Several dozen additional out-of-town federal law enforcement officers are deploying to Portland as they look to make additional arrests in the coming days, while also shifting tactics from the use of tear gas, according to multiple federal law enforcement sources.
The federal response has so far sparked four civil rights lawsuits, a Department of Justice inspector general investigation, proposed legislation in Congress limiting the role of federal law enforcement in American cities, and has injured a number of protesters. Rather than quell the protests as was the intent, it’s served to reenergize and strengthen the city’s protest movement.
The beefed up federal presence comes at the same time federal officials are internally acknowledging they have contributed to the quick escalation between law enforcement and groups of protesters, which had dwindled to a couple hundred people or less earlier this month.
“Anytime you shoot someone in the face and beat them with a baton, it’s going to be criticized,” said one federal law enforcement official. “That’s not a controversial statement.”
In the span of two weeks, U.S. Marshals shot Donavan La Bella, 26, in the head with a crowd control weapon. Federal officers also faced sharp criticism for beating Navy-veteran Christopher David, who had not threatened officers in any way. David required surgery to repair a broken arm and La Bella was hospitalized for two weeks with a skull fracture. Countless others have been injured by impact munitions used on a nightly basis.
"Crowds were very small and the incident with La Bella — that was a flare up point that the government tried to deescalate," one federal law enforcement source stated.
Federal law enforcement officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, and because they said the nature of the situation in Portland is a “crisis” being watched and managed from the highest levels of the federal government.
As of Tuesday there were 114 federal law enforcement officers in Portland “protecting federal facilities” as part of an executive order President Trump signed in June, according to court documents. Their stated goal is to protect the federal courthouse and other federal buildings and personnel. But their actions have been widely criticized.
Perhaps the largest outcry came after OPB reported on the case of Mark Pettibone, who was pulled into an unmarked vehicle by federal law enforcement during the early morning hours of July 15 with little explanation.
"The van arrests that happened overnight on July 14 — after that, everything went to hell," a federal law enforcement officer stated. "It happened twice in one night. As far as I know, if mistakes were made, it hasn't been repeated."
In the days after Pettibone’s arrest, as a video of another person arrested in a similar way in downtown Portland went viral, crowds outside the federal courthouse swelled. Demonstrations last week consistently drew thousands of people.
Some of those protesters are taking what they learned facing similar tactics from Portland police and continuing to hone them in their resistance to federal force, too. They’ve devised ways to counter rubber bullets, tear gas and a reinforced fence around the federal courthouse. Their tactics resemble those of Hong Kong protesters in 2019, with many people wearing gas masks, carrying shields or umbrellas, and even using leaf blowers to turn tear gas back toward law enforcement.
To counter those increasingly sophisticated tactics, law enforcement officials said they need even more people on the ground. The additional people will allow some who have been here to rotate out, but the overall number of federal law enforcement officers in the city will grow, multiple sources stated.
In contrast to a national message condemning all protesters as “rioters” and “anarchists,” Oregon-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel in a press conference on Saturday acknowledged demonstrators’ rights to be in city streets.
“People are angry. Very large crowds are gathering, marching, shouting, and expressing deep and legitimate anger and frustration with police and the justice system,” Gabriel said. “People all across Portland are protesting in constitutionally protected ways. And they’ve done so for the last 57 days and nights.”
He said demonstrators carried a clear message when protests began in May: Change policing “because we know that people of color are subject to force by law enforcement at a higher rate than white people.”
But Gabriel, other law enforcement, prominent Black leaders in Portland — and even some activists — are increasingly saying nightly property damage and pitched confrontations with law enforcement risk distracting from that original message. Meanwhile, Black activists who have been at protests since the beginning said their message has remained clear, even as conflict with federal law enforcement has escalated in recent weeks.
“Federal law enforcement made everything bigger,” said Mac Smiff, a Portland based activist and editor-in-chief of We Out Here magazine. “The momentum is nuts and the feds keep escalating.”
At the time federal law enforcement made a major show of force on July 4, the nightly protests downtown were drawing crowds in the dozens or low hundreds. By Saturday night, protesters once again numbered in the thousands.
Portland police, city officials and officials in the federal government have aimed to undermine protesters, calling them violent criminals, anarchists or saying they were not there to talk about racial justice.
“What happened here isn't helping to bring about any meaningful change, reform or an end of historic racism that all of us are joined together and seeking to eliminate,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said during a June 26 press conference at the city police’s North Precinct after a dumpster had been set on fire outside the building the night before. “Last night was plainly and simply about arson. It was about destruction. It was about endangering lives. It's blatant criminal violence. That is totally unacceptable.”
