Videos of police lines advancing down Portland streets toward protesters, against a backdrop of tear gas and flash bangs, have been emerging from Black Lives Matter protests since late May. It looks more like a scene out of The Hunger Games than a night in one of America’s reputedly most liberal cities. The videos, photographs, and on-the-ground reports coming out of the nightly protests paint a picture of a totalitarian police state, complete with attacks on journalists and legal observers These reports often include attacks on medics and destroyed medical supplies.
We spoke with Yenta (who used an alias to protect their identity due to recent threats and harassment), who became an educator after witnessing inequity in the public school system. Beyond joining the Women’s March and being a member of “Never Again Action,” a Jewish group committed to liberating those held in ICE concentration camps, they hadn’t done much activism prior to serving as a medic at the recent protests.
Yenta attended their first protest on May 30th, a mere five days after the death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, which triggered nationwide protests against police brutality and racist policing. Despite a curfew in the downtown area, a small gathering was planned to occur just outside the curfew area. The intent was to stand on the sidewalk holding signs in solidarity for Black Lives Matter.
Oregon, and in particular Eugene and the Portland, has long held reputations for being hubs of progressive liberalism. Unfortunately, this overshadows the deeply segregated and racially charged history of Oregon, which only repealed its “Exclusion Law” in 1925.
Section 35 of the Oregon State constitution dictated that “No free negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all such negroes and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them.” (1) It is due to such laws that to this day that Black citizens make up only 3% of Oregon’s population (at the time of the 2017 census). (2) Portland continues to be an incredibly white city, and due to this history of segregation and the legacy of continuing overwhelming whiteness, Oregon as a whole has been described as continuing to be a “white utopia” (3) and deeply entrenched white supremacy continues to assault its (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) BIPOC population.
Policing tactics and city and state responses to the recent protests in Oregon have shed light on this continuing problem in Oregon. Seeing the response of violence and/or threat of violence not only from white supremacist civilians, but also from the police themselves, caused Yenta and their protest group to “[realize] we needed to really commit ourselves to helping the movement.”
Yenta describes themselves as having fallen into the role of medic. “I brought first aid supplies to a few protests, as I have some first aid certifications and experience, and I wanted to be prepared. I met a few other folks who were like-minded, some of them being actual doctors and EMTs, and we quickly congealed into a tight-knit response group.”
In protests across the nation medics have taken to wearing red crosses to identify themselves to fellow protesters and to police. Despite the fact that the red cross has been associated with medical services since the First Geneva Convention (4) there are those who believe that the symbol is an Antifa symbol and implies an intention to incite violence.
“I feel like it goes without saying that this is insanely ridiculous,” Yenta said. “[T]hose of us in this role [are] frequently targeted by police and Neo-Nazi groups, oftentimes…while we’re giving care to a patient.” Yenta’s first-hand experience corroborates reports out of protests nationwide that medics have been specifically targeted by police officers, having medical equipment confiscated and destroyed, presumably in an effort to make protesting more dangerous and thus discourage attendance.
“In the early days [of the protests] I had several friends who were shot with pepperbullets or directly with tear gas grenades while walking home from work after a curfew had been announced three minutes before going into effect,” Yenta said. Similar reports of curfews being announced minutes before going into effect have been corroborated by timestamps on Twitter announcements and other press releases in Portland and Seattle, among other cities. Other than these incidents, the protests in had remained relatively small, and comparatively peaceful. It wasn’t until Yenta joined the protests in Portland that things got truly “hairy” as they describe them.
“Within minutes of arriving, the police gave a warning not to throw anything over the fence around the Justice Center. I watched a kid throw an empty plastic water bottle over, and from there it was game on,” they said. “It started…raining stun grenades, as police told us to exit to the south. We started moving that direction…but one officer with a 40mm gun broke from the line and skirted around us, so our only option was to either be arrested for not complying with police when asked to leave, or walk towards a man who had a gun pointed in our face at blank range.”
The crowd became hesitant and another line of police blocked off the street protesters were being ordered to disperse down. “They boxed us in, shoulder to shoulder…then rolled teargas grenades beneath our feet and held us there as people coughed, gagged, and begged to be allowed to leave. I was wearing a gas mask…[and] had a shield…that I used to put myself in between the man with the gun and the rest of the crowd.”
It was at this point that Yenta was pulled behind the police line by their backpack. “They yelled for me to get on the ground, but they were so closely packed around me, I literally couldn’t move…I felt one of them rip my helmet off, and another punched me in the back of my head…I heard a few dull thuds against my body as they swung their batons into me.” The scene became blurry and Yenta doesn’t remember how, but they were “ejected from their line and back into the crowd of protesters.
“After I got my bearings, the police opened their line up and told us to walk down the street and leave the area. We all immediately complied,” Yenta said. “After walking with the crowd, all of us with our hands up, for about 100 feet, the officers pulled their batons and came running after us. It was terrible thing to see.
“Those of us who were slowed by the exposure to tear gas were dragged to the ground and savagely beaten. I watched in horror as they pulled a woman to the ground by her ponytail…I wanted to help but there was nothing I could do, as there were two officers right behind me with batons raised. Myself and another member of my medic team were separated from the crowd and forced to hide in a park until the police had passed.” When those in hiding felt safe to come out, they spotted police officers perched on a SWAT van, sharing a beer and laughing about the events of the night.
“The next day you saw that I several bruised ribs, a bruised trachea where they’d punched me in the throat, as well as a huge crack in my gas mask just above the left eye, coupled with a streak where the polish or paint of their batons had rubbed off,” Yenta said, referring to photographs of the physical damage from the attack that had been sustained during the protest. “Folks talk now about the feds being especially brutal, and they absolutely are. But the people who are only just now paying attention to Portland need to realize the police have employing similar tactics for almost two months now.”
Many protesters nationwide have reported that the police aren’t the only threats they’re facing. In addition to being identified via social media and arrested or otherwise intimated and threatened in the aftermath of protests, many report that civilians in their own communities are posing a serious threat. Activists have reported everything from graffiti on their homes, finding nooses in trees on their blocks, to being confronted with guns on or near their property.
“…[P]eople have experienced brutal backlash from police forces and Neo-Nazi groups for participating in community organizing and protests,” Yenta said. “Some of them are fully in hiding at this point. Almost everyone I know who has participated…have had to establish networks of safe-houses…Some of my medics have been followed home from protests by police and subject to ‘wellness checks’ in which the police demanded to speak with them. One of my team members was pulled over twice coming back from a protest…I can’t give specifics without endangering my team.”
For all the violence that protesters have been subject to, many point to the fact that these protests are, in fact, working, though there is much work left to do. “So far, these protests have brought many facets of systemic racism to light. