PORTLAND, Ore. – Najee Gow paced the street Tuesday in front of the graffiti-covered federal courthouse, a megaphone at his lips.
“Feds go home! Feds go home! Get out of our city!” the 22-year-old man shouted. “This is not a dictatorship! This is a democracy!”
Gow was putting words to a wave of growing anger and resentment in Portland after President Donald Trump deployed more than 100 federal law enforcement agents last week to the liberal city he has repeatedly criticized.
Critics said the president is testing out heavy-handed enforcement in Portland, a largely white city known as one of the most progressive in the nation, before moving on to more diverse cities. They also accused the president of creating more conflict amid national protests over racial injustice and police brutality against Black Americans.
“My sense is they chose Portland because if they had rolled this out in, say, Minneapolis, it would mean to come in direct confrontation with many more Black activists," said Joe Lowndes, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon. "With Portland, it’s a whiter city and they can demonize Antifa or the idea of anarchist looters and kind of take race out of it in a direct way, and make it seem more sympathetic.’’
If anything, activists said, the president's show of force seemed to give protesters an injection of energy and enthusiasm, with many returning after weeks of shrinking protests.
"People are legit afraid for their rights," Gow, a nurse, told USA TODAY. "They are coming for our rights. They are exercising martial law."
As in many cities, Portland residents have been taking to the streets for nearly two months to call for police reform following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes over a report of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
When some of those protests turned destructive, Trump blamed the cities' Democratic mayors for not shutting them down. Then, without warning, images of armored agents in Portland beating and gassing unarmed protesters, including a Navy veteran, and reports of anonymous agents snatching protesters into unmarked vans began spreading online last week, fueling a national debate about the use of federal forces against U.S. citizens.
“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Tuesday. "We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles.”
Trump vowed to send federal agents to other cities. “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” he said Monday at the White House. “All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”
In Portland, activists said the federal presence had created more violence. According to federal court documents filed Tuesday, 114 federal officers have been sent to Portland, including representatives from the Federal Protective Service, Immigration Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Marshals Service. Many of the agents are wearing Department of Homeland Security patches but not name tags.
Gow, who is Black, had avoided the protests for weeks, worried he'd be targeted by Portland police because the city has so few Black men. But with more white people protesting, Gow said he felt safer raising his voice. Portland is 77% white and 6% Black, meaning there are only about 40,000 Black people in the city.
We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2020
As he screamed into his megaphone, Gow urged protesters to remain peaceful but to not back down. Gow said any violence from protesters would give Trump more reason to make an example of Portland.
“As a Black man, I am asking you, for the sake of my life, peacefully protest,” he yelled, walking the graffiti-covered sidewalk in his flip-flops, directing his message at pedestrians and passing drivers alike. “Remain peaceful and our message will be heard. When they beat you, let it happen. When they tear gas you, let it happen. Every time you fight back it gives them a reason to f--- us up.”
Conner O’Shea, 30, a protester who said he was chased by federal officers last week when leaving a demonstration, said the presence of federal agents has fueled renewed support for the protests.
“The crowd the last few days, it’s just insane,” O’Shea said. “It’s been really intense, and there’s lots of righteous indignation … but I think it’s bringing hope to all the people who never stopped showing up. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, fresh troops!’ I do feel like all this attention could lead to more changes that we’re pushing for, the reforms we want with local police.”
O’Shea said he and his friends have seen “snatcher-style vehicles, unmarked vans" leaving the back of the federal building every night.
"This is a testing ground, that’s what we’re telling people,” O'Shea said. Portland “is drawing a focus to federal brutality and what feels like an unwanted military operation.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement that Trump was "abusing his authority” by sending federal officers to the city. On Monday, Wheeler and mayors of five other major U.S. cities urged federal authorities to withdraw the officers from Portland and other cities, noting that many demonstrations have been peaceful and “even in circumstances where this is not the case, it is still a matter for local law enforcement."
