by Will Pattiz
Portland Protest Photos 2020
As you may have noticed Portland has been in the news quite a bit lately with most of the coverage focusing on the activities surrounding what have been called both peaceful protests by some and violent riots by others.
Many of us have seen some of the Portland protests photos many of which have raised eyebrows to say the least.
As a resident of Portland, I have been contacted by a number of concerned friends and family members wondering if I am “OK” and their consideration has been heartwarming. Yes, I am “OK”.
As someone who captures images and shares stories for a living I felt compelled to capture some of what is going on in my city to share with anyone wondering what is going on in Portland.
After going to numerous of these gatherings I’ve been awed by the images, actions, and stories I’ve experienced firsthand. This is my account of the goings-on here as a Portlander.
Setting the Scene
First of all let’s go over some of the background information. Many folks have asked me questions like ‘is the entire city of Portland on fire?‘ No, it is not. In fact, much the contrary is true.
I currently live 10 minutes walking distance from the site of the newsworthy activities and most of my exposure to them have come from reading the news like everyone else.
The activities being covered are almost entirely limited to a two block area in the heart of downtown Portland. Most of the focus has been on the Mark O. Hatfied Federal Courthouse and The Multnomah County Justice Center where the Portland Police Bureau is housed.
Across the street from these buildings are squares that serve as city parks – Lownsdale Square across from the federal building & Chapman Square across from the justice center.
During normal times these parks are beautiful featuring giant sequoias and green space.
How did this all start? The protests, which have now extended beyond their 60th day here in Portland, commenced after the death of George Floyd.
At their outset, peaceful crowds swelling into the thousands marched, laid down on bridges, listened, reflected, shouted, discussed, lamented, and otherwise let their presence be felt and voices be heard.
As the protests continued the numbers of protesters attending the events steadily declined while some of the actions taken by a minority of those protesting grew more extreme with statues being toppled, buildings being graffitied, and more.
Eventually the Portland Police Bureau began taking actions against the protestors, many of which have been the source of much controversy.
My first time visiting the protest area was a couple of weeks ago during the daytime and I was surprised by two things. One, the area around the protests, especially the federal courthouse was heavily graffitied, more so than I expected.
Two, I was shocked by how few people were actually there. Maybe a half dozen or so at the time I visited. This did not look like the violent mobs I had seen on tv albeit most of the action was occurring at night.
Still, it was clear that the movement had lost momentum, and the original numbers which were in the thousands had dwindled to less than a hundred.
The “Feds” Arrive
Tensions rose as it was announced that Federal authorities were being dispatched to Portland. That’s when everything changed.
When I learned of this I was quite surprised because at that point it was very clear on the ground, based on what I had seen, that these protests were fizzling out. Why the need for additional authorities?
Shortly after their arrival I read about accounts of Portland citizens being abducted by armed troops riding around in unmarked vans in the night.
Surely this couldn’t be true I thought… This is America. But there it was, video evidence all over the news.
Then I read the account and watched in horror the footage of a young protestor with his hands over his head receiving a bullet to the head from a group of federal authorities clad in combat fatigues.
The protests started growing again. Night after night I watched in shock as more accounts of beatings and unthinkable actions were taken against Portlanders.
A Navy veteran standing peacefully attempting to speak with authorities was beaten with a baton and sprayed in the eyes with some form of mace-like substance.
A “wall of moms” standing with their arms linked between the protestors and authorities – gassed and beaten.
I also watched videos of what appeared to be individuals attempting to light buildings on fire and angry people screaming at federal officers. And all of these actions happening a 10 minute walk from where I sleep.
I decided it was time for me to return to the scene of the protests so that I could see with my own eyes what was going on (sorry, mom).
I ended up going three times in a week around Day 60 of the protests. What I saw was incredible, a small sampling of which has been included through the photos here.
My First Protest – Am I a “Protester” Now?
The first night I attended I wasn’t sure what to expect. These protestors had been called terrorists, rioters, thugs, criminals, and more. I decided to go with a friend of mine who also happens to be a camera man for shows on channels like NatGeo & Discovery and had been to a few of the protests when they first started.
We donned our masks and out we went. Walking down we wondered, how many people would actually be there?
The streets of Portland have been largely abandoned due to the ongoing pandemic. At the start of my walk I began to think that turnout would be low as I saw little change in street traffic.
