UPDATE (7:03 a.m. PT Thursday) — As protesters have been doing by the thousands in Portland nearly every night since George Floyd died at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, demonstrators again marched across the Willamette River and rallied outside the downtown Justice Center Wednesday, into early Thursday morning. But unlike other nights, the rally remained without major conflicts between police and protesters — even as the two sides stood mere feet apart on opposite sides of a fence, for hours.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the police force received heavy criticism Wednesday for deploying tear gas and other less-than-lethal tactics in responding to protests that began Tuesday evening and lasted into early morning Wednesday. Other city leaders and advocacy groups called for the city to ban tear gas.
The conflict comes in the context of protests that are themselves focused on police violence against people of color, in light of the death of Floyd and other recent victims of law enforcement violence. Organizers and supporters have been calling for major policy changes when it comes to police, as well as investment and support for communities of color in American cities, such as Portland.
Protest Crosses Morrison Bridge To Waterfront Park
After organizing at 6 p.m., several thousand demonstrators marched to the Morrison Bridge — where they stopped, and at the urging of speakers, knelt on the pavement with hands raised in the air.
For nine minutes in the middle of the bridge, protest organizer Darren Golden methodically described to the crowd what it feels like to be a Black person when you’re pulled over by the police. Minutes later, as the throngs reached the west side of Portland, a teenage protester emphasized the terror and certainty that come with growing up Black in the U.S. The teen spoke through a bullhorn from the back of a moving pickup truck.
“I didn’t have a Black teacher until I was a freshman in high school,” the protester said as the truck traveled along SW Naito Parkway.
“I’m 17, and I’m fighting for the basic fucking right to survive in this country.”
Demonstrators gathered at Tom McCall Waterfront Park — nearly all of them in masks. Public health officials have expressed concern about the potential for COVID-19 contagion at the protests, as social distancing of six feet appears rare. The crowds are so large, it’s difficult for people to spread out, even in a big space like Waterfront Park.
With the sun setting behind the west hills, protesters listened to speeches from Rev. E. D. Mondaine, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP; Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Communities of Color Coalition; and Portland State University professor of urban studies Lisa Bates.
Bates pressed people in positions of power to change policies that harm communities of color.
“We need our elected leaders to use every tool at their disposal to end violence against our communities right now. They need to do everything in their power to stop the violence against our communities while we work towards abolition,” Bates told the crowd.
“They attack us on film with no regard. They destroy people’s lives.”
Vocal But Non-Violent Protest Outside Justice Center
At first, Portland Police perceived the protest was splitting up, but it appeared to lose few participants as darkness fell, and people marched to the Justice Center a few blocks west.
Police emphasized “peaceful” protest in their tweets throughout Wednesday night, and that was again their focus in statements to demonstrators when they gathered away from the park.
Those handing out fireworks, this is a peaceful crowd. We want it to remain peaceful. Do not throw fireworks at the crowd or officers. We have children in the crowd.— Portland Police (@PortlandPolice) June 4, 2020
“We are making announcements to the crowd in front of the Justice Center to not tamper with the fencing. We ask everyone to be peaceful,” Portland Police tweeted shortly before 10 p.m.
During protests on preceding nights, the area near the Justice Center has been the site of violent clashes between police and protesters. Video from protests that started Friday night and lasted into Saturday showed protesters damaging the inside of the Justice Center, including lighting a small fire.
As the night wore on, protesters pressed against the chain-link fence erected around the Justice Center. A few feet away, officers stood wearing face shields and protective equipment.
Demonstrators would shout questions or invite officers to have conversations, or suggest they kneel with protesters, as some officers did during a previous night of protests. Kianna Scott shouted a question to an officer in front of her about a legal matter. But the officer didn’t appear to respond, according to a brief video shot by OPB.
“Our Demonstration Liaison Officers had a productive conversation with some of the leaders of tonight’s demonstration,” Portland Police said in a tweet. “We have no intent to engage demonstrators. Please stay peaceful.”
In addition to “peaceful” messaging from the police, a number of officers engaged with protesters to talk about their cultural awareness training and use of force policies.
Large Protests Continue In Smaller Oregon Cities
Calls for justice in the name of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have extended beyond Portland to other cities around Oregon.
Wednesday night at least a thousand protesters marched through the streets of Happy Valley from Clackamas High School to City Hall, led by Clackamas High alumna and Weber State sprinter Monnie Spears. Spears said before the rally that it was her first time organizing a protest.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, who represents the area in the Oregon Legislature, joined the march and expressed her praise on Facebook: “Happy Valley and Clackamas should be feeling so good tonight. The kids led us in a spiritual awakening of love and peace. Thank you, sweet Moni, for your leadership and vision. We know the world is going to be ok. We paused for 8:46 and it brought home how long our brother suffered in pain with a knee to his neck. We heard from the mothers of Black children. We heard first hand accounts of how Black kids in HV have experienced life.”
In recent days, demonstrations to demand racial justice have formed in cities like Grants Pass, Hermiston, Pendleton and Burns. Large demonstrations have also continued in Eugene.
Chief Resch Calls Protests “Watershed Moment”
As the standoff continued between police and protesters, Chief Jamie Resch tweeted out a largely conciliatory three-minute video. She called the death of George Floyd and the police tactics that led to it, “abhorrent.”
We support peaceful demonstrations and want our city to unify and be an inclusive environment where people trust their law enforcement. We have done a lot of work, but we have more to do. We are listening and need your ideas and for you to be a part of public safety here. pic.twitter.com/OU7saCs55I— Jami Resch (@ChiefResch) June 4, 2020
“The actions and tactics displayed on the video do not represent our profession’s values and are contrary to our fundamental duty to protect and serve,” Resch said. “We understand the protests that are occurring in our city and around the country are monumental.”
In calling the demonstrations a “watershed moment” for the country as well as for her police force, Resch made an effort to connect to protesters and humanize the police force, even as many of her officers were standing in protective armor, silent, across from demonstrators, as her tweet was released.
“We see the grief displayed in the demonstrators’ faces. We see the anger, fear, mistrust, and emotion. Over the course of several days, we have met with protest participants, pastors, and other leaders. We have listened and we will continue to listen,” she said.
Resch said repeated a mantra that was also stated again and again throughout Wednesday’s protest from the Portland Police’s twitter account: the importance of demonstrating “peacefully.”
“We support you and we support your peaceful demonstrations. We want you to exercise your first amendment rights and honor George Floyd,” Resch said. “We appreciate the peaceful demonstrations that have occurred. It is unfortunate that some of these nights have ended in violence, taking away that message of hope and peace that we are all striving for. Criminal activity, including destruction of property, looting and violence can not be tolerated and will not move us forward — but will continue to divide us.”