One Night With the Man Who Puts Plywood on Portland’s Smashed Windows

He takes the calls from distraught business owners, assigns the labor, and guards the job.

On Feb. 12, Portland protesters held a snowball fight. About 75 people—some dressed in black bloc, others wearing '80s-style ski suits—gathered in Director Park for what was cheekily billed as "Antifa Snow Day." Tamales were served; so was beer. Around 10 pm, a smaller group set out for the Portland Police Bureau's Central Precinct. Not long after, somebody started shattering windows: at a ZoomCare clinic, then a Starbucks.

That's when Starbucks received help.

John, 42, drove in from his home in Oregon City in a used Toyota 4X4. He bought that rig for $11,000 this summer. He paid cash, from overtime in one of the few businesses that got better over the past year.

He's in the plywood installation business.

Starting May 29, the night Portlanders protesting the death of George Floyd shattered windows, John worked 76 consecutive days, at least 15 hours a day.

"Our calls went through the roof," John says, navigating the ice-slick streets. "We had the whole Target. That was a shitshow. We had one call come in for 45 windows right there on Yamhill. Just one call."

Some facts you won't find in this story: John's last name, the name of his company, or who the company contracts with. Those were the conditions John established for getting a firsthand view of his work. John says his company's office has been "doxxed" several times this summer. Internet bullying isn't an idle threat: Some city contractors saw their windows shattered in 2020 for working with the police or on homeless sweeps.

John describes himself as conservative, a churchgoing man among the socialists, with no love for window-breakers.

"The most jacked-up part of this is seeing families sobbing," he says. "It's hard to be there for them emotionally when they've lost everything. First because of COVID, then all their inventory's been taken. They're crying, sobbing. It's heartbreaking, dude. That's where I got turned off toward some of these groups that are doing this in the name of justice."

When glass shatters onto snow, it gleams a vivid blue. John's co-worker, whom we'll call Harold, uses a broom handle to clear the glass out of a broken window at the Starbucks at Southwest Jefferson Street and 3rd Avenue. That's the first step of boarding up a window: You knock out what's left of it.

Harold, a slightly built Latinx man, has set up two sawhorses on the sidewalk along Jefferson amid biting pellets of frozen rain. The company keeps 20 sheets of CDX plywood in each of its vans. Harold cuts a sheet to size with a circular saw.

Harold places a wooden 2-by-4 behind the window's metal frame and eases the plywood into the window. He sandwiches the plywood to the 2-by-4 with a cordless drill.

"That's called tension fitting," says John. He sings Harold's praises. "When it comes to speed and quality," says John, "this guy's your man."

What he did is called a board-up. John is the board-up manager, which means he takes the calls from distraught business owners, assigns the labor, and guards the job. Typically, the work starts minutes after a window is shattered. "We show up and the cops are gone," John says.

John's arrival can cause tension with protesters. But he declines to discuss his security measures.

Another call comes in: A man shot out windows at a Plaid Pantry at Northeast 140th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard (police arrested him). The board-up is already finished, but John wants to inspect the work.

It's now past 2 am. A snow-choked Interstate 84 looks surreal. A dozen cars are abandoned on the shoulders; a semi-trailer has jackknifed on an exit ramp. John talks politics. He's not yet sure what to make of Joe Biden.

What about Portland?

"After you've been out here doing board-up for a while, you see Portland differently," John says. "I wouldn't have too many positive things to say. It's sad to me, man. You see people out here, cold and confused and high."

John's dashboard-mounted cellphone blares an alarm: beauty shop burglary on Hayden Island. The manager can't get there in the snow. Security guards are waiting for someone to arrive. John calls her back: A member of his team is on the way.

"Might as well cruise up there," John says. "I'm not going to freakin' sleep anytime soon."