Reaction to Protesters Setting Multnomah County Headquarters on Fire May Signal a Shift

Officials sympathetic to the nightly expressions of civil disobedience are unhappy now.

Small fires set inside buildings have been a recurring part of Portland protests since May, 30, 2020, when this blaze was set in a downtown office. (Wesley Lapointe)

Protesters who lit a small fire inside the Multnomah County headquarters building at 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd. on Tuesday night drew a unified condemnation from local leaders, a signal that Portland-area officials' patience with property destruction is wearing thin.

Those who broke into the building and ignited curtains in an office drew a fairly predictable response from Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, who keeps an office in the building.

“The unprovoked actions by those who engaged in criminal behavior is reprehensible,” Reese said in a statement. “It is simply violence and serves no legitimate purpose. It does nothing to solve the issues our community faces.”

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell expressed similar sentiments, as did his boss, Mayor Ted Wheeler. "I continue to support and encourage demonstrations calling for racial justice and police reform," Wheeler said in a statement. "[But] I condemn the criminal destruction that occurred last night at the Multnomah County Building."

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, whose office is on the sixth floor of the building, didn't mince words.

"The Multnomah County Building, the headquarters for the largest safety net provider in Oregon, was vandalized and set on fire," Kafoury said.

She went on to note that her agency, which is in charge of delivering services to the most vulnerable members of the community, should not be a target for destruction.

"The lobby where the first same-sex marriage in Oregon took place, and where millions of pieces of personal protective equipment are being distributed to help our community battle COVID-19, was damaged," Kafoury said.

"I acknowledge that there is grave injustice in our world and there is a violent and tragic history of oppression in our county. I am committed to transformational change. And I ask the community to work with us: Support the critical work we do every day leading the public health response to COVID-19, providing thousands of meals to families in need, answering mental health crisis calls, and serving those experiencing domestic violence."

As the protests near three months in duration, the question of whether local and state leaders will find a way to defuse conflict and present policy options that will result in positive change is becoming increasing urgent.

Kafoury was not the only leader who issued a statement suggesting protesters crossed a line last night.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who won a landslide victory in the May primary for his platform of criminal justice reform, has shown himself since taking office Aug. 1 to be highly sympathetic to protesters, affirmatively dismissing charges against most protesters arrested by Portland police.

But Schmidt took a different stance on last night's actions.

"The violent and intentional criminal behavior that occurred at the Multnomah Building is the antithesis to the work Multnomah County and its dedicated and diverse staff are doing daily to uplift, support and improve our community," Schmidt said in a statement. "The people working in the Multnomah Building serve a critical mission to the county's response to the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to adversely impact marginalized communities. Breaking out windows, setting fires, and committing assaults will not bring the much-needed reform we need."

"I join Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and others in working with our community to bring about transformational change. I continue to condemn this violence. As Sheriff Reese said, it has no legitimate purpose. This destructive and illegal behavior needs to stop."

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