Portland federal courthouse fence could last until 2021, cost more than $200,000

By Conrad Wilson (OPB) and Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Portland, Ore. July 23, 2020 11:17 p.m.

Protesters in Portland love a good fence.

Law enforcement put them up during the day. And almost as quickly, protesters gather and take them down.

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Wednesday night, Mayor Ted Wheeler stood against the fence surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and was tear gassed by federal law enforcement officers, as so many other demonstrators and journalists have experienced in the 50-plus nights before.

A person lifts a fellow demonstrator over the fence surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., July 22, 2020. The courthouse has been the site of large protests against police brutality and systemic racism for nearly two months straight.

A person lifts a fellow demonstrator over the fence surrounding the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., July 22, 2020. The courthouse has been the site of large protests against police brutality and systemic racism for nearly two months straight.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

A recently obtained document by OPB shows the federal government sees the fence as crucial to its presence in Portland, which — according to the acquisition form — could last into 2021.

According to the July 14 document justifying a sole source vendor, the federal government plans to rent the fence for three to six months. The taxpayer price tag for the long term rental amounts to an estimated $208,400.

In the memo, the Federal Protective Service said it required a fence at least 8-feet high with reinforced steel mesh panels “designed to prevent a potential climber from gaining either a hand hold or a foot hold.”  The fence was also supposed to be able to resist a car crashing into it at up to 30 miles per hour.

The federal government isn’t the first agency that has tried to fence out protesters here.

Related: Judge restricts force federal officers can use in Portland

Before he was pressed up against a fence and tear gassed by law enforcement, Wheeler’s police bureau used the same tactic multiple times over the previous 55 days of protests against police violence and systemic racism.

There was the fence surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland, so famous it got its own Twitter handle. Protesters reveled in casting donuts over that fence with toy fishing rods. And on multiple nights they breached the chainlink, in at least one instance with no other apparent reason than to stand in the street and moon Portland police.

On June 9, a plywood wall was erected around Portland City Hall. Hours later, Portland city officials said the wall was a mistake and took it down. It cost taxpayers $30,000.

Then there were the fences around Lownsdale and Chapman Squares, directly across from the federal courthouse. Hours after going up, protesters pulled those barriers apart, rearranged the fencing to block streets, and piled the rest on the concrete pedestal where the elk statue once stood.

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A protester stacks pieces of fence in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse on July 18, 2020. The federal police presence has galvanized protesters, bringing out a larger group than on recent nights.

A protester stacks pieces of fence in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse on July 18, 2020. The federal police presence has galvanized protesters, bringing out a larger group than on recent nights.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

The federally rented fence on the block surrounding the federal courthouse is far more substantial than the chain link fences used by the city.

The U.S. Attorney for Oregon’s office said on Twitter the fence was to “de-escalate tensions between protesters and federal law enforcement officers.”

But it has also created an unintended dynamic on the ground: It’s a clearly marked gathering point that keeps the crowd larger for longer instead of dispersing.

In its document sourcing the fence, the Federal Protective Service said it's necessary to protect their staff.

“The FPS considered the usage of this fence not only critical in order to protect the federal complex, but more importantly the safety of our first responders who will be inside of the fence service as a last line of defense,” the document states.

The agency has a long history with this kind of fencing, using it for political conventions, presidential inaugurations as well as a NATO meeting, G-20 summits and other international assemblies.

A person kicks the fence surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center during protests over police brutality in Portland, Ore., June 5, 2020.

A person kicks the fence surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center during protests over police brutality in Portland, Ore., June 5, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

On June 6, the federal government put up a similar fence around the White House. That fence was reviled by many for blocking off Lafayette Square, one of the nation’s most popular protest locations. Protesters quickly adorned it in art and after five days, it was finally taken down.

Portland protesters went a different direction. On July 18, hours after being delivered from Illinois and constructed around the courthouse, protesters picked apart the $200,000 last line of defense in under an hour and stacked the sections in front of the courthouse doors.

Contractors returned Wednesday to rebuild the fence, this time reinforcing it with concrete Jersey barriers.

The government sourcing document says the fence panels were designed to “prevent a potential climber from gaining either a hand hold or foot hold.” But even with new reinforcing  Wednesday night, a handful of protesters climbed back and forth over the fence — and quickly pried open its gates.

When asked about the fence rental, an FPS spokesman  replied: “Our guys are taking a beating trying to defend that courthouse.”

Late Thursday, the Portland Bureau of Transportation said the fence had to come down because it was put up without the proper permits and blocks a bike lane.

"This fence was constructed without permission or permits on public property, and it is both an abuse of public space and a threat to the traveling public," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees the bureau. "This illegal action will not be tolerated in our community."

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