A Cadre of Helmeted Guerrilla Filmmakers Is Coming to You Live From Portland’s Flaming Streets

Amid a heated atmosphere, two different storylines compete for Portlanders’ acceptance. Both are driven by video footage.

9:05 pm Sept. 5

Southeast Stark Street, just west of 117th Avenue

Justin Yau's first rule of filming protests: Stay on the sidewalk.

As a throng of black-clad demonstrators chants "All cops are bastards!" in the middle of a Portland street, Yau walks to the front and plants himself close to the line of police officers in riot helmets—but off to the side. That way, when police charge into the crowd, the cops will gallop past him and he can amble in behind them to get footage of the arrests.

On this night—the 100th consecutive evening of Portland protests, a crisp and cloudless Saturday—Yau has company.

At least 50 people line Stark Street with cameras: cellphones, GoPros, telephoto lenses, even a shoulder-mounted camcorder. Many wear helmets with stickers reading "PRESS" in capital letters, flanking the road like sports photographers on the sidelines of a football game.

They're watching a crowd of protesters cascade out of Ventura Park, headed to the Portland Police Bureau's East Precinct. A police line blocks the road and a loudspeaker announces protesters will not be allowed to pass. Yau and observers wait to film whatever happens next.

A gaggle of journalists awaits a confrontation between police and protesters on Southeast Stark Street on Sept. 5.(Alex Wittwer)

As he nudges his way to the front, Yau eyes with disapproval a man who has written "Press" on a shield built from half of a plastic garbage can. This guy stands with the camera corps, but he's blurring the distinction between reporter and protester: Police assume people with shields are looking for a physical confrontation. "Press with shields?" Yau says. "That's totally not bueno."

It's the last thing he says before two men catch fire.

It's 9:15 and someone from the crowd of protesters has hurled a Molotov cocktail toward the spot where police meet demonstrators. It hits the pavement about 10 feet short of police lines and explodes in a fireball. The ignited gasoline leaps onto the legs of two people standing in the street; suddenly both men are high-stepping in terror, trying to shake the flames from their shoes and pants.

The next 90 seconds are manic, berserk. Protesters launch a fusillade of small pellets that clatter at the cops' feet like marbles. "This has been declared a riot!" the police loudspeaker suddenly booms. Two more Molotov cocktails erupt, creating lakes of fire on the blacktop. An officer tosses a munition into the road; it detonates in a starburst 20 feet high. The police line advances east on the protesters, weapons up, and people stumble past Eastgate Bible Chapel in a panic, coughing into their face masks as tear gas canisters marinate the air.

Yau pulls a gas mask over his head. He jogs alongside the police, looking unperturbed, holding his Android phone horizontal to capture the spectacle.

The video Yau later posts to Twitter, captioned "Three petrol bombs have just been thrown," gets shared more than a thousand times in the next 24 hours. Other footage of the Molotov cocktails travels farther: Cable news networks purchase rights to air some of the videos, while others are shared by social media accounts with followers in the five digits. President Donald Trump shares a clip the next morning, commenting, "These are the Democrats 'peaceful protests.' Sick!"

Even as this footage flies onto phones and laptops across the country, protesters regroup at the next intersection, build a barricade from wooden pallets, blue recycling bins and a metal dumpster, then set it ablaze.

The scene raises alarming questions: How did Portland come to this? What violence will arrive next? How do we get out?

Yau gazes west down Stark Street, looking at where the men were set on fire, and repeats his rule: "That's why you stay on the sidewalk."

Justin Yau (documents chaos outside Ventura Park in outer Southeast Portland. (Alex Wittwer)

Portland has never seen anything like the past 100 days of protests.

The crowds have now dwindled from the thousands who faced off with federal officers outside downtown courthouses in July, but what the confrontations lack in numbers they make up in ferocity. Both police and protesters seem prepared to make each encounter so intolerable that the other side has no choice but to abandon the fight.

That is certainly a goal of some of the demonstrators. "We will go home when you go home and don't come back," organizer Mac Smiff told police officers at a demonstration last weekend. "We will not stop. And you will be fired."

Amid this atmosphere, two different storylines compete for Portlanders' acceptance.

The first is that police officers are battering the citizens they're charged to protect, and elected officials have an obligation to yield to protesters' demands and cut the bureau's funding.

The other is that the protests have lost sight of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and devolved into anarchy, and city leaders must either persuade rioters to go home, or arrest and jail them until their will is broken.

