Portlanders have been leading protests against racism and police brutality for more than five months after the death of George Floyd. Many protesters point to the autonomous structure of the protests as a critical element of maintaining frequent and collaborative protests.
This article is the third in a three-part series exploring the anatomy of Portland’s ongoing protest movement. Find parts 1 and 2 here.
The Pros and Cons of Organizing Autonomously
The autonomous action can be seen as a strength of the movement in Portland. Members of Medic Bloc, one of many street medic group serving the protests, say that the medic community can better serve the protests because they are decentralized. If there is a call for supplies or support of some kind, anyone plugged in to this network can signal boost that call through their organizing channels on encrypted communication apps such as Signal.
“There are a bunch of different roots,” says Rio, a Medic Bloc member. “Being able to have those communication channels, you are able to send out a request for information and assistance and you may not even see it ping off in a bunch of different channels that you aren’t included in.”
While having so many groups able to support various actions across the city is a benefit, Medic Bloc members also say that the flexibility can also be a downside.
“No one is required to be on the clock at any hour,” Medic Bloc member Wheeze says. “These are all volunteers volunteering their time and resources and privilege to be able to do work.”
If a group of medics is out until 3 a.m. supporting a protest, they may not be able to show up for an event the next morning. There is no guarantee that any protest action is going to be free from a medical emergency, so Medic Bloc views a lack of medic support as a vulnerability for that event.
Jesse Sparkles from Portland Action Medics sees this internal scheduling and prioritization of events as a way for members of each group to vote on what actions they support with their labor. If PAM is called to support a protest that has an unpopular message, PAM members choose whether or not they want to support that message by showing up to load up their medic carts or not. If no medics show up to hand out hand sanitizer and masks, then PAM doesn’t support that protest.
When people do show up though, they are mostly White. According to Medic Bloc, 7% to 8% of the medic community in Portland are BIPOC. Portland is the nation’s Whitest big city; as of 2019, 71% of Portlanders are White and 5.8% are Black.
“The people that we’re trying to get out here and bring volume to, the people we really need on the ground—doctors, EMTs, RNs, paramedics—people who have qualifications at the higher level of care outside of just street medicine, are primarily White in this city,” explains Wheeze.
To change the racial demographics of street medics, Medic Bloc has started hosting Red Cross trainings, prioritizing BIPOC who are interested in being a street medic.
“White saviorism should not be a thing out here,” Wheeze says. “We’re here to be the best allies we can be and being a White savior is not part of that.”
As Portland protesters passed 100 days of continuous demonstrations in September, it was clear that protesting wasn’t just a summer fling for many Portland protesters. While the continuous streak has since been broken, the near-constant activity and organizing throughout the fall show that the protesters are in it for the long haul.
Teressa Raiford, an activist who founded community action group Don’t Shoot PDX in 2014, has noticed the change.
“People are woke, but they want to do something and right now, through mutual aid support, they are able to do something,” she says. “They might not be able to change the law, but they’re changing the character and social behaviors in their own communities.”
Don’t Shoot PDX provides community education, art programming for kids, and bystander intervention classes. The group also expanded their legal actions by suing the city of Portland in June for the police bureau’s indiscriminate use of tear gas and excessive force, resulting in a federal judge issuing a 14-day temporary restraining order on the PPB’s use of CS gas. Later that month, the same judge extended and expanded the order to further restrict against the firing of “less-lethal” impact munitions into crowds. When police officers continued firing impact munitions into crowds, seemingly disregarding the order, Don’t Shoot filed another lawsuit arguing that the police immediately violated this restraining order, firing excessive rounds and using unnecessary physical force.
In a court hearing over whether the police violated the order, Portland police officer Brett Taylor defended firing 40 to 60 rounds from his FN 303, a grenade launcher that shoots rubber bullets, paintballs, and other munitions, at protesters in a single night. Taylor stated that his actions were justified because he needed to protect himself from protesters throwing tear gas canisters—which the police fire at protesters—back at him.
“They’re heavy, they’re extremely hot, they’re a great danger,” Taylor said about tear gas canisters in his testimony. The judge has yet to issue a ruling over whether the police violated the order.
During the protests, Don’t Shoot simultaneously organized mutual aid to Indigenous communities that have been severely affected by COVID-19. Raiford says that Don’t Shoot PDX is also looking to start providing legal referrals for protesters facing charges, as well as developing a mobile medical van to provide basic health care for the community. Meanwhile, the nonprofit also put on an art exhibit in September, plastering a gallery’s wall with hundreds of photos from protests and community events over the past six years.
