Some ducked under makeshift shields to protect themselves from the falling sparks, while others cheered at the sight of the blazing projectile hurtling toward the courthouse and the federal law enforcement agents inside: “This is what democracy looks like!”
In recent weeks, protesters in Portland have pointed laser beams, lobbed water bottles and trash bags and, in one case, according to the Portland Police Bureau, hurled an open pocketknife at the officers guarding the courthouse; they have used power tools, crowbars and bolt cutters to yank down a fence. In Seattle, demonstrators over the weekend set fire to several construction trailers at a youth detention facility, and protests in Richmond, Virginia, Los Angeles and Oakland, California, were also marked by fires.
Yet the nightly assault on the federal courthouse has been part of a much wider peaceful resistance — high school students, military veterans, off-duty lawyers, lines of mothers who call themselves the “Wall of Moms” — that began assembling nearly two months ago in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The aim, as it has been in other cities, was to assemble for sweeping police reform and racial justice.
The raucous escalation in recent days, brought about by the deployment of federal law enforcement officers and the harsh tactics they have used against protesters, has prompted new debates among the protesters over their own tactics and goals.
Now battling nightly rounds of pepper spray and impact munitions fired by federal forces, some activists worry that the nightly clashes are distracting from their demands for defunding or reforming local police departments.
“To see people standing in Portland destroying property and not actually doing the work of advocating for Black people was disturbing,” said Rachelle Dixon, the vice chair of the Multnomah County Democrats and an organiser in the Black community. “I think they’re a distraction from the everyday needs of people of colour, especially Black people. My life is not going to improve because you broke the glass at the Louis Vuitton store.”
During the protests Sunday night in Portland, organisers tried to gently coax protesters away from the courthouse, calling them to the nearby Multnomah County Justice Centre to listen to speeches. “We’re family now,” said one of the speakers, a local activist and artist who performs under the stage name Itchy Trigga. “We can’t allow the feds to break up our family.”
But as the protest ticked closer to its 60th consecutive day, protesters regrouped in front of the courthouse. Federal agents responded to the fireworks from the crowd with tear gas, sending protesters reeling, and later began a pursuit through Portland’s streets.
On Monday, the US attorney in Portland, Billy J Williams, appealed for an end to the nightly clashes. “I ask all Portlanders to join us in working with community leaders, faith leaders and business leaders to find an end to this,” he said. “The violence is wearing this city out.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Jo Ann Hardesty, a city commissioner, said in a statement that they wanted to “discuss a cease-fire and removal of heightened federal forces” with the Department of Homeland Security, including Chad F Wolf, its acting secretary.
Earlier in the day, federal authorities announced that they had identified 100 additional US Marshals Service personnel to send to Oregon if needed to relieve or supplement the current force protecting federal property there. “We are also determined to reduce the violence aimed at the federal courthouse in Portland by violent extremists,” Drew Wade, a spokesman for the Marshals Service, said in a statement.
Yet even some of the demonstrators who fear that the federal presence has distracted from the original Black Lives Matter message say it is important for the community to voice its opposition to the dispatching of federal agents to a city whose leaders have opposed the deployment. And protesting the militarised federal presence, they say, is not far off message from the long-running protests against the local police.
And some of those who are not engaged in the more aggressive tactics being employed find themselves sympathetic to those who are; the federal government, they say, is repeatedly shooting at protesters with tear gas, pepper balls and other exploding devices, tactics that have sent demonstrators to hospitals.
“There may be people throwing water bottles at officers. I’m not going to do that because I don’t see the point,” said Jennifer Kristiansen, a family-law attorney who joined the Wall of Moms last week and was later arrested by federal agents. “But if people want to express their frustration in that way, I’m not going to stop them.”
“There is room for chanting and dancing and joyful noises and there is also room for rage. We make that space for each other,” she said.
That sentiment has been echoed by some of those in other cities who joined weekend protests that also opposed the deployment of federal agents in Portland.
Cat Brooks, a racial justice organiser in Oakland and the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, said Black Lives Matter protests and the movement to oust federal forces from cities were “one connected struggle.”
The debate among organisers, she said, is the tactics that protesters should use. Her own view is that protesters cannot be blamed for responding forcefully when confronted with rubber bullets and pepper spray, as they have been in Portland.
“I don’t consider property destruction violence,” she said. “Violence is when you attack a person or another living, breathing creature on this planet. Windows don’t cry and they can’t die.”
Organisers in Oakland, which has a long tradition of loud protests, are watching closely whether federal forces will be deployed there.
“If the feds come to Oakland, it’s going to make Portland look like Disneyland,” Brooks said.
She rejected the notion, put forward by Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, among others, that violence and property destruction reinforce President Donald Trump’s message that anarchists were taking over the country’s streets.
“We could sit there and sing ‘Kumbaya’ and suck lollipops between now and November, but if Donald Trump thinks it makes sense to hit Oakland and Detroit and some of the other cities with large Black populations — then that’s what Donald Trump is going to do,” Brooks said.
In Seattle on Saturday, as a large crowd marching through the city stopped in front of a new youth detention center, some went and knocked over a nearby construction trailer while others lit fire to the construction buildings, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Further down the street, some in the crowd smashed the windows of buildings, including a Starbucks, where a fire was lit inside. As smoke came out of the broken windows, people on the street called up to the residents living above the coffee shop, suggesting that they evacuate.
Jamie Boudreau, who runs a bar a block away, and who described himself as a “100% supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, said he was texting his wife as the crowd went by. Someone confronted him, accusing him of taking a video of the crowd. He said it escalated until people were punching and spitting on him and an employee. His storefront windows were smashed.
“I was like, ‘Guys, you are totally targeting the wrong person right now,’” Boudreau said. “We’ve been on the marches. It’s just so bizarre.”
In Richmond, a burst of violence over the weekend took residents by surprise, and broke what Mayor Levar Stoney said had been 24 days of peaceful gatherings in Virginia’s capital.
The gathering began peacefully in Monroe Park on Saturday night. Several hundred protesters then left the park and began to march through the city. But when they reached the Police Department, some in the crowd “became very aggressive verbally toward the officers there,” the chief of police, Gerald M Smith, said at a news conference. He said “the rioters in the crowd” threw bricks, batteries and rocks at the police. He said the police took action to disperse them after some set a city dump truck on fire.
Stoney noted that bricks were lobbed at firefighters who were attempting to extinguish the blaze. He said he suspected that white supremacists were behind the violence.
“We have identified some individuals who have been seen with the Boogaloo boys and some antifa groups around the area,” Smith said.
“People broke windows and spray-painted private property with hateful language,” he said. “Frankly, it was disgusting.”
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