As I got within 6 blocks or so of the main area I started to see more and more people. Maybe there would be a crowd after all…
When I got to Lownsdale Square I was shocked by the size of the crowd, scope of the operation, the peaceful nature of the attendees, and the absence of the infamous federal authorities.
Where were the violent clashes I had heard described on the news and documented in viral videos? Nowhere to be seen. We ventured further in, drawn toward the scent of barbecue and sounds of local music.
Thousands of people were present. In the middle of the square we found a sea of event tents underneath which was an operation that had to be seen to be believed.
Grills everywhere, mounds of buns, coolers as far as the eye could see (it was getting dark), tables full of ketchup and mustard, and ribs, ribs, ribs.
Riot ribs, to be precise as was named this dreamy establishment. Approaching further we saw waters, fruit, pre-packaged snacks, and more. And then the best part – all free of charge. Incredible.
Further in still we found the sort of areas where social distancing guidelines and mandates are thrown by the wayside, replaced by masses prioritizing something else over personal safety and health. As someone who had followed the guidelines closely to that point, this made me anxious.
Chants were abound “Black-lives-ma-tter!”, “George-Floyd, George-Floyd”, Whose-streets? Our Streets!”, “Feds-go-home!”. Closer to what appeared to be the heart of the protest we got.
As we waded through the crowd we were struck by the amount of diversity represented in a town as demographically challenged as Portland (77% white).
In the heart we landed, or so we thought, with black activists shouting through megaphones, lessons of the movement and tales of injustice. The stakes were being raised.
Eventually we wandered over from the speakers who were concentrated toward the Justice Center to the masses gathered around the federal courthouse. It was at this point we hit a wall… albeit this one of a nature quite different than the ones debated in recent years.
This wall was one made of a substance far hardier than those, moms. Clad in bright shades of yellow, sign-toting, mask-wearing, arm-linking moms standing between protestors and the federal building. A sight to behold.
After being allowed passage through the wall of moms we finally reached the land of protest ire, the federal building. More graffiti on a surface is hard to imagine. What was once a very plain looking building was now adorned with all sorts of depictions, adjectives, and nouns describing the many moods of those who surrounded it.
Looking back from the front lines of the movement through the sea of people an overwhelming feeling began sweeping over me. A feeling that brought tears to my eyes, literally.
I quickly realized that while my emotions were certainly high something else was rising higher…gas. “A chemical weapon that causes severe eye and respiratory pain, skin irritation, bleeding, and blindness” as described by wikipedia, most folks know it as tear gas. (since I attended the protests the lasting effects of the tear gas has been the source of much concern)
Tear Gas and Memories
Oh the burn. For the first few moments I thought to myself “I can take this…” I was wrong. Eyes began oozing. Throat began closing. A burning “spicy” sensation overcame every opening on my face. “Stay calm! Move toward the back! Who needs saline? Who needs medical attention?”
A series of loud bangs interspersed with a few thunderous booms that shook the ground rang out thoroughly rattling newcomers like me. ‘Is this what war zones are like?’, I thought to myself.
Through what was left of my severely impaired vision I could see people with full gas masks and what appeared to be red crosses on their helmets racing around looking to help those worst-affected.
As I moved away from the building in the direction of the crowd I looked back and saw a portion the wall of moms falling to the ground. Through the wall of moms bulldozed a group of men dressed and armed for war.
I thought to myself, what could have possibly provoked such a harsh and sudden reaction? What was the catalyst for all this? Were the chants too loud? Looking to my right as I tried to get clear of the gas cloud I noticed my buddy was having a rougher go than I.
He was wearing one of the standard blue, surgical looking masks. I had an N-95. As he doubled over against a building on the other side of the courtyard I made the call “medic!!”.
Within moments we had one. Eyewash to the rescue. While my mask certainly did not do enough as my throat was on fire, it apparently did much more than his.
After finally making it clear of the gas we took a moment to catch our breath. Thick clouds of gas were plainly visible in the direction from which we’d come. No chants or songs back in this part of the crowd.
Looking around I noticed several members of the wall of moms washing each others eyes out. Several older protesters were desperately trying to catch their breath.
Many were sitting on the ground looking dazed and confused. Helmets with red crosses dashed all about. The heart of my city was in pain.
