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Guns, Mums and Social Justice. Inside the unfolding Portland demonstrations.

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

As the 60th straight day of protests in Portland Oregon approaches, photographer and documentary filmmaker Chris Cearnal reports on the situation and why Portland has become hot point for conversation in the U.S.

Portland’s powerful response to the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement is fueled in part by Oregon’s founding as a “whites only” state. Oregon’s history includes three “Black exclusion laws” the last of which was rescinded in 1926. The city of Portland is still grappling with the consequences of the widely used practice of “redlining” throughout the ‘70s’ and ‘80s’ when people of color were refused loans to purchase homes in certain areas of town leading to de facto segregation that has been further inflamed by the gentrification of the city in the early ‘2000s’ with property values and property taxes in formerly African American neighborhood skyrocketing. Contemporary Portland’s progressive political leanings and self-awareness around the city’s past racism lends tinder to the nightly protests. 

The protests themselves began as an expression of grief and frustration at the relentless drumbeat of African American deaths at the hands of the American police. Several separate groups organized protests and there are dozens of small Black Lives Matter protests daily around the city ranging from children’s marches, cyclists, and corner sign-waving to thousands of citizens lying down across the Burnside Bridge. The protests at the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice center have become the focus of national and international news. Initially consisting of a convergence of several hundred supporters the Black Lives Matter movement and those asking for the dramatic reduction and redistribution of the Portland Police budget, the decision of the president to send in armed Federal officers in military attire has escalated the situation dramatically. 

The daily courthouse protests begin much earlier in the day than is often seen in the press with a march of yellow-clad local mothers many carrying sunflowers. Musicians and colorfully costumed attendees meander as well as medical staff on bicycles leaving their shifts. In the early days of the movement, late-night protesters were tear-gassed by Portland Police. On June 30th the city council passed an ordinance barring the use of tear gas although it was briefly ignored by police. Once the Federal forces arrived, immune to the ordinance, tear gas use returned with gusto. New protesters arrived swelling the crowds including veterans who disagree with the uninvited presence of Federal officers in the city and citizens both curious and alarmed. 

The ritual of the protests varies daily but follows a rough pattern. There is generally a festive atmosphere early in the evening with speakers and improvised chanting and singing on the steps of the boarded-up justice center. Then around 11 pm the crowd moves to the courthouse and the mothers link arms to protect the other protesters. Several of the individuals so often featured in the press coverage may bang on the plywood doors or graffiti the walls while the overwhelming majority wait nervously, arms linked. A prerecorded voice drones episodically over loudspeakers that property damage is unlawful. Eventually, the Federal forces emerge theatrically through the plywood doors or from behind the building in clouds of smoke and the clacking of concussion grenades, firing tear gas canisters, or other “less-lethal” weapons. Some individuals direct green laser pointers at the officers and many hold up large umbrellas to block the munitions. Gas masks and goggles are nearly ubiquitous in the late evening. Many of the mothers remain and squint in the tear gas for a time but by midnight when many of the confrontations occur, the majority of the crowd has headed home for the night to relieve their spouses and kiss their sleeping children. 


Chris Cearnal

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