Tear Gas and Thugs at the BLM Protests in Portland

On the 59th night of BLM protests on July 25th at the federal courthouse, I was one of the thousands of protestors who went there. It took me a while to struggle through my fears of getting infected with the virus and the limits to my mobility due to old age and hip arthritis.  But like so many others, I could no longer stay home.  I knew from my previous experiences at many protests over the years, against war, racism, ICE, inequality, and exploitation of workers, that the police were extremely violent, often attacking us with little or no provocations.   What was new was that the police had been attacking the BLM protestors non-stop for 58 nights with tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and “non-lethal” munitions.  In contrast to their long history of using violence against non-violent protestors, the Portland police were seen protecting and fraternizing with white supremacist groups like the Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys at their rallies in this whitest of all US cities.   When Mayor Ted Wheeler appeared at a protest last week, he was booed by many there, who called out “Tear gas Ted.”   Later that night, Wheeler got a big dose of his own “medicine.”

The recent deployment of over 100 federal troops to Portland under “Operation Diligent Valor” by Trump added more fuel to the already fired-up protestors.  Trump claims that he sent the feds there to protect federal facilities and officers against “violent anarchists,” but the reality is this:  they have been deployed as an occupying army to crush the protests.  Since their arrival in early July, unidentified federal thugs in camouflage have grabbed BLM protestors off the streets, putting them in unmarked vehicles, and detaining them for hours without charge.   They have also escalated the violence at the nightly BLM protests at the (In)justice Center and the Federal Courthouse, working with the Portland police to attack non-violent protestors with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, flash grenades, and “non-lethal” projectiles.  The videos of their actions pepper-spraying people at point blank, firing an impact munition at 26 year-old Donovan La Bella , causing a skull fracture which required an emergency surgery, beating and pepper-spraying Chris David, a 53-year old Navy Vet who was just standing there, and attacking non-violent protestors night after night with copious amounts of tear gas and pepper spray have not only intimidated and terrorized people, but also enraged them.

So far, Homeland Security and the Trump administration have refused to withdraw the federal thugs despite lawsuits filed by Oregon’s attorney general, the ACLU, state legislators and activist groups.   Many of us can no longer remain silent as these accounts of daily violence by the police and feds make clear that what is at stake is not only racial injustice and inequality, but also an attack on our 1st Amendment right to free speech and civil rights.

I was heartened to see so many recent newcomers like the “Wall of Moms,” the dads, veterans, teachers, union workers, nurses, doctors and healthcare workers at the protest, as well as the die-hards who had been at the frontlines for 58 nights.   Their presence makes it much harder for Trump, his supporters and critics of the BLM protestors to separate us into “good” vs. “bad” protestors, or to demonize us all as “violent anarchists.”  The government, police and law enforcement agencies have a long history of suppressing many political movements for social change in the past by using this strategy of criminalizing our right to dissent and by deploying police and law enforcement violence to crush the resistance.

Now is the time for us to meet this challenge to protect our rights and to resist being under the boot of a fascist police state.  The stakes are high as what happens in Portland will soon be replicated in other cities as Trump threatens to send more federal troops to Chicago, Seattle, Albuquerque and other cities to squash the BLM movement and our demands for justice and equality for all.

As the crowds grew in numbers throughout the night, we sang and chanted words which have become mantras:   “No justice, no peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Feds go home,” “Stay together, stay tight!”  “Feds stay clear, the moms are here!”  Light projections of George Floyd’s last words flashed across the JC building.  “I can’t breathe.   Everything hurts.  Please don’t kill me.  Mama, I’m through.”   We read them in silence, while others were chanting “Black Lives Matter”  over and over again.   Other messages flashed by, “The power of the people is greater than those in power,” “The Revolution is Live,” “Black Lives Matter.”

There were thousands of us around midnight.  We were there at this nightly ritual of resistance, waiting for the inevitable to happen.   Several protestors were trying to pull down the metal fence, which had been reinforced recently.   After much effort, some succeeded in breaching the fence at one location.   We heard the disembodied voice announcing over the loudspeaker:   “This is the Portland Police” declaring a “riot” and ordering us to disperse immediately or be subjected to chemical attacks and arrests.   The protestors booed and yelled, “Fuck the police!  Feds out of Portland!”  in response.   Then the attacks began.   Loud explosions went off, and clouds of tear gas rapidly spread down the streets from SW 3rd and Salmon.  People were screaming and running, ignoring shouts of “Don’t run!”

Despite my old legs and hip arthritis, I managed to run through the waves of tear gas.  For a few terrifying moments, my eyes were burning, and I was blinded and disoriented.   Luckily, I was helped by the amazing medics, who treated my eyes with a saline solution.   I saw them treat other protestors injured by pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.  The feds and cops came running towards us, and chased us further and further downtown.  None of the protestors who were standing with me had done anything wrong, but the feds and cops kept firing tear gas at us.   I saw a few people being arrested near the Apple store downtown.  Dozens of police cars with sirens blasting, blue lights flashing, sped down the streets.   It was scary how quickly Portland had been transformed from the City of Roses to “Little Beirut.”  Then the police and feds marched off, got into their cars, and drove off.   It was a surreal scene—the streets were suddenly empty and quiet again, as if nothing had happened.   But we know better.   Our resistance is growing, and we will be back!

All photos by Bette Lee.

Bette Lee is a 70 year-old Asian American activist, who’s been involved in the struggle for justice and equality for over 30 years.  She is a substitute teacher at an alternative high school for mostly Black and Brown students.  She currently resides (and resists) in Portland.