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‘It’s About the Core Values of Black Lives Matter.’ Portland Activists Are Trying to Remind People Why They Started Protesting to Begin With

12 minute read

Since federal agents entered Portland over the July 4 weekend, national headlines have highlighted how federal officers and Portland police have harmed protesters, medics, legal observers and journalists. The actions have sparked lawsuits and drawn scrutiny from DOH and DOJ internal watchdogs as well as Congress.

Many protesters say federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the Marshals Service and Customs and Border Protection have “added fuel to the fire” of what had been largely peaceful protests. However, federal agencies have maintained that they were needed to protect federal properties and the city from violence despite video evidence showing them acting aggressively at demonstrations.

But police brutality was a “problem way before the (federal) troops came,” says Demetria Hester, a Black mother and grandmother who has frequently been showing up to protests since May and is an administrator with Moms United for Black Lives. “That’s what we were protesting about in the first place—that the police have a record of killing Black people here and (…) having the OK from everybody to get away with it.” She has no faith in the city and state’s politicians, saying they have “allowed this to go on for so long” despite saying they will help.

“These politicians, they don’t care that Black Lives Matter,” Hester says. “They care about getting their pockets rich, about getting their photo op, about saying we’re going to help you but (they) never do. They have so much money here that they’re giving to police to be brutal to the Black community.”

While Portland protesters welcomed news on Wednesday that federal officers would begin phasing out their presence in the city, which are intended to be replaced with Oregon state police, it’s unclear exactly how and when that will happen. Acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement that the department would maintain its current presence until it received assurance federal property wouldn’t be attacked. President Donald Trump said Thursday morning in a tweet that federal officers would not leave “until there is safety.” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Thursday that Portland police would be working with other city and county agencies to clear Lownsdale Park “at the request of (Oregon State Police) as part of the plan for federal officers to leave our community.)”

In the wake of the news about federal officers starting to leave, Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, reinforced the importance of police and criminal justice reform. While Wheeler repeatedly demanded federal officers leave the city and even got tear gassed while joining demonstrations one night, he remains extremely unpopular among protesters, many of whom are calling for Wheeler’s resignation. Several activists tell TIME that they view Wheeler’s recent rhetoric as disingenuous, with several pointing out that he is seeking reelection. They worry about systemic problems with Portland’s police that will continue to disproportionately harm Black communities, and say that current plans to direct money away from the police have not gone far enough. What’s more, protesters worry that all the attention on the presence of federal forces is derailing the reason they’re out there in the first place: to protest police brutality and support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wheeler’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Wheeler has said that the focus on federal officers has shifted attention away from activists’ core demands. “The daily coverage of (federal officer’s) actions has distracted our community from the Black voices at the center of this movement, and the urgent work of reform.” he said Wednesday on Twitter.

“Obviously we do not want the federal government here, we don’t want them anywhere. But the whole movement started because of Black Lives Matter and that’s what’s getting lost in this,” says “Beans”, who was a volunteer at a community hub and group that has provided free food called Riot Ribs. She asked to use her nickname out of fear of retribution for her high-profile work in the city. “It’s not about fighting Trump or whatever. It’s about the core values of Black Lives Matter,” she adds.

Black adults in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, are overrepresented at the stages of arrest and imprisonment, compared to their white counterparts, according to a November 2019 report on the county’s racial and ethnic disparities from the W. Haywood Burns Institute. A one-day snapshot of the jail population on June 30, 2019 shows stark disparities across races; only 1.3 of every 1,000 white adults were incarcerated in jail, while more than six times as many (8.2 of every, 1,000 Black adults) were incarcerated in jail, according to the analysis. The trend appears to be stark for arrests, too. Because arrest data was not available, the report relied on a proxy — the “number of referrals received by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.” This data revealed that 26 cases were received for every 1,000 white adults and almost five times as many cases were received for every 1,000 Black adults.

In addition, a November 2019 analysis of traffic and pedestrian stops from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that Portland police “searched African Americans at more than twice the rate of white motorists and pedestrians during a 12-month period ending in June” 2019, The Oregonian reported.

There were at least five police-involved shootings that resulted in deaths in 2019, according to Portland Copwatch, a grassroots group promoting police accountability. The police killings of Black people from years ago, include Aaron Campbell who was fatally shot in the back while in the parking lot of an apartment complex in 2010, and Kendra James, who was fatally shot during a traffic stop in 2003.

Portland has so far fallen short of activists’ demands to defund the police by at least $50 million and redistribute money towards investing in Black communities and anti-violence programs unrelated to law enforcement. (Care Not Cops and Don’t Shoot Portland, community groups that advocate for defunding the police, want an annual reduction of at least $50 million for “each year going forward,” according to an official list of their demands.) Wheeler has committed to diverting $7 million from the police bureau and $5 million from other parts of the city budget towards communities of color, as well as promising to remove police officers from schools and disbanding the city’s Gun Violence Reduction team, which activists said would “target Black and brown people, especially youth.” A budget passed by the Portland City Council last month would cut more than $15 million from the police bureau.

