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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed by federal officers along with a large crowd of protesters late Wednesday night after he tried for hours to calm angry activists demanding police reform from City Hall and calling for federal authorities to withdraw from this mostly liberal, mostly white city.
The mayor was caught in a chaotic display of violence and mayhem that began around 11:15 p.m., after protesters threw flaming bags of garbage over a fence protecting the federal courthouse, prompting officers to fire tear gas at the crowd.
Wheeler had spent many hours in the thick of the protest, attempting to answer questions from the crowd, which booed and jeered as he tried to explain a lengthy process for making changes. He acknowledged that he's a "white, privileged male."
"Obviously, we have a long way to go," Wheeler said. "Everyone here has a job to do, all of us."
Before the crowd was tear-gassed, Wheeler huddled with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement who demanded he move more quickly to reform the police department.
Some activists said they were worried the fight over federal agents overshadowed their demands for change and vowed to keep the pressure on Wheeler and city officials. One mother pointed out that Wheeler showed up to the protests only after other white mothers attending the demonstrations over the weekend were tear-gassed.
"Enough is enough," the crowd chanted. "Enough is enough."
Thousands of protesters alternately booed and interrogated Wheeler after hundreds of mothers dubbed "the Wall of Moms" led a march downtown against police brutality. Many protesters carried signs demanding the withdrawal of federal agents dispatched last week by President Donald Trump over the objection of Wheeler and other officials.
“It’s hard to breathe, it’s a lot harder to breathe than I thought,” Wheeler told The Washington Post after he was tear-gassed. “This is abhorrent. This is beneath us.”
Trump said he sent federal law enforcement officers in to restore order. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said agents were in Portland primarily to protect federal buildings such as the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, a target of protesters.
To hear more about Portland protests, click 'play' below.
Contractors surrounded the building with a tall metal-and-concrete fence Wednesday, and prosecutors warned that anyone who breached it would be arrested. In court files, officials said protesters inflicted more than $50,000 in damage to federal buildings in Portland, including tearing down security cameras and shattering glass doors.
Tai Carpenter, the board president of Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland-based, nonprofit group advocating for social change, said the majority of protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights. She called the federal response disproportionate.
“It’s not a bunch of anarchists on the front lines,” said Carpenter, 29. “It’s moms singing and dads with leaf blowers to disperse tear gas. It’s not nearly as out of control as people think. I’m scared that the federal officers being here is going to result in someone being murdered.”
Wheeler echoed those concerns after speaking to protesters Wednesday night.
"President Trump needs to focus on coronavirus and get his troops out of the city. My biggest fear is that somebody's going to die," Wheeler said. "I want them to leave. This is going to come to a city near you if we don't stop it."
The mayor walked a fine line of blasting the federal government while addressing a crowd that days earlier, before federal officials swept into the city, had been organizing in opposition to his office. As mayor, Wheeler helps set the city's budget priorities. As police commissioner, he helps sets law enforcement priorities.
Some activists said his criticism of the federal government rang hollow, given the clashes between city police and protesters.
"You need to be doing more than you are doing. You say you are doing stuff. We haven't seen it," activist Teal Lindseth, 21, told him Wednesday night.
Protesters were reenergized against what they call heavy-handed federal intervention after nearly two months of demonstrations. They said they were seizing a groundswell of national support to continue pushing for an overhaul in policing.
Wednesday night again saw large numbers of white, middle-aged residents joining the protests, which have drawn hundreds of activists nearly every night since the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes over a report of an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.
Federal officials have repeatedly referred to protesters as anarchists, and federal agents fired tear gas at the crowds.
Forty-two people have been arrested by federal agents in the past few days, several of them over accusations that they pried open the front doors of the courthouse and scuffled with officers inside.
"Attempted arson is not a peaceful protest. Physically attacking law enforcement is not freedom of speech. Destruction of property is not peaceful assembly," Wolfe said in a statement. "Criminals perpetrating these crimes are being arrested … not law-abiding protesters."
Wednesday, contractors raced to finish ringing the courthouse with 8-foot-high metal-and-concrete barricades, the sounds of air compressors and electric screw guns echoing across the street to the protest encampment.
Kitty-corner from the courthouse, park rangers removed metal benches from Chapman Square, a small park where many protesters rested and regrouped during overnight clashes. There was no evidence the city planned to evict the protest encampment from Lownsdale Square, directly across Southwest 3rd Avenue from the courthouse.
In that encampment, protesters erected tents and barbecue grills, offering free food. Other sites within the encampment provide basic hygiene supplies, including masks and hand-washing stations to protect against the spread of COVID-19, as well as water and eye rinses for protesters hit with tear gas or pepper spray.
As at other protest sites around the country, including the now-defunct Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, in Seattle, tourists stopped by to take selfies, angering protesters who fretted that their message was being ignored while their encampment became a tourist attraction during the daytime.
Wednesday, four volunteer medics aiding protesters sued city police and the federal government, arguing their constitutional rights were violated by law enforcement officers targeting them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the lawsuit says law enforcement officials at all levels mistreated protesters.
"Defendants’ conduct is part of a longstanding pattern of assaulting and threatening protest medics to prevent them from rendering aid to protesters, journalists, neutral legal observers, and their fellow protest medics," the lawsuit says. "Since President Trump ordered federal agents to go to Portland to quell protests, the federal defendants have been coordinating with the Portland police to violently disperse demonstrators, neutrals, and medics standing behind a medical-supply table. The federal Defendants use the same types (or worse) of force – chemical irritants, rubber bullets, batons – as the Portland Police. And they have emerged from unmarked vehicles clad in unmarked uniforms to abduct suspected protesters."
Before Wheeler appeared in the crowd Wednesday, many protesters linked arms and lined the street next to the federal courthouse. Lindseth joined the crowd, alongside yellow-shirted moms and hundreds of other activists forming a human wall to protect the protest.
"Hey, look, Trump wanted a wall," she said with a grin. "So we're giving him one!"
Instead of silencing the city's protesters, she said, the president bestowed on them a larger platform by sending in federal officers.
"Trump keeps talking about Portland. People keep talking about Portland. People know us," Lindseth said. "We feel like the whole world has seen us."
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Portland protests, mayor warns 'somebody's going to die'