Portlanders have been leading protests against racism and police brutality for more than five months after the death of George Floyd. Organizing months of ongoing direct action is one challenge, but keeping each other safe—physically and mentally—is another.
Staying Safe in the Streets
Assembled outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Portland’s South Waterfront, the Aug. 20 demonstration organized by Safe PDX Protest was met by federal and local law enforcement, which shot impact munitions and CS gas, a type of tear gas, at the protesters. While many people on the front of the protesting lines carried shields—made by a group of volunteers using 55-gallon barrels, pool noodles, and duct tape—and were able to avoid serious injury that night, the show of force from the police often causes injuries. It’s difficult to determine an accurate scope of the injuries sustained over five months of protests, but there are documented instances of a broken wrist, sprained ankles, temporary loss of vision from tear gas or pepper spray, and an extreme case of a skull fracture when a protester was shot in the head with a munition by a U.S. Marshall.
When a protester is injured, resting on the sidewalk or taking a breather against a building isn’t an option while police are actively trying to clear the area, often with munitions, gas, and physical force. In those moments, street medics are needed.
The street medic community in Portland is a sprawling network, but the Portland Action Medics is a long-standing street medic group, providing emergency medical care at protests since 2017. PAM is a loose network of street medics who have received at least 20 hours of training on protest-specific street medicine.
According to PAM organizer Jesse Sparkles, the group has 160 active street medics, about 50 of whom serve the protests weekly. Sparkles estimates that 25% of PAM medics are front-line health care workers.
The Portland Action Medics started gearing up this year in mid-March when COVID-19 hit. The group is always prepared to restock medic kits or assist with a pop-up event, so they had large storage tubs full of gloves and first aid supplies.
“Well, shit, it’s not doing any good in my attic,” Sparkles recalls thinking when the pandemic began, so he distributed the supplies to medics who started serving homeless encampments, passing out masks and gloves. Then, PAM organizers made bulk orders for isopropyl alcohol and started making homemade hand sanitizer. Sparkles estimates that PAM made more than 500 gallons of sanitizer. The medics also collaborated with mutual aid groups, harm reduction groups, and nonprofits to distribute supplies into broader networks.
When the protests started, the group just shifted into a new gear, asking themselves what protesters needed to protest safely during a pandemic.
“Protesting ultimately isn’t safe, and we’re not trying to say that it is,” Sparkles says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t take care of each other.”
Street medics started taking out rolling carts full of first aid, hand sanitizer, and masks to the protests. When the demonstrators started being tear gassed in the early morning hours, PAM added respirators, tear gas wipes, eye flush solution, and energy drinks to their carts. All of the supplies are distributed out of the PAM “lab.”
The lab looks like an ad hoc warehouse, with a dozen or so tables covered with medical supplies. Against a wall are buckets of supplies where street medics reload their portable wagons before heading out a protest: masks, hand sanitizer, first aid basics, energy drinks, and tear gas wipes. A whiteboard catalogues the group’s inventory—as of mid-August, they had made 8,959 tear gas wipes since the start of the protests.
After the first month of protests, nightly actions moved away from the Multnomah County Justice Center—home to the Portland Police Bureau’s central precinct and a county jail—and the federal courthouse in downtown Portland to various police precincts in residential areas. PAM has started posting flyers in neighborhoods that are at risk of being tear-gassed during the demonstrations, informing people what to do if tear gas seeps into their home. The flyers list the potential impacts of tear gas, how to seal doors and windows to limit your exposure, and how to remove tear gas from your hair, skin, and clothes if you are exposed. Volunteers staple the flyers onto telephone poles and go door-to-door, providing small bags with medical masks, earplugs, and tear gas wipes.
“If you’re going to show up in someone’s life, give something,” Sparkles advises, noting that now is a powerful time to build community connections because of the amount of need.
Being nimble and ready to change is what makes PAM effective, Sparkles explains. That flexibility means acknowledging changing conditions, quickly asking what the group has the ability to provide, and scaling that up as fast as possible.
“It’s been an evolving thing—next week we might be doing something completely different, honestly,” Sparkles says.
Beyond the Basics
Beyond the street medics, several mutual aid groups supply protesters with gear and fuel each night.