Raiford, who is also Don’t Shoot PDX’s executive director, recognizes that the nonprofit strays from the typical NGO path of focusing on a single issue at a time, but that’s what it means to show up for Black lives, she says.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is a human rights movement,” Raiford says. “So, that centers everything in our lives: our homes, our education, access to jobs, the environment, our health. As organizers and community advocates, we see all of those intersects every single day.”
During the current movement, Don’t Shoot PDX has seen such an increase in community support that it had to disable the volunteer application on its website.
“It’s becoming a social norm [to act],” Raiford says. “The stuff that’s happening in communities is organic, no one is telling them to continue standing up or to get their kids outside or to create new agency to protest and resist, and that is a good sign.”
Another group that has felt the impact of Portlanders’ desire to act is the Black Resilience Fund, an emergency fund that provides immediate financial resources for Black Portlanders. Cameron Whitten, the co-founder of the fund, posted on Facebook on May 31 asking his Black friends if they had any bills or groceries they needed assistance paying, and asking his non-Black friends if they could donate. By the end of the day, he had raised $11,000.
That success prompted Whitten to start a GoFundMe that transformed into the Black Resilience Fund, a program under Whitten’s nonprofit, Brown Hope. The Black Resilience Fund went on to raise $1 million in June and, as of November 1, has raised more than $1.9 million from more than 17,600 donors.
“We have thousands of Portlanders helping thousands of Portlanders—that’s not typically the way philanthropy looks,” Whitten says. This nontraditional approach allowed the project to scale up quickly. The fund has more than 300 volunteers, as well as a mutual aid network that offers assistance with tasks like running errands and yardwork. The group also delivers grocery boxes to those in need and connects fund recipients with educational resources on renter’s rights, all while delivering detailed impact reports to maintain transparency.
Black Portlanders can apply for a maximum of $300. Before receiving their check, each applicant is virtually interviewed by a panel of Black Portlanders to confirm that they meet the requirements—being Black and residing in Portland—and to see whether they need to be connected with the mutual aid network or any other services. After receiving more than 10,000 applications, the fund had to close the application form while continuing to fundraise. As of November 1, the fund has provided emergency resources to 4,800 of the 10,200 applicants.
“We know that a million and a half dollars sounds nice, and it inspires people to hear what we’ve raised,” Whitten says. “We also know that the racial wealth gap in our country is staggering, and it’s no different in Portland.”
That’s why the Back Resilience Fund is leveraging its structure to achieve larger goals. Whitten hopes that the fund’s impact can be used to strengthen the case for reparations for Black Americans—the free labor and production by enslaved Black Americans is valued at over $3 billion, yet the descendants of those enslaved people have never been compensated by the government. The group is collecting data on their impact and hope to turn the fund into a scalable distribution model.
While acknowledging that emergency funding is one small part of developing a resilient community, Whitten notes how meaningful $300 can be to so many people. Early on in the fund’s work, a recipient said they didn’t know how they were going to get through the week until their check came, saying it was the first time they felt like they could come up for air.
“To be living in the middle of the ‘I can’t breathe’ era, and to hear that coming from someone that we helped directly is powerful, and it speaks to not just Portland, but what as a nation we must we do to heal,” Whitten says. “Healing is not just about the end of police violence, the end of mass killings and murders, and all other injustices. Every act of historical injustice that has happened within the history of this country has left an injury that has sent shockwaves through generations. We need more than just the prevention of more injustice, we need to invest in the real healing of the injustice that has already happened.”
The phrase “be water” is often used within the protest community, highlighting the importance of being nimble and moving around obstacles—like lines of riot police—and flowing back together during on-the-ground action. The concept extends beyond protest formation and into the protest community itself.
The number of groups supporting the protests and overall movement in Portland can’t be quantified. Mech Bloc is a group that provides mechanic work for protesters’ and community members’ vehicles. Jail Support is a group of volunteers who wait for detained protesters to be released from jail, offering food, water, resources, and comfort. Bike Bloc provides bike maintenance. Optical Bloc helps people get new glasses and contacts if they have been damaged by tear gas or lost during a police bull rush. And for every group that chooses to organize under a name and social media presence, dozens of individual organize without a public persona or logo.