Should we head back in? A strange thought crossed my brain. For reasons unknown I felt a desire to go back into the fray. I wasn’t sure why. Had I not enough chemical warfare for one night? Maybe not…
I asked my friend if he was game to go back. He was. Back in we went. Alone we were not. As the gas subsided somewhat many of the folks who had recovered from the gassing began to head back to the federal building.
As we got closer familiar echoes came into focus… “Whose streets? OUR STREETS!”, “Whose lives matter? BLACK LIVES MATTER!”. The feeling was electric. In spite of the gassing these folks weren’t going anywhere.
The paramilitary forces had taken up positions around the perimeter of the squares. A showdown between one of them backed by many more and a college-aged man was taking place. “Why are you here?” he was screaming “Why are you here!!”
Shots rang out. The military-dressed authority fired several rounds of “pepper balls” onto the ground directly in front of the protester. He was unfazed. “Why are you here!!” he continued. More and more of the protestors began surrounding the scene, yelling at the troops to leave.
The situation was growing increasingly tenuous on both sides. More rounds were fired off. Pepper spray loosed at the protester. Still unfazed. iPhones flanked the authorities with cameras recording all angles.
One of the authorities tapped the back of the other in the stand off. The retreat was sounded. Cheers filled the air as the troops faded away into another federal building.
The next day as evening grew closer my thoughts began drifting back to the protest and the movement behind it. A sense of guilt started to creep in. People were still out there.
People who had been going back day after day, night after night, were returning to stand up for something they believed in. Maybe it was the months of quarantine talking, maybe it was something more.
The following day I couldn’t shake the feeling. I needed to go back. I called my buddy from the first night. Injured ankle, he was sitting this one out. As night came around I coaxed my cousin into joining me. It wasn’t hard. This time we were more prepared.
My cousin had better masks and two sets of goggles. On our way down it was easy to see there were more people than before. It was a Friday night. This was going to be bigger. As we arrived it was easy to see the crowd had at least doubled.
We wandered about and I introduced them to each of the parts of the scene I remembered from the previous night. They were struck by the kindness of the people there.
Community was in the air. I’m sure COVID was as well. To the people there this movement seemed a worthy cause to risk their health.
Powerful words were being spoken on the steps of the justice center. We gravitated. People were excited. More moms were present. An older couple held a fresh sewn quilt with the words “FEDS GET OUT”.
Dads with leaf blowers (to blow the gas away from the protestors) were in attendance.
A second wall materialized, this one with veterans. Teachers against tyranny. Medical workers. College students. Anti-Fascists of all ages and ethnicities. And black lives matter activists were leading the charge. Something was happening.
One of those things that was happening, it turns out, was that gas was being released from the federal building… lots of gas. Only this time it wasn’t visible, at least not at first anyway.
All of a sudden the familiar sensation of my eyes burning swept in. By the time you start to feel it a little, it usually too late. This was no exception. We all hustled out of there along with much of the crowd.
This time I noticed a sizable segment of the crowd sticking behind. They had come fully prepared sporting respirators with airtight eye shields. We didn’t have our goggles on in time.
Behind the building we saw the familiar sites of victims of gassing. My eyes burned worse than the first time but my throat held up better due to the improved mask.
We attempted to get close the building again to get a look at the culprits behind the chemicals. Even with the goggles and masks it was too intense. This time a fence had been erected in front of the building and the authorities were lobbing gas into the crowd at will. We didn’t stand a chance.
The following day the images of the night before kept scrolling through my head. I needed to get back there to capture the scenes I had witnessed to share with those willing to listen so that they could understand what was actually going on there.
As a professional photographer I regretted not bringing my camera the first time and not being able to withstand the gas to get shots that really gave an accurate glimpse of what was going on.
This was a Saturday and all over social media folks were talking about the biggest protests yet. As many as 10K people were rumored to be attending. I couldn’t miss it.
After going to several stores to find goggles and extra masks I called up my buddy from the first night and he agreed to go again. This time we were going to get the shots.
I grabbed my press badge and a helmet that read “PRESS” on 4 sides along with a “PRESS” vest so that I would be noticed by the authorities as a journalist (which had just received an official exempted to arrest or interference by court order) and we headed out.
On the way over we noticed one full side of federal building had been illuminated by a projector with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER”. As we arrived this time (around 10pm) the crowd was massive.
