'Guns, Mums and Social Justice' - The Final Chapters

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Photographer and documentary film maker Chris Cearnal recounts the final days of the Portland demonstrations.

July 27th

"Why are you here?" 

"Why are you here?"

"This world is built for you." "If you are here to burn down that building they will just build it right the f*** back up. Are you willing to die for me?" The young Black Lives Matter leader holds the microphone and leans out, scanning the crowd. A floodlight illuminates the flag over his head. "You with the pink hair, why are you here? Ask your neighbor. Ask someone else. White people why are you here?" In the face of the national and international attention the protests are receiving, leaders and protesters are asking if the small fires, fireworks, and fence rattling so visible in the worldwide press coverage are distracting from the cause? The smaller crowd this evening cheers at the questions. A blonde woman in a white hard hat tentatively raises her hand but no one asks her why she is here. The crowd listens respectfully and cheers when the mic is passed “ Whose lives matter?” They know the answer and cheer with a voice louder than their number “ Black Lives Matter!”

By the fence things are quiet. At 10 pm. A line of veterans in t-shirts with bandannas and scarves wrapped around their faces stand and wait. A few dozen women from the Wall of Moms line up behind them looking much less anxious than in previous days. Nature is on the protesters' side this evening. The wind is blowing the leaves in the trees and the flags are waving. Innovations abound. Water buckets polka dot the pavement and protesters sport repurposed pesticide backpacks filled with water to douse tear gas. Metal posts along the sidewalk are capped with foam noodles or floppy stuffed bears to protect tear gas blinded shins. Dads sport hefty leaf blowers and full-face respirators. Some carry hockey or lacrosse sticks to knock away sparking canisters.  Back in the park away from the fence on the pedestal that once held a statue of a stately elk some people have built a fire with broken wooden signs and a young girl in high socks jumps up and down in the flames. A mom in a yellow shirt demands that she “ get out of the fire” and some young men in half-face respirators snap at her to “Mind your own business. The fire is surrounded by concrete. It’s fine”. A half an hour later protesters come and douse the fire with half a dozen plastic bottles of water. A verbal tussle ensues. “ That’s fine just believe you are right” a man jeers“ That is the problem. You are convinced you are right” the other replies “ Oh and you are? You’re right?” The second man shrugs and gestures to the courthouse. “No man, it’s just not what we need right now direct your attention over there”  as he walks away as a few people mill hands in pockets around the steaming coals.

Another small fire is built out of cardboard boxes on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse but despite several robotic warnings not to damage the building over the PA no troops emerge. I need to leave early this evening but read that although they waited until later in the night, officers eventually disband the remaining protesters with tear gas and pepper balls.

28th July

Tonight is quiet. I mean quiet. You could hear a pin drop at least until I left at 12:45. But in all of that quiet things are being sorted out. A fire is built again on what some are calling the “fire pit” a concrete riser that once held a bronze elk in the middle of Lowendale Park. Young people many of whom are white add wooden signs to feed it. It grows high enough to spit embers into the branches above. Some protesters stomp up to the flames and spray them with water, shaking the last drops out in staccato disapproval. Others toss flattened boxes and chipped wood panels. This alternates back and forth water and wood until a young man steps up and asks that the fire be doused. A young woman defends the fire. The young man who quoted Martin Luther King on the steps of the Justice Center earlier in the night raises the point that the world is watching and misunderstanding. This fire is not helping the cause. A young woman leans in and reminds him that the “feds will gas us anyway". The young man raises a bull horn and tips his head back, "But the nation, the nation is watching” he declares. The young woman shakes her head, "But it doesn’t matter. They will gas us anyway. Fire or not”.

What does a bonfire mean in the middle of a city park when you are surveilled by an armed force for a single misstep. Does it mean you deserve to be brutalized? Does it mean you will not be cowed? What does it mean when you are trying to educate the hundreds of white people decked out in themed t-shirts and duct-taped cardboard armor to the fact that they can support this movement without speaking for it. ( As a white photographer, the irony of this is not lost on me.) The stakes for BIPOC protesters are and have always been higher than those for white protesters. BIPOCs protesters do not have the luxury of starting trash fires or jeering at armed nameless officers of the law as the consequences are historically merciless. Herein lies the challenge of this particular protest, how to simultaneously advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement, drive out an unwanted federal force, navigate a continual barrage of aggression and violence, while simultaneously growing a local movement that subverts an entrenched historic racial power imbalance and maintaining a scrupulous image for the dozens of media outlets filming your every move? There is a lot on the shoulders of these young leaders and every night they show up. Every night.

29th July

Tonight begins in technicolor. The street below the courthouse is ablaze with floodlights, punching up the colors. A lanky man with a bright blue oil drum shield tucked under his arm winds by a woman in rainbow swim goggles, wilting ochre sunflowers nod from the vents in her bike helmet. “Sorry”, he mutters as he lightly bumps her shoulder. The speakers perch beneath the Justice centers’ sandstone columns a block away ask the crowd if they believe the governor. Do they think the troops will leave on Thursday? “No!” the crowd thunders. “Yeah, me neither” he replies. There are chants and singing. Phones wave in the night to the tones of " Black Lives Maaattter&