In a court filing Tuesday, federal officials in Portland said they had been pelted with bottles and feces, shot at with slingshots and fireworks and blinded by laser pointers, with 28 federal officers suffering injuries ranging from hearing damage and broken bones to a dislocated shoulder.
Federal officials said they detained and released two people over the weekend and arrested five more Monday night on charges of assaulting a federal officer, creating a disturbance, trespassing or failing to comply with an officer's order.
The arrests seemingly did little to deter demonstrators.
Over the weekend, a group of women formed a "wall of moms" between protesters and federal officials, chanting "Moms are here, feds stay clear" and "Leave our kids alone." A video recorded Saturday night of federal agents beating and tear gassing Chris David, a 53-year-old Navy veteran who is white, sparked widespread condemnation.
By Monday night, the protest area saw a series of confrontations between activists and federal agents, who fired repeated volleys of tear gas and pepper spray to push back the crowds after some protesters tried to rip down or break plywood boards blocking the boarded-up Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse, which has become the focal point of local protests. The majority of the city remained untouched by the protests.
“Ever since the Feds showed up, it’s been like war," protester Ted Park, 31, said, coughing as tear gas drifted through the air. "It feels like it’s re-escalated.”
Alice Orleman, 43, a work-from-home mom who is white, said she sat on the sidelines for nearly two months but felt compelled to join for the first time Tuesday as a “Wall of Moms” protester after some of her conservative family in the East suggested that all protesters be shot. That didn’t sit right with her, she said.
She carried a sign Tuesday that read: “Strong as a mother. Feds stay clear. Moms are here.”
“The Feds coming in was the tipping point,” she said, standing with a handful of other first-time protesters, all in yellow shirts. “I felt like I had to be here.”
Trump has called the protests in Portland "anarchy" and said federal agents were there to help local law enforcement regain control.
"We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators," Trump tweeted Sunday. "They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!"
The president has a divisive history with Portland. When far-right protesters faced off against anti-fascist counterprotesters here in August 2019, effectively shutting down downtown Portland, Trump tweeted, "Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!"
It's unclear when or if Trump will send federal officials into other cities led by Democratic mayors. After Trump said he was considering sending more agents to Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday that the administration agreed to send FBI, DEA and ATF agents instead of the Department of Homeland Security law enforcement deployed to Portland.
"Unlike what happened in Portland, what we will receive is resources that are going to plug into the existing federal agencies that we work with on a regular basis to help manage and suppress violent crime," Lightfoot said. "I've been very clear that we welcome actual partnership, but we do not welcome dictatorship."
Monday night's protest in Portland was largely peaceful until activists began trying to pry off the plywood blocking the courthouse entrances. Without warning, a group of about 30 federal agents burst from a side door firing tear gas and pepper balls to push back the crowd, some of whom responded by throwing plastic water bottles at the agents dressed in paramilitary uniforms, gas masks and body armor.
Many of the protesters wore bike helmets and makeshift body armor, and dozens carried homemade shields or umbrellas to protect against pepper balls and foam-rubber projectiles.
“Usually the middle-class brigade goes home around 10 p.m. It’s very humbling and beautiful to see them out here now," Park said around 2 a.m. Tuesday as the crowd began to thin.
Using a megaphone, Park, an unemployed restaurant worker who lost his job because of the national recession, rallied the protesters as wave after wave of tear gas billowed over the area. The staccato pops of federal agents firing paintball guns loaded with pepper balls could be heard over his proclamations.
“They’ll run out of tear gas before we run out of people," yelled Park.
Afterward, Park said he and others are committed to making systemic change. If that means nightly protests, that's what they'll do, he said, no matter what Trump says or does.
“They have done this paramilitary (stuff) to immigrant communities with ICE ... and now they’re seemingly testing it out in Portland," he said. "I think this is their first attempt to roll it out on a major American city and on white people. I think they thought they were going to get away with it. And we are not going to let them get away with it.”
Contributing: Jorge Ortiz, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland protests grow larger after President Trump sends feds in