Protrsters erect a flaming barricade at the intersection of Southeast 117th Avenue and Stark Street. (Alex Wittwer)

These dueling narratives are irreconcilable. They cannot co-exist peacefully, any more than the protesters and police can.

And both are driven by video footage.

Decades before most of the people in Portland's streets were born, academic Marshall McLuhan coined a phrase: "The medium is the message." That is, the way in which people receive information is just as important as its content.

The way Americans learn about clashes at Portland protests is from videos—delivered to their phones within minutes of each conflict. And no medium is so well suited to heightening outrage.

A single video can unleash a tsunami of indignation and reshape a city's politics. That can be a force for reform: The national uprising against police brutality began with footage of an officer killing George Floyd. But it can also work in the other direction.

Anyone with a Wi-Fi signal can scroll through the most shocking incidents in Portland's streets the way basketball fans watch game highlights. And like fans, people on both ends of the political spectrum can pick the feeds that favor their team.

Trumpet Man outside of East Precinct speaks about his experience growing up in a conservative household, and breaking away from those values. His hat reads “Make American Great For Once.”(Alex Wittwer)

In the past month alone, one video showed a Portland police officer tackling a protester and repeatedly punching him in the face, while another portrayed a Black man who frequented downtown protests kicking a white man in the head. Both images were horrifying—and public relations disasters for the sides responsible for the violence.

"Citizen journalists are a really valuable piece of a democratic society. We're better off in the world with a lot of cameras out there," says Dr. Jack Miller, a professor of political science at Portland State University, who studies political outrage. "But the kind of dueling political theater that we're witnessing in viral videos can have the effect of squeezing out important voices of people who aren't outraged. People who don't feel like they fit into the enemy camps will probably vote, but they won't get politically engaged in any more visible way."

Established news organizations provide some of this footage. But just as much of it is shared by people with a Twitter feed and a political agenda—which is often to show their adversaries at their worst.

Politicians know the power footage has in the coming election.

"I know it's infuriating to people," Mayor Ted Wheeler told The Oregonian this week. "People send me a video. For example, there's one that's gone around the world three times in the last few days of an officer punching a demonstrator repeatedly. There's another one of an officer hitting somebody over the head with a stick. And people say, well, why aren't you speaking out against this?"

Exceptional coverage of protests has made Sergio Olmos arguably the dean of Portland street reporters. (Alex Wittwer)

On Aug. 11, President Trump urged his supporters to watch videos of Portland protesters. "These acts of destruction are not isolated incidents," he said, "but demonstrate the pattern of violent, left-wing extremism that you get to see if you're watching the right news program."

The role of independent videographers reached even greater prominence Aug. 29, when anti-fascist protester Michael Reinoehl shot to death Trump supporter Aaron J. Danielson outside a Portland parking garage. One livestreamer caught the killing on camera. Days later, Reinoehl gave his confession (claiming self-defense) to a freelance journalist he recognized from protest coverage. The interview aired on cable television Sept. 3, in the same hour a federal task force killed Reinoehl.

Drawn by the prospect of unhinged political violence, people with cameras now fly across the country to attend Portland protests. In a weekend among the protest press, WW met a photographer from Buffalo, N.Y., a livestreaming collective from Seattle, and a conservative media star from Salt Lake City.

The scene is dizzying—not least to the independent reporters who have been filming protests since the uprising began.

Justin Yau (center) shows a video on his phone to members of the press, including Nathan Howard, Alissa Azar, and Sergio Olmos. (Alex Wittwer)

Some of them have been in the streets six nights a week for three months. Over the past two nights, this reporter joined their ranks.

The videographers we met are exhausted, bruised and constantly anxious. But they're also proud of their work, because they see it as capturing a pivotal moment in the nation's history—and perhaps shaping it.

"My focus isn't on the violence," Yau says. "The violence is there and I think I have an obligation to capture it. Viral videos are what get people talking about Portland. It's what starts the conversation. I'm interested in humans."

A line of riot police tears down a flaming barricade to pursue protesters on Stark Street. (Alex Wittwer)

10:30 pm Sept. 5

Southeast Stark Street and 117th Avenue

Filming protests requires some physical courage, but mostly composure. Ninety percent of the work is anticipating violence, and the rest is bedlam.

The flaming barricades blocking Stark Street don't last long. Police wheel the blue bins aside and sprint into the crowd, tossing protesters to the pavement as they make arrests. They will arrest 59 people tonight, a new record for one event.

