One Man Went Downtown Last Night Hoping to Talk to a Federal Officer. It Didn’t Go Well.

“In theory, the feds are here to ‘help’ quell the protests. I thought they might want to hear from a citizen.”

Flashbangs in downtown Portland on July 19, 2020. (Alex Wittwer)

Thomas Cobb works for an advertising agency and teaches design at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He's not much of a rabble-rouser and, until last night, had not attended any of the past two months' protests.

Cobb, 47, worked as a designer at WW from 1998 to 2007. But he went last night not as a journalist but just as a citizen, inspired by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who represented the state of Cobb's birth, to engage in constructive dialogue. Here is what he found, in a piece he first posted today on Facebook.

This is not normal.

I went to the protest last night, my first trip since the feds arrived, with an unusual goal: I wanted to speak with a federal officer.

In theory, the feds are here to "help" quell the protests. I thought they might want to hear from a citizen. Since Chad Wolf has not yet responded to my tweets, I decided an "in person" attempt might be best. I planned to put my hands in the air, walk slowly towards the doors of the Justice Center announcing my intent, then speak with some officers about their intervention here. "Do you have plans to deescalate this? Do you need help making one? What would you consider a viable outcome here?" Laughable, I know, the outsized confidence of an average middle-aged white man. Still, all of our elected and appointed leaders haven't been able to work something out, and it's not getting better. I love and fear for my city. What do I have to lose?

The doors are all covered in plywood, so I thought about knocking on them for a chance to talk, but I didn't want to alarm them. I think the federal officers must be frightened—they got shipped here from whatever their other jobs are, U.S.-Mexico customs, marshals, etc. Internal DHS documents state that they haven't had crowd control training. If your day job is hunting bad guys, then you suddenly have to defend a federal building against moms chanting, "Please don't shoot me!" and kids with umbrellas and leaf blowers, well, I wouldn't know what to do.

The front row of antifa protesters suggested that I not stand in between them and the doors—"the feds come out unannounced, throw tear gas and beat people." They seemed young to me (it's hard to tell) but were prepared with homemade shields, hockey sticks to knock back tear gas, gas masks left over from Vietnam. This seemed like good advice, so I went looking for another route. I will note that they were unfailingly polite.

I walked through the square. The protest was about what I expected: messy and rowdy for sure, but not more so than the anti-war protests back in 2001 and 2003. Socially distanced, nope. Angry, yes.

Thomas Cobb

I found the row of moms and spoke with an organizer about my plan to talk to an agent. She warned me against it. "Another guy tried this a couple of days ago. They just beat him. They don't talk, they just come out, throw tear gas and push people down or beat them, you can't talk to them."

Me: "Have the feds ever come out to just talk with protesters?"

Her: "No, not that I've seen."

This became my main question for everyone I met. No one had witnessed the feds actual speaking with protesters in the square. Just tear gassing, beating, brandishing weapons, and pulling people out of cars.

These do not strike me as the behaviors of a police force. They do not even seem like the behaviors of our military—aren't our military commanders in the Middle East supposed to have tea with the village chief, hand out candy to kids, win hearts and minds? Isn't that how we "win the peace"?

Perhaps I could get an introduction from someone friendlier? I walked to the Portland Police Bureau headquarters a block away. I had heard the PPB police union chief on the radio yesterday saying that DHS isn't coordinating with them. This seems scary to me, cops and feds, each on the street with military weapons and gas masks, not knowing what the other is doing? PPB is also plywooded over, so you can't see in the glass front door. But I saw people occasionally coming and going, so I thought I would give it a go. I walked up and knocked on the door.

No luck. I could see the guard inside. He could see me. I gave a little "I'm friendly" wave. Not having it.

I made my way back through the protest. More chanting, more singing. I tried to find something one might call a "riot." The closest thing I saw—a few protesters had climbed up on sculpture to lead a chant. Admittedly, I was only there for about an hour and a half but didn't see anything that rose to a level above "street fair" or "music festival," though with an angrier vibe.

I had decided to take another pass at PPB and had walked around the north side of the protest when I heard it: a cracking sound like a building had broken. I assume these are the crowd control munitions they are using. I saw some people running and came around the corner in time to see the feds marching out of the back of the Justice Center. Helmets, masks, guns, armor and an immense cloud of tear gas. They walked the opposite direction, and I decided to follow at a distance. Never said I was smart.

More cracking sounds. More people running. I didn't get far before my eyes and throat started to burn. While I had read a bit on tear gas prep, I didn't want to look like a target and intentionally wore only my regular glasses and face mask, as well as a bike helmet. I am a citizen, and should be able to walk downtown without special respiratory equipment. I had to get a block away before the tear gas abated enough to breathe.

At this point, I was about two blocks east of the protest, but couldn't come any closer because of the tear gas. Other, non-protest-y things were happening on this street. People were going in and out of their condo. Someone was walking their dog. I saw some folks who didn't seem to get the memo start up the street then turn and walk quickly away. Clearly, one could get gassed just by living, working, walking or biking here.

I had to walk back toward the protest because I had found a sweet parking spot (#blesssed) just a block away from the Justice Center, but the gas was still wafting towards me, so I circled a block south and headed west again.

This was when I got my moment.

There was a man, all in black, with a gun at the end of the block.

I put my hands up meekly and walked towards him. I couldn't tell if he was police, feds, or a protester at first, then I saw "less lethal" on his gun and decided he must be official.

"Are you an officer? Police or fed?" I asked.

He looked at me but didn't say anything.

He had an immense gas mask, like super sci-fi. I wondered if he could even hear me.

I wanted to ask if the police or feds had a plan to deescalate the situation.

"Is it safe to go this way?" I asked

No words, but he stepped away back towards the PPB headquarters. I took this as him giving me some room to move.

I took some tentative steps down the sidewalk, then slowly made it back to the car.

I can't tell you how disturbing this all is.

At this protest, the only people who demonstrated any concern for my safety, a clueless noob, were protesters and the dreaded antifa army. The police could not be bothered, and the feds had no avenue to communicate with them. Does this seem upside-down to you?

We are not at war. We are a city that is protesting. IMHO, when you react to a protest ABOUT POLICE VIOLENCE with some real NEXT-LEVEL POLICE VIOLENCE then you create a vicious cycle.

If Homeland Security truly wants to protect our homeland, my suggestion would be that they leave. The protest has grown 10 times since they arrived. We should be aware of intents as well as OUTCOMES. And if the best way to do your job is to not be there, it might be time for some reflection.

We don't need flash bombs, tear gas, and soldiers hunting people through our streets. WE ARE CITIZENS. Our ancestors fought a revolution against just this very thing.

The current situation is fragile and will not hold. If someone is killed, then this gets worse on all sides.

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