Into the Gas: Night After Night, Portlanders Confront Trump’s Violent Police in Downtown. It Feels Like a Party, and the End of the World.

“It’s a society being built,” says Mac Smiff, a Portland-based activist. “We’re not holding our city hostage. We’re saying we are the city.”

A protester dances and leads chants from the center of a drum circle on SW 3rd and Main, just outside the Federal Courthouse, on July 25. (Alex Wittwer)

On Saturday night at 10 pm, a woman in her 20s, dressed head to toe in black, sat on the tailgate of a white truck parked at the corner of Southwest Main Street and 4th Avenue. She was waiting for tear gas.

The "Breonna Taylor Memorial Medical Utility Vehicle"—named for a Black emergency medical technician killed by Louisville, Ky., police earlier this year—is a do-it-yourself M*A*S*H unit on wheels, built in the back of a used truck by a collective of Portland nurses and EMTs, and equipped with a gurney, a defibrillator, helmets and bottles of saline solution.

The young woman sitting on the tailgate went by the name "K." A nurse at a Portland hospital, she started going to the protests recently to aid the injured.

She says she watched federal officers use tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators in downtown Portland for several nights and feared that if someone were severely wounded, an ambulance couldn't reach the scene in time. K and her colleagues decided to start a mobile clinic that could park at the edge of protests so they could render aid to those injured within minutes and, if necessary, drive them quickly to a nearby hospital or ambulance.

A medic waits in the back of the Breonna Taylor Memorial Medical Utility Vehicle. (Alex Wittwer)

So she sat in the parked truck on the northwest corner of Southwest 4th Avenue and Main Street and waited. She said the feds would fire the first round of tear gas like clockwork: 11 pm on the weekends, followed by a second round at 1 am.

That night, the call for help was right on schedule—10:58 pm.

"We need an ambulance!" said a street medic sprinting out of the crowd and yelling toward the collective of volunteers. "A mom got shot. It's more than we can handle."

The mom—one from the "Wall of Moms," who assemble at dusk—bled from a puncture in her face. That's where she'd been shot with a munition, the medics later said. A handful of them hopped into a dark blue van and drove south to find her.

Minutes later, 15 protesters staggered toward K and the MUV, tears streaming out of their puffy, red eyes. They had arrived from the front lines of a protest along the fence of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse two blocks from where K was parked when they were blasted with a cloud of CS gas.

The medics, identifiable by a cross of red duct tape on their backs, held Arrowhead water bottles with squirt-top lids high above their helmeted heads and squirted water directly into each protester's eyes. (The full force of the pressure is necessary to flush out CS gas, K said.) After being doused, the protesters thanked the medics, water streaming down their faces as if they had just been baptized.

"They didn't teach us about being in combat zones," K said of nursing school.

“Its a beautiful struggle” says Tavis Greenwood, draped in an American flag, as he walks past a wall of tear gas while recording on the front lines. (Alex Wittwer)

K is just one of thousands of people who return at nightfall to three square blocks in downtown Portland.

For the past 60 days, protesters gathered along 3rd Avenue to demonstrate against systemic racism in the criminal justice system. By late June, those protests dwindled to a few hundred demonstrators each night.

Then, in early July, President Trump sent his police force to Portland.

That deployment reawakened Portland's protests in a way no other city in the nation has experienced. On July 11, a federal officer sent a protester to the hospital with a fractured skull, and four days later video surfaced of agents snatching two people off the streets into unmarked rental vans. Today, thousands gather each night along the west face of the federal courthouse—chanting, singing and launching fireworks at the building.

Portland is now a national symbol. Depending on which media you consult, it's an example of liberal defiance, a laboratory of authoritarianism or a carnival of anarchists allowed to run amok.

Nicholas Kristoff, two-time Pulitzer prize winning journalist from the New York Times, takes a break along a tree to send out a tweet. (Alex Wittwer)

And there's plenty of media: Camera crews from CNN arrived last week, and nearly every freelance photographer in this city is now contracted to a national outlet to document the chaos. A new street celebrity emerges nightly: a naked woman doing yoga poses along police lines, a Navy veteran walloped with batons, pot-bellied grandfathers toting leaf blowers to blast tear gas clouds back at the officers.

The mayor was tear gassed last Wednesday. The irony was not lost on protesters, who've nicknamed him "Tear Gas Teddy" as the commissioner who oversees the city's own gas-happy Police Bureau.

By July 25, protests erupted nationwide, from Seattle to Texas, as demonstrators expressed solidarity with the people of Portland.

But what's happening in Portland is not merely a spectacle. It is also a place.

"It's a society being built," says Mac Smiff, a Portland-based activist and writer who has attended the protests since late May. "We're not holding our city hostage. We're saying we are the city."

