You’ve likely already read the thread I posted about the personal experience of being exposed to tear gas, how your body responds, how your mind panics. But of course that doesn’t tell people much about what actually happened – the narrative that one might get in a newspaper. This post is more about that: the story of late July 21st and the earliest bit of July 22nd and the rally that happened in front of the
Federal Services Building [Correction:] Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland.
The nightly protests themselves are a sort of jamboree. There are people who take it upon themselves to be leaders. They speak and initiate chanting. But they’re mostly limited to use of bullhorns, which simply aren’t loud enough to reach the whole crowd. So if you don’t work your way to the front, it takes you several rounds of a chant before you can pick it up – except the obvious and most frequent chant, “Black Lives Matter”. That one gets started a lot.
Because of the limited range, there are other pockets with other people leading chants or making music. There is a group of indigenous people a block away with a pitifully small crowd leading a few people in chanting “Indian Lives Matter” and taking turns drumming and telling the history of how their peoples have been the subject of colonial violence for centuries. You know that people were motivated by George Floyd, and you understand how a lot of people would naturally gravitate toward the more organized crowd with the loud bullhorns, but when you come across this group with an equally important message, your heart breaks to see how little attention it’s receiving and you wish that the BLM crowd could better work with the ILM crowd to get them time with the main group.
There’s only so long that political speaking and chanting can go on without some loss of enthusiasm, so occasionally there will be a break as someone with a megaphone sings a song. They’re usually good but not great, and they’re acapella, which works when you can get human voices in harmony, but doesn’t work very well to cut through a crowd, and as a single voice can’t maintain a lot of musical interest. The singer slows and then people playing musical instruments or recorded music through a boom box crank their own volumes up. Some people dance, other people take a moment to go get some food or quickly drink some water and less than 10 minutes later, there are speakers going again. Again, unless you’re in the front, you can’t hear them well, so people in the back ranks have their own discussions, which makes it even harder to hear. There are always a few of the people not paying attention to the words flashing lights and waving laser pointers over a camera the cops have set up at the
Federal Building Justice Center to record the crowd. A Nuremburg rally this is not: it’s 1800 people with their own agendas, priorities and conversations.
Every once in a while, someone will set off fireworks. The noisy ones with no visual effects are jarring and annoying, taking attention away from what you wanted to focus on with no associated benefit. The sparkly ones are at least pretty, and don’t make you jump quite as high from the noise, but they still aren’t set off predictably (or after a warning) or even necessarily timed respectfully for a break in the action. The fireworks seemed designed to get the attention of the cops and little else.
As the night drags on, the efforts by a small group to get the attention of the cops increases. Firework bangers are set off right at the door of the courthouse, in the middle of the block on the west side, facing the park blocks. One or two people might bang on the door while a few others stand a couple feet away. Other than this knot near the door, everyone else is at least 20 feet away, generally on the sidewalk and off federal property. We all know what’s going to happen even if we don’t know when.
Fed Building Justice Center is next door to the courthouse, just to the south, and the rally in front of that Fed Building Justice Center has also been on the west side, to take advantage of the park space. As the action near the courthouse door intensifies, the Wall of Moms and just about everyone else set up at the SW corner of the courthouse. I’m actually up the block from them, as close to the door as anyone who isn’t one of the dressed-all-in-black folk pounding on the door. Eventually the cops emerge and tackle the person who was leading the door banging, piling on him.
No one moves to prevent the arrest. And to me this is absolutely vital. There doesn’t seem to me to be any serious effort to resist a calm, peaceful arrest. Remember that video of the guy being hustled into the unmarked, rented minivan? People yelled at the cops, but no one tried to stop them either, and certainly no one was assaulting them.
Look, I get that graffiti and setting off unauthorized fireworks are, indeed, misdemeanors. I recognize that there is a right to arrest on the part of government when they have probable cause that a crime has been committed and a specific person has done it. And civil disobedience does indeed involve a conscious choice to break the law. If the cops had calmly arrested someone else involved in the door-banging or graffiti writing or firework setting, I don’t think that there would have been a serious move to stop them. Most protestors would love to have a forum in court to argue that what they’re doing is necessitated by the government’s actions.
But the cops made no effort to arrest peacefully. From that first arrest pinning someone down, it was about overwhelming force. When the tear gas comes 80 seconds later, no one has been warned. This is not an attempt to safeguard people. The cops were safe inside the building. It’s not an attempt to safeguard property – they spend more money on the defense than they could possibly spend on cleaning bill or replacing a door. This was an effort to punish. And punish they did.
