The city parks facing Portland's downtown courthouses can be a grim place these days. A line of demonstrators squares off each night with officers sent by the president. A bloodstain marks the sidewalk where protester Donavan LaBella's head was split open July 11 by a federal munition. The parks are regularly filled with tear gas and screams of pain.
They are also, improbably, home to a barbecue restaurant.
A blue tent, white plastic fence and drifting column of smoke mark the location of a 30-inch metal grill with a smoker. It's called Riot Ribs.
"We have ribs, we got a lot of pork, pork butt, hamburgers, brats, hot dogs," says a volunteer who goes by "Beans." Also on the menu are grilled corn, watermelon, macaroni salad, potato salad, coleslaw, chips and soda pop. "Texas toast now, apparently," Beans says, gesturing toward two boxes.
On July 12, two dozen people stand in line. And none of them are paying.
"It's completely, 100% free," says Beans. "Our philosophy is, eat till you're full. So if you want five burgers, we'll give you five burgers."
If you want a measure of how a pandemic and 46 consecutive nights of protests have changed downtown Portland, perhaps nothing tells the story like a dozen volunteers running a pay-what-you-can pop-up barbecue shack in a park surrounded by federal police.
Portland recently lost Le Bistro Montage, Pok Pok shut down all but one of its locations, and Old Town Brewing just announced a temporary closure. Meanwhile, Riot Ribs reports it's served 7,500 plates in just eight days.
Most of the proprietors won't give their names. Many arrived from other cities, other protests: One had backpacked from Minneapolis after things quieted down there. Others had migrated from Seattle's famed Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP. Most of the people running Riot Ribs are houseless, living in Lownsdale Square. It's a loosely knit group of 10 to 15 volunteers who support a handful of "peak time" cooks.
It's an all-night diner. "Seven pm to 7 am is when most people are on the grill," Beans says. Those are also the hours when protests are at their peak. During slow hours, others rotate in so cooks can set up tents and sleep.
It started with one man grilling outside his van on the sidewalk during the protests.
He's Lorenzo, a lifelong Portlander. He declines to give his last name, fearing reprisal by the police. The cops also gave his barbecue its name.
"That night of the Fourth [of July], they threw some tear gas," says Lorenzo, "and they said we was causing a riot. That's why I named it 'Riot Ribs.' Because they tear gassed us six times. On the sixth time, I thought I was going to die. The medics had to hold my head back, pour water in my eyes and stuff, and I couldn't breathe."
Lorenzo says he came to a July 4 protest to barbecue and give a speech. But he stayed until 8 the next morning, grilling through six rounds of tear gas. He says people even wanted breakfast, but by then he was too tired.
Lorenzo says he was a member of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, when Portland police shot Albert Williams, that he led a sit-down demonstration at the Oregon State Penitentiary as an inmate, and that his uncle was involved in the 1968 prison riots.
"So it kinda like, run in the family," he says. "God prepared me for this. And I'm gonna tell you, I'm not going nowhere. And I'm gonna keep doing what I'm doing."
Riot Ribs runs on donations. Transparency is a high priority. "We try to get any supplies donated, and we try to spend our money only on food," says Beans. The barbecue uses Google Docs to publicize donations alongside receipts, so everyone can see where the money goes. It also tweets summaries of its balance sheet. (It accepts money on Cash App at $riotribs.)
The idea of a donation-based restaurant isn't new. Lentil as Anything has been doing it for over 20 years in Melbourne. SAME Cafe serves Denver, and Jon Bon Jovi's JBJ Soul Kitchen is in New Jersey. But pay-what-you-can eateries have yet to catch on in Portland.
For Riot Ribs, public response has been supportive. City officials want the operators to get a permit. "We did have I think some park rangers come by and tell us that the tent, the canopy, is a structure," Beans says. On a smartphone, Beans pulls up City Code 20.12.080, which concerns "Structures in Parks." The tent is not a structure, Beans says, because Riot Ribs can pull up stakes if it has to. "But for now we're pretty set on staying here." For the future, "a food truck maybe would be the goal."
Of course, Riot Ribs faces challenges few other restaurants do.
"We have one bulletproof vest," Beans says, as well as donated gas masks. When police rush the park, one volunteer stays on the grill. "And then usually it's just mayhem and we just try to find everyone." Once things calm down, volunteers return and cooking goes on.
Lorenzo and Beans both emphasize that they are not rioters, and that Riot Ribs' interest is in feeding the community. The condiment table is also stocked with canned foods, Advil, hand sanitizer, and tampons and menstrual pads for anyone who needs them.
"We are here feeding everybody, no matter who, no matter what, no matter how much food they want," Beans says. "That's the goal."
So then, the obvious question: How's the food?
Volunteers in gloves serve me two crispy, juicy, seasoned ribs on a paper plate, with macaroni salad and coleslaw from the box, rounded out with a bag of Cheetos and a can of Coke. Perfect for a long summer night in the park.
Vegan choices are limited. The Boca burgers go on the same grill as the meat, and most of the snack chips and cookies have dairy in them. But volunteers have told me expanding vegan options is a next step. Despite being served from a box, the macaroni salad and coleslaw hit the spot and were served chilled. The soda was warm, so BYO ice—or even your own cup.
The ribs showed expertise on the grill, striking the perfect balance of crispy and juicy. They were articulately seasoned, cooked through and nowhere dry. Despite the barbecue's humble origins, this is no amateur operation. Somebody here knows what they're doing.