The Casual Brutality of Protesting in Portland

On one night, 24 protesters were arrested and several were maced. It barely made the news.
October 3, 2020, 1:27pm
Dustin Brandon staring down police before he was arrested on September 28, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Tess Owen/VICE News)

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Portland, Oregon—At least four nights a week since May, Scotty Harrington, 23, has been on Portland’s frontlines putting his experience and training as an EMT and combat medic to use treating injured protesters. 

“I have a whole trauma kit with me,” Harrington, who was wearing a vest emblazoned with patches saying “I AM AN ANTIFASCIST” and “EMT,” told VICE News ahead of a protest on Monday. He was in Kenton Park, in the north side of Portland, where protesters met up before a planned assembly at the nearby police union headquarters. “My pack is divided between different sections depending on what I’m working on. I have musculo-skeletal, gunshot wounds, general bleeding, teargas, and mace neutralizers.” 

What he ends up using varies according to whichever police force tries to intervene and how big the protest gets. 

“Some places are more chill than others. Some nights are more chill than others. We’re dealing with a lot of musculo-skeletal stuff lately and a lot of macing.” Harrington said. “People get pushed a lot by the cops, especially lately they’ve been very pushy. Saturday night was very pushy. In the last week, I’ve had to wrap and splint two members of the press for getting pushed.” 

After police killed George Floyd in May, a loose coalition of Black Lives Matter protesters, antifascists, and anarchists have taken to the streets of Portland for more than 100 consecutive nights, staying in only when the wildfire smoke made it too dangerous to be outdoors. For two weeks in July, President Donald Trump even deployed federal troops to the city (against the wishes of residents and local officials). Harrington and others casually refer to those days as the “Fed Wars.” 

Now, after clashing with police night after night, Portlanders go out to protest knowing there’s a strong possibility they might get hurt. Most wear some sort of protective gear like goggles or gas masks—almost everyone has a helmet on. Even observers with the National Lawyers Guild have traded in their fluorescent green baseball caps for fluorescent green helmets.

If someone isn’t wearing a helmet at a protest, Harrington said he usually makes a mental note and tries to keep an eye on them.

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Scotty Harrington, 23, walks around Portland, Oregon, on September 28, 2020 tending to injured protesters as a volunteer medic.

Use of force by police—both local and federal—in Portland has been a recurring source of concern among progressive officials and civil liberties groups. Protesters have been treated for fractured skulls from being shot in the head by “less-lethal” police munitions like rubber bullets. Others have broken ribs or other bones from being rushed by police.

While covering a protest in July, a photojournalist who worked with National Geographic and PBS went to the hospital with a hemorrhaging eye after being shot with a less-lethal round. In early September, a Portland homeowner said that tear gas seeped into his home from a nearby protest, so much that his 13-year-old son was screaming in pain and trying to wash his eyes in the sink. When the homeowner complained to police, he said an officer bashed him in the head with a baton and gave him a concussion.

Chris Wise, 30, a former EMT, said he grew concerned about the need for proper medical care while he was out protesting, so he decided to become a medic. 

“I first came out with regular protesters, and I was seeing injuries that weren’t being handled adequately to the level of care that I was capable of,” Wise said. He’s currently a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit against Portland police and federal agents that accuses them of targeting medics. He says he was shot in the head with a tear gas canister by a federal agent, despite wearing clothes clearly displaying red crosses. 

“My pack is divided between different sections depending on what I’m working on. I have musculo-skeletal, gunshot wounds, general bleeding, teargas, and mace neutralizers.” 

Treating injured people at protests can be tricky, especially when the situation is particularly chaotic, as it has been in Portland. On a recent evening, protesters were seen on video hurling molotov cocktails at police. Others have set fire to the exterior of the Police Union Headquarters. One time, protesters even barricaded the doors to the East Portland Police Precinct and set fires around the building. Police have also reported injuries from being hit with rocks or chunks of concrete. 

Both Wise and Harrington said they make a game-time decision whether to treat someone in place or move the scene somewhere else. 

“If it’s just the police who are pushing forward, I’ll generally treat in place,” Harrington said. “But if the feds are coming, then I’m not sticking around.” 

“If they’re unconscious, then they’re going to hospital,” he added.

Harrington said he expected Monday to be pretty relaxed as he gestured toward the few dozen black-clad protesters who had gathered in Kenton Park. They were chatting, listening to music, and eating. One person was registering people to vote. 

Less than 10 minutes after Harrington’s prediction, riot police suddenly swarmed the gathering. They started walking through the crowd with flashlights, and protesters seemed baffled by their abrupt presence; it was unusual for police to respond so early, especially when protesters could safely say they weren’t doing anything wrong. 

“Are we doing anything illegal?” one person yelled at the officers. “Do you need something—snacks, medical attention?” another said. “Are you joining the protest?” someone else chimed in. “All I ever wanted, police against police brutality.” 

Police said they were looking for alcohol and weapons; they briefly detained one female protester for a small bottle of mace that was on her keyring.

“You’re not going to prevent us from marching,” one woman said through a megaphone. “This isn’t gonna keep us from doing what we do every single fucking night.”

Fifteen minutes later, the scene had descended into chaos. The crowd chanted, “I don’t see no riot here, why are you in riot gear.” Police attempted to wrestle the “VOTE” sign from the person registering voters. He was tackled to the ground and repeatedly sprayed in the face with mace. 

Marie Tyvoll, 59, a regular fixture in Portland’s protest scene, was maced while she was recording the scene on her phone. Police attempted to wrestle her phone from her, and and she resisted.

Wise and Harrington rushed to her aid and helped her rinse out her eyes. Tyvoll was in shock. It was the first time she’d ever been maced. 