A stitched panorama showing a crowd outside the Justice Center as speakers give testimony, hype up the crowd on July 24, 2020. (Alex Wittwer)

To understand what's really happening in Portland, we entered a world that recurs each night in Chapman and Lownsdale squares.

In this world, people come dressed as Santa Claus or a medieval knight. One woman arrives topless, another wears the pelt of a bear. Dissenting lawyers arrive wearing suits; nurses show up in hospital scrubs. People make shields out of whatever they have at home: the lids of storage bins, plastic barrels cut in half, a framed poster of the United States Constitution.

It's a world where CS gas is so thick that, amid its hazy fog, it can be impossible to distinguish silhouetted riot cops from protesters clad in helmets. In this world, food is free and so is medical care. Protesters call each other "comrade" and "friend" and forget new people's names easily because it's hard to remember anyone when everyone's faces are covered with masks and goggles.

In our four nights here, we found few people willing to speak on the record. Most of them fear retaliation from the feds. It proved hard to get somebody to describe how they sawed a hole in the fence or tossed a bottle at a riot cop, even if they consider such acts to be civil disobedience.

But there is a discernible rhythm here, even a ritual. And each night unfolds in nearly the same way, with three acts so precise in their timing you could practically set your watch by them.

Between the tear gas and rubber bullets, there are often moments of joy and compassion, when strangers lend each other masks and goggles. Those who talk about what they're feeling describe a sense of purpose, even peace.

"[It's] a place I can be my most authentic self," said a protester named Joey, who declined to share his last name.

Sporting a blue L.A. Dodgers cap, Joey sat on a park bench in Lownsdale Square on the evening of July 24. It was his second night at protests. He had recently arrived in Portland from Arizona.

"I just moved here from a place that is definitely not as liberal and is harsher [toward me] as a Black man," Joey said. "When you get to the energy out here, the things they're chanting, it makes me emotional, it makes me feel wanted and appreciated and respected. It makes me feel like, for the first time in my life, I matter more than just physically."

The parks have become a world that, to some of the people in it, feels better than the one that existed before. One man described it as a “sanctuary.” (Alex Wittwer)


You know you're close to the protest when you smell the spray paint.

You hear the hissing sound emanating from the can, followed by the metallic rattle of the ball shaking inside of it as someone tags "FTP" (fuck the police) on the wall of a nearby shuttered business.

Continue through downtown and you'll see vendors selling $15 T-shirts that bear the slogan "Black Lives Matter" or an artist's rendering of George Floyd. You inhale the earthy scent of a sage smudge stick burning and feel the percussion from a nearby drum circle, where some of the drums are decorated with the phrase "This machine kills fascists." You taste smoke: A dozen propane grills sear burgers at the all-you-can-eat, pay-what-you-can street barbecue, Riot Ribs.

This zone, where nearly all the action occurs, covers three square blocks: between Southwest Taylor and Madison streets and 3rd and 4th avenues. In the early evening hours, these blocks don't feel like a protest. They feel like a street fair, or a low-budget Bumbershoot.

As the summer temperature reaches its highest point, near 6 pm most nights, dozens gather on the grassy lawns of Chapman and Lownsdale squares, where white people with dreadlocks lie outside tents they erected and smoke weed—a display of hippiedom so on the nose it almost looks like a parody of itself. People offer each other joints, beer, sandwiches and fresh-cut roses in shades of pink and red.

A navy veteran, right, holds a discussion with another protest attendee in a circle of chairs, meant as a meeting place for discussion. (Alex Wittwer)

Music from surrounding speakers clashes with other boomboxes. Some people dance as the orange evening sun reflects off the 16-story, ivory façade of the federal courthouse looming over the park like a watchtower.

"Occupy Portland was exactly like this," says Andrew Simmons, a protester who says he's demonstrated in Portland since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The Occupy protests set up camp in the same parks in 2011, protesting economic inequality for 39 days. The main difference: "It feels like people are more fed up," Simmons says. "There's a lot more people from the suburbs coming and parents coming."

His mom showed up. "She took four [rounds of tear gas]," Simmons says. "Ted Wheeler took one. I was like, all right, if my 60-year-old mom can take three or four, you can take one."

Protesters gather each evening in parks opposite the downtown courthouses. They bring hockey sticks and tennis rackets to swat tear gas canisters back over the fence. There’s a marching band, and a lone trumpet player. On one street corner, an artist sets up an easel each night and works on an oil painting of the crowd trying to tear down the courthouse fence. (Alex Wittwer)

On July 24, along 4th Avenue, a man named Pablo stood next to a van so completely covered with Black Lives Matter art and slogans that a KATU-TV reporter erroneously tweeted that the vehicle had been tagged by vandals.

