The Portland Protests Are a War Zone—but Only on the Internet

The Portland, Oregon, protests are a block party at the end of the world. Lownsdale Square Park, a treed, grassy downtown plaza flanked by courthouses, is showing signs of wear after hosting continuous protests for the past two months. The lawn has been tread to dust, and tear gas and pepper spray cling to it. People start coughing as soon as they arrive. Everyone is wearing a face mask and often goggles and a helmet too. As the sun set last Friday night, protesters milled around trying to find their friends while snacking on barbecued “riot ribs,” protein bars, and high-end jerky. They projected a giant image of George Floyd across the boarded up windows of the Multnomah County Justice Center and danced laser pointers across the buildings where unwelcome federal agents were holed up. They waved cheeky signs: “Go Home Because I Said So! Love, Mom.”
Volunteers scattered through the crowds giving out hand sanitizer, water, and ear plugs, but they barely muffled the pounding drum circle, the snatches of hip hop from speakers wending their way through the crowd on peoples’ shoulders, and thousands chanting “Black lives matter!” and “Feds go home!” By 11 pm, those sounds were joined by the firecrackers that protesters lobbed toward the courthouse, the hissing tear gas canisters law enforcement agents fired back, and rhythmic metal shrieks as protesters in DIY riot gear tried to topple the steel fence dividing them. The projection of Floyd was replaced by a slogan: “THE FENCE IS A LIE.” By Sunday, the protesters had succeeded, dragging the barricade to the ground with chains while the crowd, under a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas, cheered.

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3 Black Photographers on Capturing the George Floyd ProtestsPublic HealthCovid-19 Cases Were Rising Before the George Floyd Protests Protests in Portland following the killing of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police in May, had dwindled to maybe 100 peaceful demonstrators per night before President Trump sent federal agents to the city, ostensibly to protect US government property. Portland and Oregon officials, all the way up to Governor Kate Brown, have criticized the deployment as an unwelcome, unnecessary overreach. Portlanders are enraged by what they see as an occupation of their city and a step toward fascism, particularly after the officers, who are not trained in crowd control, began detaining people without clear cause. Protest attendance—and violence—has increased exponentially since their arrival during the Fourth of July weekend, and not just in Portland. As Rose City’s protests wear on and Trump promises to send a “surge” of law enforcement officers to other Democrat-run cities like New York and Chicago, people across the country have begun protesting in solidarity.
Trump and his backers assert that the deployments are necessary to curb unrest in cities that have become anarchic war zones. You’d be hard-pressed to prove that’s true in Portland if you bothered to look anywhere but Lownsdale Square at midnight. (The only disruptive anarchists in my neighborhood are the crows in my garden.) If any widespread, persistent Portland protest war zone does exist, it isn’t in physical space at all. It’s online.Anything that happens during a Portland protest happens in front of at least one camera and will end up on the internet. The crowd is full of smartphones. Men in press helmets climb up streetlights with expensive rigs to get a better view. People at the protest pulled up livestreams to see what was happening at the front of the crowd, squinting to see if the Feds had left their fortress yet. The federal agents watched those livestreams too. Ergo, anything that happens at a Portland protest is meme fodder and a chance for good or bad online PR.