Every street was packed with protestors. The chants were louder than ever. Songs were being sung. This was big.
Shortly after we arrived things started getting rowdy. Fireworks were being launched from the crowd, many of them directed over the fence (a portion of which had been illegally erected over a busy city bike lane) and at the justice center.
We took up a position on the North side of the building close up to the fence. After many rounds of fireworks had been shot off and enough fence shaking the crowd’s nemeses emerged.
Gas was launched immediately but this time protestors were ready. As soon as a canister hit the ground a gap in the crowd cleared, dads with leaf blowers swooped in to blow the smoke away, and someone with gloves was on the scene within seconds to launch this smoking, sparking device back where it had come from.
But the dad’s with leaf blowers had their match on the other side of the fence.
More and more canisters were launched into the crowd, more and more fireworks were launched back at the building along with various pieces of trash, and more of the canisters were returned.
Things escalated. Flash bangs started coming over the fence launched at protestors.
I looked around to see where my buddy was – nowhere in sight. We had set a rally point in case of separation but I wasn’t prepared to leave the scene just yet.
As I turned back around I felt a hard and ominous thud on my right boot. I had a split second to realize what it was and shield my face and camera. BOOM!
The canister exploded against my body sending me backwards a foot or so. Was everything still attached? It seemed so. I kept shooting. Volley after volley of gas and other munitions were launched indiscriminately into the crowd.
The force with which they were coming at us was increasing. People were getting hurt by the shear impact of the rounds, some seriously. I realized for the first time just how dangerous a place I was in. I decided to find my buddy.
As I walked back to the rally point which was a couple of city blocks away (with explosives still going on behind me) I was amazed by how many people had filled the streets. Going back three city blocks there was hardly an empty piece of pavement. The support for the movement was massive.
As I reached the rally point I saw my buddy. He had been hit by some sort of munition early on and had severe bruising in his groin. Ouch. We stepped out on a side street for a moment to take in the scene.
It seemed dystopian… Like something straight out of 1984. A showdown between ordinary citizens of all walks of life and heavily armed government forces. Was I still in America?
We decided to head back in one last time to see how this was going to reach a resolution. As we re-entered the scene, the troops were not gone but spotlights and lasers were shining 20 or so floors up on a ledge of the federal building. Two authorities emerged with what appeared to be some sort of a looking device. They were watching.
Eventually it seemed like the night had run its course. Momentum seemed to be dying down in the crowd. My buddy and I decided 2AM was probably late enough to stay out and cover this.
As we began to walk toward the edge of the crowd we were pushed backward. “Fall back!!” What had happened? Was there an explosive about to go off? People began shoving their way in the opposite direction that we were heading. “They’re coming!!!”
I looked over toward the back of the courthouse – the sight was chilling. Armed paramilitary forces were marching up the street in the direction of the protestors.
I tried to steady myself in the midst of the retreating crowd to get the shot. Surely they wouldn’t harm a clearly marked member of the press?
I remembered the canister from earlier and my buddy who was also taking photos and who was also shot by the authorities. I wasn’t so sure.
As we began to retreat with the crowd I saw them round the corner and head straight for us. An upside down flag was in the background as the troop marched ahead, guns drawn, aimed at a crowd of fellow citizens on US soil while fireworks blazed above. A surreal sight.
As they headed our way shots started ringing out. One protestor was hit in the head with a canister. Cries for a medic were sent down the line until eventually one arrived on the scene. Bleeding from the head he was carried away. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
As they neared a courageous protestor stepped in front of the crowd, knelt on the ground and placed his hands in the air.
I was scared for him but he was not alone. More protestors began to raise their hands and join by his side. Something was about to happen.
And something did. “This is the Portland Police Bureau. This has been declared an unlawful gathering.” Threats of arrest were made unless the area was vacated immediately. Images of beatings protestors had taken over the course of the past weeks filled my head as I’m sure they did others.
Folks began to clear out. Not everyone left though as I read in the news the next day that some of the folks kept it going the entire night. How long it will last is anyone’s guess.
Each night seems to draw new interested people to the side of the protestors. At the same time we read in the news of more federal troops being sent in. One thing that seems clear to me is that escalation only leads to more escalation. Perhaps it’s time for a new approach.
This has been a guest post. All photos are ©Will Pattiz.
Since this article was written it was announced that federal troops will be withdrawing from Portland, see here.
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