Thursday marked yet another turning point in the more than two months of protests for racial justice in Portland: It was the first night in more than three weeks that federal officers were not present.
“The whitest city in America has made the biggest move on Black lives!” said Seneca Cayson, leading to cheers from the crowd of more than 1,000 people who gathered outside the Multnomah County Justice Center.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown struck a deal with federal officials early Wednesday to remove Department of Homeland Security and other federal officers from Portland streets.
The officers, sent under an order from President Donald Trump, came to the Rose City in late June with the stated mission of protecting federal property from protesters who used spray paint, threw objects at officers or lit fires near the Mark Hatfield federal courthouse downtown. To carry out that mission, the officers regularly engaged in violent and indiscriminate attacks on demonstrators using crowd control weapons, sometimes straying blocks from federal property to tear gas protesters and chase them out of downtown.
By mid-July, the federal officers and their bosses in Washington D.C. had fully inflamed tensions at the nightly demonstrations after injuring protesters, making questionable arrests and threatening to supersede local control. Thousands began turning out to call for racial justice and demand the alphabet soup of federal agencies leave.
The determination of the protesters seemed to wear down the Trump administration this week, leading DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf to agree to the deal pulling out federal officers, who were not seen Thursday night.
“They ask us, ‘How long will this go?’ Well how long does it take to get justice?” Jamal Williams said to demonstrators gathered to hear speeches.
Oregon State Police troopers agreed to replace federal officers as part of the withdrawal deal, and that change seemed to deescalate tensions, allowing protesters to return racial justice as the sole focus of the night’s gathering.
“Protest without purpose is a bunch of bullshit,” Williams said. “You’re not paid to be down here. Your payment is doing what’s right, and we know that the ultimate right thing is to stand up for the rights of others.”
By 10:30 p.m., speeches at the Justice Center concluded and a few hundred demonstrators moved to a fence that remains standing around the federal courthouse. Law enforcement was not visibly present and the crowd remained calm, though some protesters still hit the fence or shouted anti-police slogans.
Other demonstrators gathered in Chapman and Lownsdale squares, which had been cleared of debris and campers earlier in the day by Portland police officers. Speakers in those parks continued to chant and call for racial justice after midnight.
“This is a movement, not a moment!” one group of protesters shouted.
By 1:30 a.m., most people had dispersed from downtown and no police actions had been taken against demonstrators.