And in an op-ed published this week in the Washington Post, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, E.D. Mondainé, said protests have become a substanceless spectacle and accused white people of co-opting the fight for racial justice with stunts like the Wall of Moms and "naked Athena," two protest phenomena that captured headlines but were panned as white performance. "Naked Athena" hasn't been identified, but friends have said she is a white-passing woman of color.
On Thursday, in front of a crowd of hundreds, Mondainé stood on the front steps of the Justice Center and delivered a more nuanced but similar message to the crowd.
“The focus has been moved up from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle, in the systems and the eyes of America,” Mondainé said. “But we cannot let this debacle stay in the streets. We cannot fight it just in the streets. We cannot fight it with the voices that stand in this square.”
Smiff, whose legal name is Fahiym Acuay, said he loves both the Wall of Moms and naked Athena, and dismissed criticisms by saying Mondainé isn’t on the streets enough to have an accurate picture of what’s happening. Smiff said the criticism undercuts the reenergized movement.
On any given night at the Multnomah County Justice Center, mixed in among the crowd, there is a wide array of people. The crowd is diverse racially, socio-economically, and there are also varied forms of protest.
Some activists use a microphone or bullhorn to speak to the crowd about racism, police violence, and ways to fight for racial justice through policy. There are people playing music and dancing. There is more traditional protest with signs and chants. Others bring free food or medical supplies. Up front, right along the fence around the federal courthouse, protesters taunt the police, shake the fence, or throw water bottles. Still others form a wall of moms, a wall of vets or stand naked in front of lines of police decked out in riot gear.
Activists from across the country have harshly criticized the almost entirely white Wall of Moms as yet another example of white women placing themselves at the center of a Black-led and Black-focused movement. Teressa Raiford, an activist and founder of Don’t Shoot PDX, said Black moms asked the white mothers to go out there, and that the response highlights the white supremacy people are protesting.
“Why was it allowed that so many people got assaulted until white women showed up?” Raiford asked. “And why are they assaulted for saying ‘Black Lives Matter?’ I think that for the general public, they should be educated that the people showing up for Black lives shouldn't be subjected to the humiliation and that someone should be accountable to that.”
Smiff said he sees all of it as legitimate protest, even if some actions aren’t available to him as a Black man.
“They don't face the same risks as us,” he said, referring to white protesters. “I know sometimes I want to go and throw smoke bombs back at the cops. Sometimes I want to go and set some shit on fire, but I know I can't do that. They will find me. They will lock me up forever.”
But, he said, an obsession over the “right” way to protest is the real distraction and an attempt to delegitimize.
“We can't sit there and be like, ‘We want to raise our fists and sing ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ until 2 in the morning,’” Smiff said. “That's fine. Do that shit. Someone else was like, ‘Yo, we need to throw eggs at the cops.’ That's what you want to do, do it. It's all protest. It's not violence.”
Criticism hasn’t only come from powerful people who have an interest in ending the protests. Smiff said activists in Chicago and Atlanta have also been critical of the large number of white people in the protests here.
“They don't understand the dynamic here,” he said. “Any protest that is of any significant size in Portland is going to be mostly white. We can't be out there with a hundred people every night, they're going to arrest us all. We have to have everyone out there, and these people are fighting for our cause.”
Last week, Teal Lindseth, an activist with a group called the Portland Protest Bureau, stood in front of about 1,000 protesters gathered in front of the Justice Center, a crowd bigger than any that had gathered in weeks.
“Every state out there is stopping but this state ain’t fucking giving up,” Lindseth said. “We are not giving up. Because it fucking matters. Our lives matter.”
In the crowd that night was Byrd, a middle aged Black woman who has been attending protests at the Justice Center since they started. Among other events bringing people to the street, she said the federal law enforcement officers’ actions have made people scared that their fundamental right to protest is in jeopardy. The hand wringing over white people in the protest misses the bigger point, she said.
“You're either for human rights or you aren't,” Byrd said. “We can't concede the point that now there's an energy that is bent toward racial justice for Black people. And that's the focus.”
With criticism coming from elected officials, some older community leaders and even some activists in other cities, Black protesters and activists in Portland said they aren’t united by an organization or any specific leader. They are guided by principles and their demands have always been clear.
“Stop with the theater,” Smiff said. “Are you going to defund the cops or not? You're saying, 'No?’ We're going to be in the streets. That's how it ends.”