'Guns, Mums and Social Justice' Continued... Mayor Wheeler gets a taste

Updated: Feb 12

Photographer and documentary filmmaker Chris Cearnal's updated report on the development of Portland protests

There is a different feeling in the air in front of the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in Portland Oregon each night. I don’t know if this is true with all young movements. If every new day is subject to the atmosphere of the crowd, the rumors in the news, the hope for another chance to get it right. The young founders of this particular protest which was initially centered on addressing police brutality and Black Lives Matter, have night after night been nearly universally respected with silence and rapt attention by the swelling crowds. When one of their numbers takes a megaphone to lead a chant or a halting rendition of “We Shall Overcome”, the bike helmeted thousands rush to fill in the tonal gaps and lend their voices to a soaring, cell phone twinkling spiritual each warm summer evening. 


On Thursday the 23rd of July the mayor of Portland Ted Wheeler insinuated himself into the crowd for a “listening session” and the unity of purpose in the crowd began to crack. The arrival of federal forces had served to galvanize more Portlanders to attend the events and not disrupted the core focus dramatically but local politics is a divisive beast. Wheeler was wedged in a knot of reporters so tight that the only indication of his presence to those filling the park and streets was the wavering glow of dozens of cellphone lights and the staccato jeers from the crowd.


The mayor is unpopular with many of the protesters because in his role as the police commissioner, he did not prevent the police in the city from tear-gassing them in the weeks before the federal forces arrived and subsumed this role. The young founders of the protest including Teal Lindseth, whose tear-gassed face is prominent in press coverage of the events, and who leads the “Wall of Moms” each night with a megaphone in their march to the courthouse, were shouted down by several in the crowd over the question of whether the mayor merited their attention and respect. The mayor proceeded to the fence erected to enclose the sidewalk and the courthouse and was promptly caught in a steam bath of tear gas. He blinked with eyes streaming eventually donning plastic goggles and received little sympathy from the protesters. Many had been subjected to this treatment nightly for nearly two months. The energy in the crowd was twitchy and tense even after his departure and as the cat and mouse with the federal forces continued late into the night. 


The innovation of leaf blowers to disperse gas was welcomed by the front rows of protesters as dads swept by, risking arrest by bathing relieved moms and veterans in gusts of clean air and pushing orange-tinted tear gas back towards the courthouse. 


Friday the 24th of July began with a looser more festive feeling. A person in a towering victorian wig and long dress over a yellow t-shirt blew bubbles at the courthouse as color-coordinated protesters arrived by the thousands. Teachers and social workers in green, nurses and doctors in blue, dads in orange, chefs in their cooking attire and lawyers in suit and tie. A painter, @nightpainter worked diligently by headlamp on a Plein-air painting of the crowd. The volunteers with Riot Ribs, whose entire mobile kitchen had nights before been trampled by federal forces and replaced by the next day, cooked free food for protesters including some on roller skates, and a pregnant woman eating a small bag of Fritos in line.


Veterans provided the first line in front of the fence this night. They stood at parade rest and gazed, eyes forward. After some in the crowd began to rattle the fence, the tear gas this evening was relentless.


Thick clouds filled the air with an orange haze, seeped in through any tiny gap in goggles and under hardware store respirators, and sent people choking towards the park. Federal forces shot some form of pellet through the fence at the moms and veterans line, temporarily driving them back. Once the gas cleared and the volley stopped protesters walked calmly back with their umbrellas ready to shield them from a new rain.


Chris Cearnal

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