirators, athletic pants, and combat boots. Umbrellas stuck out from their backpacks — presumably to be used as a defense against pepper spray. I saw quite a few electric leaf-blowers, which I assumed they could use as a counter to wind-borne chemical agents. I saw even more shields cobbled from sliced 55-gallon drums, plywood, or foam composite. The plywood versions, rectangular in shape, with their top corners cut to 45-degree angles, typically sported a black fist on a yellow background. I asked one gentleman why this specific design was so popular, and he said he had been given the shield when he arrived at the protest so couldn’t say. What a world we live in when the anarchists have their own supply chains.
There were three strands of observer. The first were members of the media. They numbered a few dozen and were extremely obvious, having festooned themselves and their gear with signifiers of their occupation. Some looked like they were being deployed to Afghanistan, showing up with flak jackets and combat helmets. I lacked both credentials and armor, but I did have on a blue “Wisconsin: You’re Among Friends” shirt, so I felt confident that a mob or federal agents would leave me alone.
The second set of observers were those out for an evening stroll. Couples would wander by hand in hand, with nothing but typical civilian attire and cloth masks on, stand near the back, and then move on after 15 minutes or so. The last strand, and the most interesting, was made up of homeless people. Some were using the gathering as a side-hustle, loading up bags with cans that they could turn into cash; others were striking up conversations with whoever was in the general vicinity. Rob, who said he was from South Carolina, told me that he had a job as a welder making “80 to 90 dollars an hour,” but had lost his wallet and needed money to get home. Noticing that he was holding a bent piece of pipe that looked like it had seen use, I asked him about the protest the night before. He had, he said, been kicked out of this park, in which he regularly slept, by the police, and he hadn’t gotten much sleep as a result.
The evening was actually generally peaceful. I knew that the night before had been filled with tear gas, so it seemed like this was a night of recuperation for both the police and the protesters. At 10:30, as some firecrackers were lit, a man named Jeff sidled up to me and informed me that the “party is about to start.” Jeff had a shield, boots, and an air of skullduggery about him; when he mentioned the inevitability of the police showing up he sounded more excited than concerned. When bottles were thrown at the courthouse, it looked as if Jeff might get his wish. But, before long, chants of “Peaceful Protest” rang out, and the bottle-lobbing came to a halt. Later, a fellow listening to some Rick Ross on a Bluetooth speaker walked in front of me to lob a stone at the courthouse, but then walked off nonchalantly — whether because he lacked additional rocks or because the crowd declined to mimic this behavior, I couldn’t say.
Even with no tear gas or pepper spray, the air quality was frightful. Between the woman wandering around burning sage, the copious cigarette and weed use, and the humid air, coughing and sneezing were inevitable and ubiquitous. Those who claim that protests have had no effect on the coronavirus infection rate ought to come to Portland. Despite the masks, I saw noses being blown almost endlessly and heard a whole lot of “bless you’s.”
Half an hour past midnight, with the police nowhere in sight, the protest started to fall apart. After rattling the fences for a bit, the chants became softer and quicker, and people started trickling away. The other media had packed up an hour before, and I followed suit. When I left, the armored praetorians were still standing guard. Walking back to my hotel, I swung by the financial district and passed City Hall. I saw boards on the windows and doors and storm-fencing everywhere. A sign of things past — and probably to come again.
Some of the names in this piece have been changed to preserve the identities of the speakers.