With green hair and a smile that invites strangers to strike up a conversation with him, Pablo is one of the volunteers with the Black Lives Matter snack van, which has shelves on its side filled with Clif Bars, water bottles and apples—all donated—for protesters to take free of charge.

"It's impossible to be upset while you're eating food," he says. "It's unity amongst us."

Pablo is part of an ecosystem of support that has emerged at the Portland protests. It's a fragile infrastructure. (On July 27, Riot Ribs dissolved, amid a bitter dispute over donations.) Pablo says he's witnessed police target the protesters' food supplies with tear gas.

"It's been very upsetting how some nights we've been doing nothing and they still call it an unlawful assembly," Pablo says. "Yes, I understand there are people here causing [the police] to be stressed out and be upset. But it's like hey, what about if your son or daughter were here? What about if you were on the opposite side and people were doing that to you? Especially with the CS gas. That stuff is no joke."

A vendor’s table with T-Shirts. The vendor leaves behind a burger from Riot Ribs on July 25. (Alex Wittwer)

As the sun sets, the mood changes. Yellow-clad moms arrive, arms linked. Black Lives Matter organizers give speeches about Ted Wheeler's hypocrisy and Donald Trump's tyranny. The speakers outline specific demands: Defund the Portland Police Bureau by 50%, free all protesters from jail and drop all charges, oust the feds from Portland, and have Wheeler resign.

Parents shepherd children younger than 12 into the crowd to listen to speeches. "We're only staying for 10 minutes," one mother remarks to her two young daughters.

Those children head home, and they are replaced by protesters wearing all black and carrying gas masks.

Some walk to the 7-Eleven at 4th and Taylor on the north perimeter of the protest area. It's one of the only businesses still operating in the zone.

View of 7-11 on July 25. (Alex Wittwer)

Under the fluorescent lighting, protesters clad in helmets, goggles and military-grade gas masks buy Truly Hard Seltzer and Snickers bars—fuel for the night. One person asks the clerk if the store sells Tide to Go stain remover pens.

Outside the 7-Eleven, dozens gather. It's unclear who's a part of the protest and who's outside simply to socialize on a weekend night. A man on a pedicab carrying a speaker blasts N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police." Commercial-grade fireworks from two blocks away can be heard exploding and reverberating off the federal courthouse. People outside the 7-Eleven cheer. Someone begins playing "Fuck Donald Trump" by YG and Nipsey Hussle on a stereo.

"You look like you're ready for war," one protester says jokingly to another as they leave the store.

On one street corner, an artist sets up an easel each night and works on an oil painting of the crowd trying to tear down the courthouse fence. (Alex Wittwer)


At about 10 pm every night, the standoff begins. The protest venue shifts a block north—from the county courthouse to the federal one.

Protesters gather around the $200,000, 8-foot black metal fence erected July 22 around the building. Swaths of people chant, "Feds go home!" as they sway the fence back and forth in an attempt to push it down. A nearby drum circle intensifies its pace.

On varying nights, some protesters manage to climb over the fence and unlock it from the inside, while others attempt to use power tools to open it from the outside. People along the fence throw water bottles, apples and glass toward the building's covered portico. People unleash a stream of commercial-grade fireworks against the building, where multiple windows appear fractured but still intact from the explosions. (Federal agents say in court records that the damage totals nearly $50,000, a relatively paltry sum given how many fireworks are launched.)

Fireworks erupt between the Justice Center and the federal courthouse. (Alex Wittwer)

The protesters surrounding the fence can be difficult to identify, mainly because they are covered in helmets, balaclavas, respirators or full-on gas masks reminiscent of those worn to ward off mustard gas during World War I.

On the night of July 22, one white man arrived carrying a round cake with yellow frosting, still in its plastic packaging from Fred Meyer, including its price tag: $4.49. He said his goal was to throw it at one of the federal agents. Twenty minutes later, he told WW that the attempt was a flop: He lobbed the cake, but it barely made it over the fence before splattering on the concrete.

But not all was lost: His friend had successfully launched a raw egg at one of the federal agents. "I got the SWAT guy with an egg, though," the friend said, excited.

The difference in firepower is significant, even ridiculous: One side brings pool noodles and umbrellas to use as shields, while the other has tear gas, rubber bullets and the legal authority to make arrests. Federal agents have inflicted traumatic head wounds to multiple protesters.

But it is also true that some of the people who gather at the fence want to damage this property—both as a symbol of a criminal justice system they believe is corrupt beyond repair, and as a home base for the police who have injured their friends. Every night is an attack run on Trump's police state.

