Photographer and documentary film maker Chris Cearnal recounts the final days of the Portland demonstrations.
"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.
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.
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" In the park, young protesters help people stencil signs, volunteer medics lean against trees waiting for it to begin.
The moms in their yellow makeshift protest t-shirts begin to sort themselves in rows at the fenceline. The past twenty-four hours have seen two of the fledgling organizations born out of this moment shatter and reconstruct themselves on the fly. Riot Ribs, the dogged free barbecue stand whose legendary lines wound through the park and whose volunteers withstood nightly teargas and vandalism of their grills by officers dissolved itself on July 28th after a grifter skimmed donations meant for Black Lives Matter charities for himself. Revolution Ribs formed from the ashes, stepped up behind the grills, and hungry protesters qued up.
The Wall of Moms or WOM, initially founded by white Portland mothers and pasted above the fold the world over, announced earlier in the week that the founders would relinquish control of the fledgling organization to the leadership team of Don’t Shoot PDX, a more experienced social justice organization lead by people of color. The humble act was lauded but short-lived. Days later WOM’s reported on Instagram that Bev Barnum, the initial founder was banned by the new leadership from the Wall of Moms social media feed. They allege that she undermined the organizations’ mission to support Black Lives Matter by surreptitiously forming three business entities using the Wall of Moms branding without consulting them. The group reformed on July 30th under the name Moms United for Black Lives and as of now has 6.3K members. The line of moms led by Demetria Hester with her no-nonsense expression and her tea about to boil voice check their gas masks and sneak sips of water before buttoning everything down.
The bang is concussive and startling even for this crowd. It comes early and with no warning or provocation to speak of and leaves a mound of white powder on the asphalt, swiftly scraped into a ziplock bag by a protester collecting evidence. The officers appear to be dropping tear gas canisters from a balcony high up on the building and soon the air is thick and the moon glows deep orange through the haze. Let’s be clear. There are no fires. I see no one rattle the fence. People are standing around like attendees at an impromptu circus in the park when the flashbangs explode in the middle of the crowd. Voices call out the reminder to “Walk don’t run” as the group scuttles briefly away from the gas. New arrivals learning the drill. This crowd stands its ground. The sooty smog clears thanks to a brisk breeze and roving leaf blowers. Protest curious bystanders blink in jean shorts and stylish face masks from across the street. A band begins to play a rousing jazz number as officers approach the fence and shoot so-called less-lethal rounds directly at moms and veterans lining the fence. People duck behind the concrete barrier supporting the fence and take cover behind trees and lampposts. The music cheers the crowd on and as they return to the fence someone yells “ They are coming from the back!” Dozens of officers march through the park in clouds of tear gas. They march from several directions at once herding and encircling the protesters with tear gas, flash-bangs, mace, and less-lethal rounds fired in some cases directly at them. “They’re kettling us!” a man shouts. The sound of explosions ricochets through the streets like cannon fire. People that can, disperse through the streets. A person mutters “medic, medic, medic, medic” under his breath as he walks. Protesters chant, “Stay together, stay tight. We do this every night.” My car is caught up in the dragnet so a friend picks me up. We hunch over a live feed on her phone and watch the officers and protesters in a standoff, red clouds of gas snake around the fence as a man raises a green and white umbrella and slowly spins it in the air.