It's striking just how quickly 400 people can vanish into outer Southeast Portland's car lots and gravel roads. For the next hour, Justin Yau trudges up and down Stark Street, trying to track the protesters. He finds only onlookers who came outside to see the show: Russian families huddled at the entrance of their apartment complex, a shouting woman leaning out the second-story window of a cigarette shop, and a pack of surly white teens who serenade him with the chant "Fake news! Fake news!"

Yau's temperament is well-matched to these hassles. A 30-year-old Army veteran, he is contemplative, easygoing; other press and protesters gravitate toward him because he seems to know what he's doing. The one giveaway of his nerves: a Camel Blue habit, indulged whenever the tear gas drifts off.

Justin Yau in Ventura Park. (Alex Wittwer)

The munitions don't frighten him; for a while, he wore earplugs but eventually found he no longer needed them. He can swiftly list what does scare him: "Arrests. Pipe bombs. A right-winger with a gun. A left-winger with a gun."

The work can be lucrative—TV networks sometimes pay $250 for 40 seconds of footage—but Yau says that's not why he does it. On May 30, he started tweeting videos of protests under the handle @PDocumentarians because he felt like something historic was underway in the wake of George Floyd's killing.

"When the guy shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he didn't know he started World War I," Yau says, still wandering residential streets in search of the protest march. "So I don't know either. But I'd like to be there when it happens. And I want to document it to the best of my ability."

Yau withholds judgment on a lot of what he sees at protests. But he admits a twinge of disdain for the livestreamers he sees jawing at cops.

"I'm just an asshole with a camera," he says. "But I don't talk shit to the police. I try to stay out of their way."

Police pushed protesters back to make way for firefighters to extinguish the mattress fire. Alissa Azar (left) records the interaction. (Alex Wittwer)

Not that it always helps. On July 1, Yau was in North Portland filming an impending arrest—on the sidewalk, he notes—when a Portland police officer tackled him. He was hauled off in a van and charged with felony riot and interfering with a peace officer. (The charges were later dropped.)

Several reporters have been arrested at Portland protests this summer. Almost all have been freelancers taking video. That could be because police don't like having a camera on their actions. Or it might stem from the close proximity required to get good footage, and the fact that most independent videographers resemble protesters more than they do a CNN camera crew.

Yau takes his arrest personally. Discussing it, he sounds wounded.

"I don't think I was rioting. I don't riot," he says. "The hardest part was calling and telling my parents."

12:30 am Sept. 5

North Lombard Street

For Alissa Azar, filming police protects protesters.

She's among a squad of reporters standing in a 7-Eleven parking lot to compare photos of bloodstains over convenience-store pizza slices.

The 7-Eleven has the mixed fortune of sitting across Lombard from the headquarters of the Portland Police Association. Every week or so, that provides the store with an expanded customer base, which arrives to jeer at the union hall. But it also means riot cops sometimes deploy stun grenades and tear gas outside—and zip-tie the hands of screaming protesters lying in the parking spaces. Shortly after midnight, cops just did all three.

One arrest was especially awful: A woman skidded across the concrete forehead first. Blood poured down her face as police pulled her away from the crowd.

Minutes later, the same stretch of pavement—freshly washed—is a de facto press room for a journalism association called the PNW Press Corps.

"Did you get a shot of the blood?" asks a tiny woman named Melissa "Claudio" Lewis.

"Yeah, I got the blood," says Jacob Hanning, a large man with a larger mustache. "And a shot of a cop trying to hide the blood."

"Oh, nice!"

Nearby, a woman dressed head to toe in black speaks in a soft voice. She got the same shots, she says—but she did one better. She also filmed the injured lady being dragged away, leaving a smear of red across the parking lot.

This is Azar. In May, she was a data analyst. Now she livestreams protests to nearly 18,000 social media followers each night under the handle @R3volutionDaddy. She suspects her audience is mostly protesters and their allies. "Maybe it went from protesters in Portland to protesters around the country," she says.

A Syrian American, Azar, 29, wears a black vest with "press" written in both English and Arabic. Other than that flourish, she blends seamlessly into the black bloc—a term used for the anti-fascist tactic of a crowd dressing in identical monochrome and masks.