When the wildfires in Oregon burned more than 1 million acres and displaced more than 40,000 people, the protest mutual aid community quickly pivoted. The Equity Worker Offering Kommunity Support (EWOKS) started a donation center in a mall parking lot, accumulating bags upon bags of clothing, medical and hygiene supplies, camping gear, as well serving hot food. Mckniff, of Team Raccoon, started supplying respirators for people seeking reprieve from hazardous air, including ordering respirators for children. The Witches mobilized to the most affected areas to hand out supplies, including their self-care bags.
Night after night, videos from protesters and independent journalists reveal shifts in the protesters’ strategies, whether it be coming together to form shield walls, or changing the protest location to highlight specific law enforcement ills, like returning to protest the ICE building after a whistleblower revealed the high numbers of hysterectomies taking place at immigration detention centers. More recently, protesters have focused on taking their organizing off of social media so that the police cannot anticipate their actions, like when a group defaced Grant High School two days before Thanksgiving. The high school is named after President Ulysses Grant, who ordered an illegal war against the Lakota people.
In contrast, the police response for most of the protests has been predictable. The police had a routine of showing up where the protesters were demonstrating, declaring an unlawful assembly or riot—the criteria that justifies declaring a riot remains unclear—and dispersing groups of protesters with impact munitions, flash bangs, and bull rushes. For dozens of nights, it wasn’t uncommon for police to chase protesters through residential neighborhoods as the demonstrators would be separated by riot cops, only to flow back together like water.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who did not respond to YES! Media’s requests for comment, told OPB, Oregon’s NPR affiliate, that he was leaving it up the Portland Police Bureau to decide when to change tactics.
“My expectation is the police bureau will evolve, and as they see a need for change, they’ll change,” Wheeler told OPB in late August.
Wheeler also claimed that police have tried different tactics, from preemptively dispersing crowds to not showing up. The Portland Police notably didn’t engage during a clash between alt-right protesters and counterprotesters on Aug. 22, where alt-right protesters used bear mace and brandished guns. The Portland Police Bureau didn’t engage with the crowd as the two sides brawled for more than two hours, stating that each “skirmish appeared to involve willing participants” and that even though the event met the criteria to be declared a riot, the officers did not choose to do so because there were too few officers available and it was considered too dangerous to intervene. The event had been shared on Facebook and other social media for several days prior.
Only after alt-right and Trump supporters left the area did federal officers declare an unlawful assembly and disperse counterprotesters.
Not until after the protests resumed following the Oregon wildfires could an obvious change in police tactics be seen. During protests, police started making more frequent targeted arrests—small groups of officers quickly running after specific protesters to detain them—earlier in the night. On Oct. 10, officers arrested what appeared to be a majority of protesters within minutes of the group gathering outside of the Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct. No unlawful assembly was declared before police officers circling the protesters, and arresting 26 of the estimated 75 demonstrators, according to police estimates.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell likewise did not respond to YES! Media’s requests for comment to confirm whether the PPB had changed tactics over the course of the protests and, if so, whether Lovell defined those tactics as successful.
Meanwhile, the mutual aid network is focused on sustaining. Sparkles says PAM is looking toward March of 2021, planning for what they need to get through the election and winter months. The Witches are trying to find ways to be more sustainable, says R; she and at least six other members are pouring more than 70 hours of work per week into the group.
“Right now it’s exhausting,” R admits. “I’m living off my savings, so eventually we’re going to need to get really good at some grant writing or we’re going to need to find a way to sustain this operation.”
Mckniff of Team Raccoon has noticed that a lot of people in the organizing community have set their sights on what happens after the police get defunded.
“I think everybody has their sights set not only on getting the police defunded by 50%, but also [asking] who are the organizations that get that money,” says Mckniff. “A lot of people who are organizing in the community right now are thinking about that, and that’s something that’s really cool.”
For the Black Youth Movement, Oria—a 17-year-old member who gave up her final high school basketball season to spend time organizing with the group—says the goal is to make sure people don’t forget.
“Our goal is to get everyone mad again,” Oria explains. “In the beginning everyone was mad after seeing that George Floyd video. Black lives don’t only matter when we’re getting killed, we matter all the time.”
“We have a chance to change the future,” Oria says.
Isabella Garcia is a former solutions reporter and former editorial intern 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.