A worker repairs damage to the fence outside the Federal Courthouse on July 25. He replaces a weld at a section that a protester had damaged using a circular saw. (Alex Wittwer)

Other protesters, even those who don't come to deface federal property, say they don't mind the vandalism.

"I don't really believe in the concept of peaceful protests for justice. When you're fighting for justice, you're fighting for peace," Smiff says. "If someone shoots a firework at the Justice Center, it's not going to set the Justice Center on fire. It's a concrete building. It's graffiti and burn marks on the sides of buildings. That's not violence. It should not warrant the response of physical violence."

But it will.

A firework explodes against the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse as protesters anticipate federal force. (Alex Wittwer)


Each night builds toward the same cinematic climax: tear gas.

Provoking the feds until they deploy gas has become a ritual. (The officers have also deployed it without warning or any apparent provocation.) In some ways, gas proves the protesters' point, which is that the federal agents can't maintain control over a crowd without escalating to violence and injuring people.

And, in truth: The anticipation of tear gas is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. It's the single image that the nation is watching, and you're in the center of it.

"There's definitely a strange phenomenon of, 'I got to get down there before they start gassing,'" Smiff says. "People want to say, 'I was there. I was on the right side of history. I ate tear gas for freedom.' [The cops] beat us half to death, and then they get confused because we get nostalgic over our war wounds.…This is American energy."

Each night, events lead up to a moment of release—the cloud of gas. Tensions rise and fall as protesters throw fireworks, light small bonfires and shine lasers at the courthouse. A massive firework—the commercial-grade kind purchased in Washington state—will explode in front of the building. Then everyone waits.

"Can we not with the fireworks? Holy shit," a medic says after a particularly loud firework detonates. "It's gonna happen soon."

Protesters hold their hands up as FPS begins gassing the streets outside the federal courthouse. (Alex Wittwer)

Minutes later, it happens. Federal agents throw smoke bombs over the fence. (Sometimes the feds deploy munitions from inside the doors of the courthouse; other times they walk completely outside.) Many protesters walk backward slowly.

Then it's a flurry of action: Feds deploy munitions and protesters fling them back over the fence. An officer shoots pepper spray through the fence directly at a protester's face, a stream so thick it looks like Silly String. Protesters then continue to set off fireworks, which explode feet away from federal agents. At around 1 am on July 26, the feds decided they were done with the back-and-forth.

It takes a split second to realize you've inhaled CS gas.

It reeks of burnt, spicy plastic. It infiltrates your respiratory system immediately and so completely that eyes, nose, throat and skin all burn. The searing pain—worse than eating a spoonful of wasabi—induces panic, making you gulp for air. But the air you gulp is also saturated with gas, producing more panic.

You are also probably running away from police and out of the gas cloud, making breathing nearly impossible. All the while, you can barely see anything. CS gas isn't just painful. It's completely disorienting and panic-inducing. It makes people choke for simply breathing, and choke harder when they try to catch their breath. At times it feels as if there's no escape.

Protesters use leaf blowers to blast away clouds of gas. (Alex Wittwer)

"If someone has asthma or is immunocompromised and they get tear gassed, there's precious little we can do," says Raviv Hileman, a medic from Seattle who tended to protesters in Portland on July 25. "All we can do is get them the hell out of here and get them to a hospital as fast as possible and hope it's fast enough."

Early Sunday morning, Hileman and other medics slowly drove their vans along with the people fleeing police.

Federal officers exited their pen in front of the courthouse and began marshaling protesters west. The Breonna Taylor Memorial MUV, operated by K and other medics, crept slowly up the hill alongside the crowd. A medic inside the vehicle stood on the edge of the truck and squirted water into a protester's eyes. Tear gas hung heavy in the air, and the red and blue lights from police vehicles reflected in the thick fog as people coughed heavily.

Organizers tried to keep people from panicking: "Walk, don't run," they chanted. At the same time, people caught in the back of the crowd yelled for everyone to hurry up so they wouldn't get trampled by police.

A drummer beats out a rhythm as tear gas pours out from the federal courthouse. (Alex Wittwer)

One medic turned and yelled at the Breonna Taylor Memorial Medical Utility Vehicle, because an injured protester needed medical attention immediately: "MUV, slow down!"

The medic was helping a protester who had been shot by a munition between her eyes. There was blood all over her face, one medic told another. They eventually got her into the back of the truck. They shut the doors and drove her away.

The group of medics who aided the injured woman gathered in a circle on the sidewalk. They were silent. The din of the police loudspeaker faded in the distance, along with the footsteps of retreating protesters.

"Are you OK?" one medic asked another, who was visibly upset.

"I'm fine," she responded. "Just a little shaken up."

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