The Witches are a local coven of people from different faiths, including Wicca, Santeria, Native beliefs, and Neo-Paganism, who provide mutual aid during the protests, among other things. The coven was moved to action after watching the viral video of George Floyd’s death and attended the first protests as a group. From there, the coven started recognizing needs and doing their best to fill them.
According to coven member R, The Witches started bringing snacks and basic supplies like masks and water to the protests. As the demonstrations lasted later into the night, they started bringing full meals like pizzas and burritos, as well as energy drinks and portable food for protesters to take for later. Once the tear gas started, The Witches “basically bought out Oregon” of respirators, R says, in addition to providing knee pads and umbrellas, which protesters use to deflect munitions like a shield.
When Oregon experienced historic wildfires in September, The Witches mobilized their mutual aid to counties that were most impacted by the flames, distributing medical supplies and organizing donation drives for evacuees and firefighters.
As protests have continued for more than five months, The Witches are trying to address the trauma and mental health impacts protesters are experiencing by providing self-care bags for protesters who are being released from jail, usually after being arrested for interfering with a peace officer. Each care bag from The Witches has a candle, lotion, bath salts, and a piece of chocolate.
“Pretty soon, I looked around, and it’s a much larger operation and coven than I thought possible,” R says. “We were working with another mutual aid group, and another one and another one, and now I would say we’re basically part of this mutual aid never-ending game of phone tag, where we are all talking to each other and communicating the needs of the community and trying to be there for each other.”
Another member of that mutual aid phone tag is Team Raccoon, a group of volunteers who bring “trash grabbers” to protests to clean up cigarette butts and spent munitions. Morgan Mckniff, the organizer and public face of Team Raccoon, started the group by leading Saturday morning cleanups in Lownsdale Square, the center of the initial two-block protest zone in downtown Portland. The first cleanup was on July 5, and aimed to give people who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, participate in nighttime protests a way to support the movement—there were about 20 regular volunteers.
“A lot of people would show up because they want to help and they can’t participate in direct action,” they explain. “It’s really sad because these last two weeks we’ve experienced so much alt-right violence [at the park-clean location] that I don’t think we can in good conscience hold a park-clean anymore, so I’m trying to figure out a way to have those people participate as well.”
Mckniff now focuses on cleaning during nightly actions with three to five other volunteers, and running a respirator filter exchange program. The respirator exchange is funded by a $5,000 donation from Riot Ribs, a group that served free food to protesters before dissolving and redistributing the community donations they received after internal conflict. Mckniff collects spent filters—filters that have accumulated too many particles from CS gas to continue filtering air effectively—from protesters who provide the dates the filters were used and any symptoms they have experienced, and gives them to a team of researchers who catalog the chemicals and the chemical degradation over time.
Little is known about the impact of inhaling CS gas over an extended period of time, but there has been a pattern of protesters having irregular menstrual cycles after being exposed to the gas.
“The danger of the chemical munitions being used once is real, but the impact of long-term [exposure] is completely unknown,” Mckniff says. “Nobody was intended to be using these things for 90 days every day.”
On Sept. 10, after 105 days of tear gas being used semi-regularly to disperse crowds of protesters, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler—who also acts as the city’s police commissioner—ordered police to stop using CS gas. The Portland Police have abided by the ban, but the federal officers who often work in tandem with local police to disperse protesters are not affected by the ban and continue to use CS gas.
There are also groups like PDX Disabled Comrade Collective that work to make nightly actions more accessible for disabled protesters by promoting education materials and connecting disabled protesters with protest buddies.
“There is a space for protesting for any body,” Sylvan, one of the group organizers, says. “It might look different sometimes and we might need accessibility and inclusion to help us make it happen, but so many disabled activists are passionate about all of this and they want to be a part of it too.”
One of the group’s major successes was connecting a visually impaired journalist with a sighted guide so she could record audio of the protests. Shark, another group organizer, said that so many protesters were offering to be sighted guides that the journalist was able to extend the opportunity to the larger visually impaired community in Portland.
“I don’t see how you can claim the First Amendment right is a right if it’s not fairly applied throughout an entire population; then it’s a privilege to be able to protest, which is the opposite of a right,” Shark argues.
Isabella Garcia is the solutions reporter for YES! Media. Her work has appeared in The Malheur Enterprise and YES! Magazine. Isabella is based in Portland. She can be reached at isabellagarcia.website.