In a statement, the Portland Police Department said that they had observed people in Kenton Park “carrying shields, wearing body armor and helmets.”

“The posture of the gathering suggested that it would become violent, as many such gatherings have been over the past 120-plus days,” they wrote. “Officers moved into the park and seized numerous shields. While they were performing their lawful duties, some in the crowd interfered and were arrested.” After that police said they “disengaged” and some in the group “began throwing water bottles at them.” VICE News, which the scene live on Facebook, can confirm that a couple of people in the crowd threw what looked like empty water bottles as police walked away. 

Portland police said in a statement that one sergeant was punched in the face, and that five other officers were “sprayed with some kind of chemical.” VICE News did not witness those incidents first hand. 

“I’m a person of white privilege. If I’m not out here, I’m a racist.” 

Scenes of protesters clashing with police like what happened Monday have made Portland a national focal point—and an obsession of Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign platform. More than 90 people have been charged federally for their actions during protests in Portland. 

But Portland’s protest community says that police’s actions only escalate tensions, are getting increasingly violent, and increasingly arbitrary. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler recently banned the police department from using tear gas on protesters, after concerns about the long-term health effects of repeated exposure to the chemical. In July, Oregon Public Broadcasting spoke to 26 protesters who believed they were experiencing menstrual irregularities as a result of teargas, including getting their period multiple times in a month, and debilitating cramps. One said the cramps were so bad they wound up in hospital and had blood clots “the size of half a fist.” Environmental regulators sounded the alarm this summer that tear gas was polluting the water. 

Even without tear gas in their toolbox, police still have a plethora of crowd-control weapons available, including pepper balls, rubber bullets, and smoke bombs. 

Meanwhile, Portland’s “Rapid Response Team,” who show up to protests in riot gear,” have been granted new powers, not less. Ahead of a planned far-right Proud Boy rally last weekend, U.S. Marshals federally deputized the Rapid Response Team—made up of 56 Portland police officers and 22 county deputies— until December 31. That allows federal prosecutors to press federal charges against protesters who are accused of attacking police, which includes throwing things like rocks or bottles.

Still, Portland’s protesters don’t appear to be planning to retreat any time soon. If anything they’re just getting more organized, with the help of community-members like Tyvoll. 

Every night since May, except during the wildfires, Tyvoll has arrived early to the planned protest location with a wide array of supplies that she doles out for free. (There are five rotating “Direct Action” targets: police union headquarters, the Justice Center and federal courthouse downtown, two police precincts, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department).

Monday night was no different. She stood in Kenton Park under a sign saying “WATER” and another sign with the number for the National Lawyers Guild—she encourages people to write the number on their arms with a sharpie before they head out for the evening, in case they get arrested. 

“Howdy, what do you need?” Tyvoll asked a protester who approached her table.  

“Do you have baking soda and water?” they asked. 

“Oh, you want that for tear gas—yes I do have one,” Tyvoll replied, fishing a clear plastic bottle out of a plastic tub behind her. “Not as many people are asking for these, but I’m gonna keep bringing them. Do you need anything else?”

“No, that’s it. Thank you so much,” they said. 

She also coordinates closely with medics and says she’s in a group chat with about 70 of them to make sure they have what they need. 

Also on offer were medical supplies, goggles, balaclavas, eye wash, ear plugs, hand sanitizer, batteries, salt water taffy, apples, batteries, balaclavas, eye wash, and drinks (“They seem to love those,” Tyvoll said, waving towards a pile of Monster energy drinks in a cooler). She even had some ballistic helmets available for free and is working on acquiring protective vests. 

One young woman came to Tyvoll’s table. “Sweetie, how are you?” Tyvoll asked. Just two nights earlier, a video went viral showing the woman being thrown to the ground by police while she was trying to follow orders to disperse. “I’m ok,” she replied. “My side is all bruised up.” 

Tyvoll estimates she’s spent about $15,000 on protest supplies since May—funded out of her own pocket and through small donations through Venmo. (She’s a personal service worker for a disabled teen during the day.) Portland’s protest frontlines aren’t really for her, so instead she ensures protesters have everything they need before they head out for the night. Then she packs up and goes home. 

“I’m a person of white privilege,” Tyvoll said. “If I’m not out here, I’m a racist.” 

At around 10 p.m, the protesters—about 100-strong, mostly in their early 20s—voted in favor of leaving the park and heading to the Police Union Headquarters about 15 minute walk away. They proceeded in an orderly fashion, walking on the sidewalk through residential areas, chanting softly “black lives matter” or “this shit is BANANAS, B-A-N-A-N-AS.” They assembled in the parking lot of a 7/11 across the street from the Police Union Headquarters which was boarded up and covered in graffiti. One protester ran across the road and wrote ‘ACAB’ (“All Cops Are Bastards”) on the plywood with a sharpie. 

So began the game of Cat-and-Mouse between police and protesters that has played out on a nearly nightly basis since May in Portland. 

Protesters attempt to move into the street (others take it upon themselves to redirect traffic). Riot vans show up, police get out of them and get in formation. Protesters shout insults. Often, local rapper No$hu shows up holding a microphone and an amp, and freestyles. Police rush protesters, issue warnings, and then return to their staging location. Protesters resume whatever they were doing before police showed up, and the cycle begins again. 

That’s until an “Unlawful assembly” is declared, police deploy pepper balls, or rubber bullets, rush the crowd, and make arrests. On Monday night in Portland, 24 people were arrested. Among those arrested was Dustin Brandon, a wheelchair-bound comedian and cannabis-rights activist who has become a prominent face in Portland’s protest scene. 

As Brandon was arrested, a young female protester was sitting on the ground wailing after she’d been maced in face by police. Protesters shouted “MEDIC.”