I Know How to Cover a Portland Protest. So Why Am I Shaking?

Federal officers disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

There’s a joke that’s not a joke that you’ll hear if you hang out at Portland’s protests, as of Tuesday in their 54th consecutive day since police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd over a possibly fake $20 bill by kneeling on his neck while he begged for his life.

“We’re all gonna have some serious PTSD from this shit one day,” a dude standing nearby said Friday night with a laugh. He’d just seen me jolt when someone threw the plastic cap from a water bottle and it hit the side of my neck. I was edgy from an earlier round of flash bangs and tear gas.

I’ve been covering protests since Donald Trump was elected. Mostly in Portland, but I also went to Washington in 2017 because I felt like I had to witness his inauguration and the Women’s March that followed firsthand. I needed to understand what was happening in our country. And way before I was a journalist, I participated as a 20-something activist alongside tens of thousands of other young Oregonians, labor and religious leaders, kids and parents and grandparents. Protest is pretty normal here. A staffer in the George H.W. Bush administration didn’t nickname us Little Beirut for nothing.

On one memorable May Day march downtown, a friend was trampled by a Portland police officer on horseback. Another time, I marched around the circular interior of the mall just blocks from the Multnomah County Justice Center where the protests are centered now. It was October 2001 and the Afghanistan war had just begun. “While you’re shopping, bombs are dropping” echoed through the cavernous five-story interior, my chanting voice dissolving into those around me. And there were the marches and rallies after Portland police shot and killed 21-year-old Kendra James in 2003 as she tried to drive away from a traffic stop.

I’d been sporadically covering the recent protests against systemic racism and police brutality for Courthouse News Service when Oregon Public Broadcasting revealed that federal police in combat fatigues were whisking protesters off the streets into unmarked minivans without probable cause, explanation or apparent constitutional authority. I knew I needed to take another turn offering a set of journalistic eyeballs to watch the streets. So I went out this past Friday. 

But I was surprised when the days that followed were marked by unexplained crying jags, forgetfulness and depression. I’d open a cupboard door and not know why — and then do it again. Painting and ballet class — my normal non-news decompression activities — seemed utterly pointless. Suddenly, everything did. And I was growing increasingly angry at the cops who’d taunted me late that night, as they chased and scattered ever-dwindling groups of protesters around downtown. 

After hours of peaceful protest, Portland police and federal officers with the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service rushed a crowd of a few hundred demonstrators, shooting off deafening flash bangs and round after round of tear gas. They lined up across the street, running shoulder to shoulder at the crowd. Their batons were aloft, ready for anyone who couldn’t run fast enough. Some held guns that could shoot rounds of rubber bullets, pepper balls, or tear gas canisters — which a federal cop used on July 11 to shoot a protester in the face, putting him in critical care after facial reconstructive surgery. 

At one point Friday night, a line of cops sprinted behind the protesters I was following for five or six blocks straight. They didn’t stop until well past the street they’d announced earlier was the boundary of the part of downtown they’d just deemed “closed.”

I was wearing my press badge and would often call out “Press!” when police lines advanced toward me. Sometimes they would yell “move!” and point in the direction they wanted me to go. Other times, they would pass by and let me keep doing my job, as a recent federal court order requires. That lawsuit was filed by Portland journalists and legal observers who say police target them for violence and arrests.

Unlike press, who must be clearly identified, both federal and local police in Portland put wide rubber bands over their badges to keep from being individually identified. And while federal police are usually the ones in the desert camo, both local and federal police wear black uniforms, with badges that are small and hard to see in the night.

So on Friday night, during hours of cat-and-mouse, I was often unsure which police force was on our tails. After a while I was with a handful of others near the MAX light-rail tracks. It was 3 a.m. and I was tired. A police van appeared, the kind with runner boards on either side and a dozen riot cops riding, ready to leap off and arrest, beat or pepper spray anyone who doesn’t run. My group split and veered around different corners near I-405, where downtown turns more residential, as the van pursued and I fell behind. Momentarily alone, I ran as I heard the van accelerate behind me.

“We’re gonna get you,” a couple of them yelled in singsong voices. I hid behind a big concrete pillar. “We still see you!” another yelled as the van sped past.

That’s it. They didn’t hurt me or arrest me. But 36 hours later, I was still shaking. That’s about how long it took me to connect that moment to another night where I ran from someone who thought my fear was funny. When I was a teenager, my best friend’s dad drove me to an industrial building and raped me. I don’t remember a ton of the night but I very much remember running to the back of the building, sobbing, wondering if he might try to kill me. That night I squeezed my body into the corner of a loading dock to hide. He chased me and when he came around the corner, he was laughing, his stupid face frozen in a smile that I can still see, 26 years later.

I’ve done a lot in my life to be okay with having that happen to me. I’ve had long bouts of feeling like everything I do is beyond pointless and I should just give up and never get out of bed ever again. Sometimes it feels like the destructive will of the world will never be overcome. But I battle that feeling with an aggressive pursuit of beauty and connection. And I mostly feel like my voice matters — that’s why I’m a journalist. So it was weird to feel that pointlessness so strongly again over the last few days. And I think the reason it came back was the reason it was there in the first place, decades ago. I’ve never been able to understand one thing: how could he have done that to me? To ME? As if I don’t matter at all. As if his whim, or compulsion was all that mattered and I was worthless.

The cops who taunted me as I ran from them were an echo of that trauma. Over the weekend, as I grew angrier, I kept circling back to one thought: don’t those fuckers know I’m sacred? That every one of us out there is?

There was a boy in the therapy group I attended as a teen who chose a song from Rage Against the Machine on the night we were all asked to bring in music that best portrayed our feelings.

I don’t remember the song I picked, but it was for sure the total opposite. I had no rage then, just a dredge of grief that felt like it went on forever. But the drums were an awakening on the rainy Portland night when I first heard them — those three syncopated cracks before the lyrics “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me.” It was bracing to hear that drum beat and those lyrics from the lips of protesters as police shot pepper balls out of a tiny horizontal window above the boarded-up doors of the federal courthouse on Friday night. 

I know. I’m supposed to be objective. I’m not supposed to say my personal feelings about what I’m covering in public — ideally in the minds of some, I wouldn’t even have feelings about what I cover. But to me, objectivity in journalism creates a disembodied voice. It fails to come from both everywhere and nowhere and instead encapsulates the perspective of the powerful rather than afflicting it. I come from somewhere. I come from right here.

I’ve watched police treat protesters and regular citizens with violent brutality for my entire adult life. Despite the work of generations of activists, we still entrust police with the resources, political power and legitimacy to use violence as a behavior modification tool. But no one should be beaten with batons, tear gassed or pepper sprayed because they won’t do what police tell them to. 

This is something it took me decades to learn: We are all sacred. Even me. And yes, you. It’s the unlearned lesson in front of our nation’s eyes right now. Who do we allow to hurt others? Who do we allow to be hurt? 

After police zoomed by and left me hiding behind that concrete pillar on Friday night, I found the small group of protesters I’d lost. Together, we wound our way through downtown back toward the justice center, where the protest had begun and near where I was parked. As we walked, one of the activists, a young Black woman with a bullhorn, called out periodically to others wandering alone after being chased by police. “Join us!” she’d yell. “We’re over here!”

And the group’s size grew with each block. 

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