Alissa Azar spends most nights looking for police brutality. She believes documenting it will prevent further abuse. (Alex Wittwer)

Like Yau, her favored technique is hanging to the side of an impending conflict. She likes to select one police officer who's about to charge into a crowd, then follow behind to see if he'll hit someone.

"I try to keep my eye on the arrests, the beating of people," Azar says. "A lot of these incidents, if you told people what they're doing, there's no way in hell they would believe you."

Azar describes her videos as a form of aid to protesters. Her relationship with demonstrators is "protecting them with my camera." If she weren't filming the police, she believes, officers would commit greater brutality. For all their gallows humor, the members of the PNW Press Corps view themselves the same way: as guardians.

Across Lombard Street, protesters squeeze rubber squeaky toys in the shape of pink pigs. Every time the police loudspeaker issues an announcement, a boombox drowns it out by blasting the Human Beinz's 1968 single "Nobody but Me." Two men have climbed atop the roof of Heavenly Donuts, and it's not clear what they're doing up there.

Alissa Azar records a mattress fire outside of North Precinct. (Alex Wittwer)

Azar rarely films protesters' faces, except when they're being arrested. She doesn't film people engaged in "direct actions"—that is, spraying graffiti or setting dumpster fires. She says such footage would eventually wind up in the possession of police or right-wing demonstrators who would use it to harass people online.

That decision doesn't square easily with the journalistic ideal of presenting all the actions of people you cover, however unflattering. To further complicate matters, some of the more radical protesters have threatened to smash the equipment of those who do film faces.

Some of the videographers contend that filming everything protesters do would make them little more than unpaid police informants on their own sources, and that their primary responsibility is to hold public agencies accountable. But it's hardly a universal position: Other videographers say their duty is to broadcast all newsworthy events, even if that sends somebody to jail. And lately, conservative activists have appeared in the press ranks, making Portland part of a circuit they travel to expose the excesses of leftist demonstrators.

Tonight, Portland police and Oregon state troopers let little excess occur. They use tear gas to clear the intersection and dash into the crowd to pluck people out. (They'll charge most of the 28 people they arrest with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.)

Azar sits on the curb after the last charge of the police line. She's finding police strategy increasingly difficult to predict. "That was just so aggressive in so many ways," she says. "I'm having such a bad time tonight, getting a feel."

"Can't be having a bad time, bro," says a passing protester. "It's the revolution."

A Molotov cocktail adds to chaos outside Ventura Park in outer Southeast Portland. (Alex Wittwer)

6:05 pm Sept. 7

Southwest 3rd Avenue and Main Street

Ryan Skut wants one more shot.

As smoke from the Opal Creek wildfire blankets Portland, Skut stands outside the Multnomah County Justice Center with a camera, waiting to see if the Proud Boys will show up.

Skut, a commercial photographer, has regularly joined Portland protests. But for the past weekend, he's been on assignment for a European magazine that wants shots. This evening, Skut went to work with his left calf wrapped in bandages over a slathering of Neosporin.

That's because he was one of the men hit with the Molotov cocktail two nights earlier, on Sept. 5.

He was taking photos in the middle of Southeast Stark Street when the petrol bomb hit. "I felt the warmth and then smelled the fuel," Skut recalls. "I looked down and I was standing in a pool of fire."

Skut ran toward the police line. Officers held him down so he would stop kicking long enough for them to smother the flames. He was lucky: His heavy denim jeans and wool socks saved his skin from severe burns.

He was back out photographing the protest within an hour. "I was given an ice pack," he says. "I stayed out for a couple more hours."

Media along Southeast Stark Street. (Alex Wittwer)

The journalists who have committed the past three months of protests to video struggle to explain what makes them return. But they all feel compelled to keep recording.

Azar says she gets anxiety attacks on her days off. Any sudden noise sounds like a police munition, and she has trouble concentrating on conversations. She feels better, somehow, back at the protest.

Lewis puts it more succinctly: "You start needing it."

As for Yau, he wants the unrest to end. He hopes that Portland City Hall will accede to some of the protesters' demands and the crowds will dwindle. He wants to return to school at the University of Portland and get a job writing for a newspaper.

But for now, this is the story he's telling.

"My story is meddling kids trying to shape the future of the city," he says. "It's been a hundred days. I'm attached to these people. I care about what happens next to them."

It's 2 am. As Yau departs Southeast Stark Street, he says goodnight to each person lingering at the protest. Some are looking for more action. He leaves them with a salutation: "Stay safe."

A September 2020 protest. (Alex Wittwer)

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