In a surreal, historic scene that included the mayor of a major American city tear gassed by federal officers, Ted Wheeler waded into a crowd of protesters in downtown Portland Wednesday night hoping to help end the ongoing standoff between city leaders, federal law enforcement and demonstrators who have gathered each night for almost two months demanding racial justice.
Amid chanted insults and calls to resign, Wheeler railed against the federal deployment to Portland, but said he was limited in his powers to force them to leave. The Portland mayor said he will push state legislators to end qualified immunity for police officers. He told demonstrators that they've already helped achieve major changes in the Portland Police Bureau.
And then, while observing protesters standing at the fence separating the demonstration from the federal courthouse, he got tear gassed when federal officers used chemicals and flashbang grenades to scatter the crowd.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and protesters amid tear gas on Wednesday night:
“It was not great,” Wheeler said. “It makes your eyes really burn.”
The mayor's appearance was brought on by the cajoling of the Portland Tribune, which in a weekend editorial called on Wheeler and other leaders to go listen to what demonstrators had to say.
“Let the protesters yell at you,” the editorial said. “Let them swear. Let them chant.”
They did that, and more.
Chants of “Fuck Ted Wheeler” were interspersed all night with “Black Lives Matters” cheers. Many of his remarks, delivered in the same stiff cadence he uses at City Council meetings, were drowned out by boos and insults. As Wheeler answered questions from protest leaders, someone dumped munitions used by police against the crowds at his feet. A list of demands projected on the wall above his head as he spoke concluded with a call for him to resign.
Wheeler showed no inclination to do that, and he provoked more boos each time he told questioners that he does not plan to hand over day-to-day oversight of the Portland Police Bureau to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as she has demanded.
Wheeler said repeatedly that he’d ventured downtown to listen, and he did plenty of that.
A Black mother, not wearing a face mask unlike the mayor and many in the crowd, stood within arms length to demand that he use Portland police to protect demonstrators rather than control them.
“We need you to turn your team around,” she said. “We need your team to join our team. I need you to get your whole team to stand here and do this with us.”
Activist and musician Mac Smiff reminded Wheeler he’d spoken to him about the Police Bureau when the mayor was first elected. Smiff told Wheeler that he’s fallen short of his promises. And he told him that he and other activists who have been arrested have heard Portland police officers criticize and laugh at the mayor behind his back.
“Ted, you’re the mayor. You’re in charge. We’re fighting out here, and you’re not. … We need you to help us or get out of the way,” Smiff said. “... If you don’t, it’s going to be four more years of hell. It’s going to be four more years of this. We’re going to be out here every night."
Wheeler told Smiff he planned to stick with the protesters: “I’m not going to leave. If you get gassed, then I get gassed.”
Another mother approached with her son and told Wheeler the boy had struggled to find a school to support him. The teenager told Wheeler he wanted to go to Cleveland High School but could not get school administrators to let him in because of past struggles. Wheeler told the boy he would get him a meeting with the Portland Public Schools superintendent.
The dialogue occurred in the surreal atmosphere that the blocks around the Multnomah County Justice Center and Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse have taken on in the past weeks.
The streets bear the powder burns of untold numbers of flash bangs, tear gas canisters and mortar-style fireworks set off in nightly clashes. The elk statue that long stood in the middle of Southwest Main Street is gone, replaced by an uneven mound of asphalt. Volunteers offer ribs, clothing and protest helmets free of charge in Lownsdale Square. The federal courthouse sits boarded up and graffitied in every manner of varicolored epithet.
Wheeler’s appearance at the protest came the same day the Portland City Council took steps to address how the city’s police force handles the nightly demonstrations.
The Council passed a resolution, introduced by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, that directs the police bureau to have no contact with federal officers brought in to police the protests. That includes requesting or willingly receiving help from those agencies, as well offering help or sharing information.
At the same meeting, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty publicly accused Wheeler of welcoming the presence of federal officers to tamp down nightly protests that have frequently involved property damage by a subset of participants. Wheeler has consistently said publicly he wants federal authorities to either remain in federal buildings or leave the city outright, and has called them a “personal army” for President Trump.
Still, many protesters expressed skepticism about why Wheeler, after more than 50 nights of protests, was finally making an appearance.
Before federal officers arrived in Portland in early July, the controversy was over how Portland Police responded to protesters before courts, state legislators and public outcry led to local officers to substantially reduce their use of tear gas. In the process, Wheeler gained a new nickname among protesters: Tear Gas Ted.
His opponent in the November runoff, Sarah Iannarone, has more regularly attended protests, as have a few elected officials. Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran posted photos of herself, eyes teary and face red, on Twitter after being tear gassed at another demonstration.
On Wednesday, one woman asked Wheeler whether he was only coming to a protest now that they're national news — and now that the national media has seized on images of white mothers forming a "Wall of Moms" to protect other demonstrators.
“Ted, it’s only because the white moms are here that you’re here, right?” she asked.
“No, but I do love all the moms,” he answered.
“It’s just that the Black moms have been here for so long, and no one paid attention,” she said. “And now you're here.”
As the night progressed, Wheeler made his way slowly through the crowd, stopping to talk to dozens of individual protesters even as a growing group outside the federal courthouse threw garbage, set off fireworks and started fires inside a fence erected by federal law enforcement. Eventually, demonstrators pried openings in the fence, some lingering within the barrier until officers emerged to snatch or scatter them.
Wheeler ended up at the fence as the first rounds of tear gas were fired.
Unlike many in the crowd, he was not wearing a gas mask. He did not walk or run away when clouds of gas blew his way. Instead, he coughed and closed his eyes when the effects hit.
“I’m not scared,” he said afterward. “I’m just pissed off.”
Someone in the crowd threw a water bottle at him, which he used to clear his eyes and throat. Not everyone was quite as helpful.
“How’s it feel, Teddy?” at least one demonstrator yelled at him.
Wheeler took one more round of tear gas and then was led away by his security team, prompting more boos. The chants of “Fuck Ted Wheeler” continued as demonstrators continued to clash with federal law enforcement.
An hour or so after Wheeler departed, his own Portland Police Bureau declared the event a riot and ordered people to leave downtown or face "arrest, citation or riot control agents."
Among the options available to officers: tear gas.