UPDATE (4:30 p.m. PT) — Portland city leaders denounced the widespread looting and rioting that shook downtown Portland Friday night into Saturday morning, as a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd turned destructive.
In response, the city imposed a curfew for 8 p.m. Saturday night that will end at 6 a.m. Sunday. It’s unclear whether the rule will quell protesters in Portland as large-scale demonstrations continued across the country Saturday.
A large gathering on Friday in Peninsula Park to honor Floyd, a Black man whose death at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer has sparked outrage across the country, turned into a 4-mile march into downtown Portland. The protest devolved as protesters arrived at the Multnomah County Justice Center, the endpoint of the march. The Justice Center was lit on fire. Businesses were looted, broken and defaced.
In remarks at Portland City Hall Saturday morning, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty emphasized that the destruction was a departure from the rest of the day’s events, hosted to memorialize Floyd and acknowledge that, for too long, Black bodies in the United States have been treated as disposable.
“What happened last night had nothing to do with Black America. It was not about standing up for Black people’s rights. It was not about acknowledging the death and harm that has taken place,” she said. “It was merely a small group of people who decided that, ‘Here’s a great opportunity for us to steal stuff and break stuff.’
“I will not accept that we need justice for Black people at the expense of tearing up our community,” she continued.
The commissioner also thanked Mayor Ted Wheeler, who, at the time of the protests, was out of town with his family, discussing next steps for his mother in hospice care. The mayor said he returned to Portland in the early hours of Saturday morning and had not slept since early Friday.
At the press conference Saturday, Wheeler appeared emotional as he described “a deep sense of moral conflict” coming off last night’s protests.
“I cannot condone last night’s violence. I cannot stand by and watch our city be destroyed. I cannot stand by and watch buildings be set aflame while people are still in them. And I won’t,” he said. “But nor will I stand silent as men like George Floyd are murdered by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them and serve them and our communities at large.”
Wheeler declared a state of emergency before dawn Saturday in response to the violence.
City leaders said they believed the rioting and looting did little to memorialize the man on whom the events were intended to focus: George Floyd, who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, suffocating him.
“The self-concern, the casual destruction and the self-righteous determination to put others in harm’s way that was on display in the city last night does absolutely nothing to honor the legacy of George Floyd or to improve the systemic problems that led to his murder,” said Rev. E.D. Mondainé, the president of Portland’s NAACP chapter.
In her remarks, Portland Fire Chief Sara Boone said Portlanders have civil servants to thank for the fact the city had not burned down.
“Our members put their lives in harm’s way, in order to keep these fires small,” she said. “In order to save lives.”
Staff working in the Multnomah County Corrections’ records division found themselves on the front lines alongside first responders Friday night as protesters lobbed pieces of concrete through the windows that the county sheriff estimated to be the size of softballs. Protesters used heavy objects to ram through the glass panes in the entryway. People came into the work spaces and set them on fire.
Sheriff Michael Reese said the severe damage will limit the county’s ability to run services out of the building. Victims of domestic violence, he pointed out, use the facility to get restraining orders. Arraignment courts will need to be relocated.
Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Chris Davis categorized the riots as “one of the worst nights in Portland city history.”
“Anger at the police is one thing. We’re used to that,” he said. “But destroying our city is another.”
As of early Saturday morning, police had named 13 people arrested in the riots with more were being processed. The police bureau is also investigating a shooting in which they believe a demonstrator shot into a car. A passenger suffered a graze wound, but has been released from the hospital, according to the bureau.
As the press conference wrapped up, reporters began asking questions about the police strategy and whether the police force could have used different tactics that would have proved more successful at quelling the violence.
Davis said officers had tried to get ahead of riots by reaching out to leaders of the events. But protesters had ultimately taken the protest in a violent direction that no organizer had intended.
“Frankly, we don’t know how many people who were at the event last night were even at Peninsula Park,” where the event began, he said. “It’s an extremely difficult thing to predict when we’re going to have this kind of violence.”
He said the riots had proved particularly difficult to squash as protesters kept breaking out into smaller groups, looting businesses and lighting fires, and then coming back together and doing the same thing somewhere else.
“A big question we have in the investigation into the event is to what extent was that coordinated because it was a fairly organized-appearing effort,” he said.
After a series of questions from reporters on the police tactics, Hardesty spoke out, expressing frustration that the line of questioning reporters were most interested in was the police response and not the pain that had caused the riot in the first place.
“It wasn’t about what the police did or didn’t do,” she said. “It’s about what we didn’t do as a community, as a government, as responsible parties to represent the people in our community.”
The commissioner, a longtime critic of Portland’s police force, added she believed the police did “an excellent job.”
Following the press conference, Davis led the mayor on a tour of the destruction downtown. (Police Chief Jami Resch is currently on an unpaid furlough mandated by the city for many employees as a cost-saving measure during the pandemic.)
Wheeler was led down to the destroyed Justice Center, past the Louis Vuitton Store, which had been looted of most if not all of its luxury bags, and the Apple Store, which had its glass walls shattered. On the walk, contractors for Graffiti Removal Service were scrubbing graffiti across downtown, an effort they said would likely take all weekend. Business owners were scraping broken glass from the storefronts. The mayor stopped to take a look through the shards of glass that remained in the windows at Bangkok Palace, a Thai eatery on SW Taylor Street.
Andrew Hoan, the head of the Portland Business Alliance, who was doing his own survey of the damage Saturday, estimated the cost to Portland’s business will be in the millions.
Hoan said he sees the “wanton destruction” inflicted on downtown businesses Friday night as the final straw after months of lost revenue from the pandemic.
“I absolutely assume any practical business owner, who is already reeling, who is already cash-strapped, who is really just clinging to business would certainly make the halfway responsible decision to close down permanently because the damage that was done here would be so difficult to recover from,” he said. “And also I think emotionally most people here are just done.
“Whatever message they were trying to send, boy, it failed miserably,” he said.
By Saturday afternoon, business owners across downtown were trying to get their businesses in decent shape. The broken windows at Bangkok Palace had been boarded up. Volunteers with the city’s Neighborhood Emergency Teams, residents trained to provide emergency disaster assistance, were busy washing away graffiti. Work crews were replacing the shattered glass panes outside Louis Vuitton.
At Foot Traffic, a running store on SW Taylor Street, employees were taking stock of their remaining inventory. Fritz Fitzer, the store’s general manager, said it’s clear “a large percentage” of apparel and a “decent percentage” of their shoes were taken. One of their main windows had been broken.
“On one hand, it’s just product. We have insurance. No one got hurt. That’s the important thing. The building’s still intact. We can recover from this,” said Fitzer. “But it’s difficult not to take this personally at this moment and feel like we just keep getting hit.”
There are concerns that Saturday night will bring another round of potentially violent protests, as other cities have seen protests over Floyd’s death spread out over multiple nights. The city sent emergency alerts to Portlanders’ mobile devices to remind them of the curfew Saturday night. Officials are also asking Portland business owners to remove the board-signs outside their stores “as a precaution against their use as projectiles.”
Fitzer said a part of him would understand if protests continued into Saturday night.
“That frustration and anger — it’s real and it’s out there,” he said. “I’ve got to remain optimistic and the store has to remain optimistic and hope that we can weather this.”