Wheeler is also facing criticism from Portland’s city council, which on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a police oversight board to review misconduct investigations. Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said in a July 18 statement that if Wheeler “can’t control the police,” that he should give her control over the agency. “We need you to stop denying the violence being perpetrated by our own police force and make it clear and unambiguous: Portland police are directed from the top to never collaborate with 45’s goon squad, to take off their riot gear, and to stop contributing to the violence that was occurring before the feds arrived and still continues night after night,” she said. Wheeler rejected Hardesty’s request, saying he would continue to oversee the department.

Effie Baum, spokesperson for Popular Mobilization (or PopMob), a Portland coalition of anti-fascist groups, points out the similarities between the violence perpetrated by federal officers and Portland police as well as why she’s skeptical about Wheeler’s motivations to join protesters. That’s one of the reasons “Wheeler coming out and pulling that PR stunt is so disingenuous because this has been happening here for so long and he didn’t care when it was his (police force) going after us but it’s like—Trump sends in his soldiers to attack us and suddenly Ted Wheeler cares.” It’s “absolutely a political ploy,” they say.

Tensions are emerging among protesters, too. The Wall of Moms, an organization that has gained national attention as it brought mothers dressed in yellow to the front lines of many protests, recently indicated that it would be shifting its leadership after acknowledging in a statement that “too many of our admins were White women”; it said it decided to hand leadership of the organization over to Don’t Shoot Portland — a local group that supports Black Lives Matter by providing mutual aid to communities and protesters and has sued the city and federal government for what they characterize as the indiscriminate use of force.

Further complicating the matter, on Wednesday, Don’t Shoot Portland accused Wall of Moms of “anti-blackness” for “leaving vulnerable Black women downtown after marching, failing to support those on the ground that put trust in them” and not informing Black leadership about officially registering as a nonprofit with the state. They said the organization “was not started for BLM, but to get the feds out of PDX” and that “combined with a lack of care for and disregard of Black women, we were used to further an agenda unrelated to BLM.” As a result, a separate group called Moms United for Black Lives has splintered off from the organization. Family members of Wall of Moms founder Bev Barnum said she would not comment on the allegation.

Teressa Raiford, executive director of Don’t Short Portland, says that despite Wheeler’s assurances that he won’t cooperate with federal officers, they did not “see the police rendering aid or supporting anyone that’s being assaulted by any federal officers.” Raiford also finds it ironic that the local and state government has spoken out against the federal response but not the police “use of violence and tear gas.”

Raiford says the demand to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter is not a new one, despite the recent increase in protests across the nation. “What we’re saying now in 2020 is no different than what people of the Black community have been saying forever, since we were brought here to America,” she says.

Jennie Vinson was one of the first Wall of Moms volunteers and joined after seeing a Facebook post calling to mobilize moms. “Portland is a very white city” and “there’s an obligation that I have as a white woman have to step up and say enough is enough,” Vinson says. More than three-quarters of Portland’s residents are white and Oregon has a long racist history; the state’s constitution banned Black residents until 1926.

“Black women have been out fighting for their kids and their families for years and now is the time that we need to really listen because this is life and death,” Vinson adds.

Amid the chaos, Riot Ribs because a popular resource for protesters—but has also been swept up in the city’s tension. “The goal is to feed people, whatever it takes to make that happen,” Beans said, days before the organization dissolved. This week, Riot Ribs disbanded as an organization, saying they have “been personally targeted and assaulted” and “have someone who is trying to profit off of our movement who continues to volunteer in the park.” They intend to distribute the remaining donations to other community groups and rebrand as Revolution Ribs—a more on-the-go version of the operation, which will continue to feed people in different states with the help of two recently purchased vans.

Beans said that their operation had been “tear gassed every night” with staff sometimes still trying to cook through the haze. She adds that Portland police as well as federal officers have targeted Riot Ribs, slashing open water bottles, intentionally spraying the grills with pepper spray and tear gas and raiding the spot and arresting people at 4 a.m.

She says the group was going through 10,000 plates a day as they served all sorts of meals—from hot dogs to hamburgers to ribs to steamed rice and curry and received more than $330,000 in donations.

Babatunde Azubuike, an activist who uses the pronouns, ze/hir or goddexx, and is Afro-indigenous, disabled and trans, says that while federal officers are “essentially limited to a very small area in downtown,” the police are everywhere and have “consistently been given a lot of access and power to brutalize people.” Babatunde, who is programs coordinator for Freedom to Thrive, is hopeful that police abolition will become a realistic option going forward, questioning how you can reform an institution “that is so brutal and violent” to begin with. Wheeler said on the night that he joined protesters that he would not commit to abolishing the police—remarks that were met by jeers by the activists surrounding him, The New York Times reported.

Aslan Newson, a 16-year-old who identifies as queer Afro-Indigenous woman from the Klamath Tribes, has been protesting every Friday through Fridays4Freedom, a collective of Black youth and their allies in Portland who are fighting for police abolition among a variety of causes. “This work is exhausting,” Newson says. But she adds that it’s something she will be fighting for, for the rest of her life. “This isn’t an adult problem. This isn’t a youth problem,” she says. “This involves everybody.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com