That first effort sent tear gas just barely across the street from the courthouse, and caused people to pull back no more than 3 blocks. They did eventually advance tear gas through most of that park block, but except for my BFF and my slow-ass self, they appeared to be shooting the tear gas behind the line of retreat just to keep people moving west, not to trap them (or at least most of them) in the smoke. The front ranks were only a block and a half away from the courthouse while the first round of gas was clearing. They maintained a presence there for a half an hour, then slowly returned to the
Fed Building Justice Center for a bit of organizing, speaking and chanting. It took me longer to return close to the front because I had been so badly affected by the gas.
By about 50 minutes after the end of the first offensive wave, there was a new focus on the courthouse door. The people in front of the
Fed Building Justice Center marched half a block north again, and again took up their position at the SW corner. Some idiot lit some plywood on fire that had been pulled away from the courthouse where it had probably been covering a window (I couldn’t see where it had come from, exactly). The flames weren’t going to do any damage to anything else, but it was a fire, and you knew what was going to happen next. I was actually farther away from the door than the Moms this time. The SW corner of the building is 1/2 block south from the door. I was in the park, a little less than 1/2 a block west of that, but also very slightly north of the actual intersection (since I was in the park, not on the park’s south-edge sidewalk or street). What’s the hypotenuse of a right triangle with sides equal to 4/10ths of a block and 1/2 a block? that’s how far away I was.
I’d picked spot with a clear view of the door, however, which also meant a clear line of fire for the feds. I could see them pour out of the door, and this time the tear gas began even more quickly. There was no waiting for anything. Out the door and within less than 10 seconds they’d arranged themselves in a formation where they could spray their gas to maximum effect.
And they did.
Again, there was no warning. No request to disperse. The first canisters were set off in the street in front of the courthouse, but almost immediately at least one gas canister flew over my head, blocking off retreat. This seemed a patently stupid thing to do if they wanted to drive people away, but a very clever thing to do if they wanted to punish people: create a barrier of gas behind, then while people are craning their necks to see where a safe path of retreat might lie, they blanket the area.
My experience of this second offensive wasn’t nearly so bad as the first. There was only one gas canister near me, and it was 20 feet away, instead of 3 canisters within 10-15′ all around me. It still could have gone badly, but someone with a full gas mask wrapped their hand in a bandana and raced up to pick up the canister that was between my BFF and me and clean air. Even with hand wrapped, it was obviously hot, but after a couple false starts, BandanaHand got a grip on it and threw it in a direction which would give the most people the best chance to avoid its gas.
My BFF and I went south through the park to the street, west to the first intersection, then south another block before going west a block. By the time we’d gotten that far we could see tear gas had already been set off in the intersection one block north of us. So the cops had been pursuing the Wall of Moms and other protestors due west at least 2 blocks by that time. We kept heading west, which was uphill and difficult on my crutches, but the buildings between us and the tear gas helped a lot. My breathing was very irritated, but I wasn’t gasping and panicked like I was the first time when I was completely lost in the cloud.
The cops continued to pursue people due west a total of 4 blocks, and they were moving faster than I was, so we would get to a new intersection, look north, and there was the gas (and also at every intersection the air became harder to breathe again before we could duck behind the next building). 4 blocks doesn’t sound like a long way, but when you’re a fat middle-aged lady on crutches trying to go uphill, trust me: it wasn’t fun.
Even though it has effects on your breathing for maybe an hour if you actually take it into your lungs, there was a good breeze blowing from west to east, so it was sending the gas back at the feds and the air cleared after maybe only 15 minutes. It took maybe a half hour before most were ready to return.
When I headed back to the park for the final time, however, I was still a block and a half away when new flash bangs went off and the smoke ahead of us started to increase. Realizing that a 3rd offensive was underway, my BFF and I had to call it a night.
It took a while to get to the car, which was in a gassed area, but we made it safely home about 1:30 in the morning.
Anyway, that’s the story (assuming you already read the initial story about the first time I was gassed while in the front ranks – that one’s up at Pervert Justice and is linked at the top of this very long non-comment). That gas can fuck you up a treat short term, but if you aren’t asthmatic and don’t have other breathing difficulties, you do recover.
Both my BFF/Portland host and I are fine other than a bit of lingering eye itchiness that we weren’t even noticing last night when we got back to her house. We’ll be back at the protests again tonight, of course. There simply isn’t any way we can let the cops do this and think they’re winning. They must never be allowed to believe that violently attacking citizens is the way to win. Never.
So we will stand witness. We will raise our voices in criticism and opposition. We will be there again and again.
And they will emerge from their redoubt to punish the people, again and again.
And then? We will win.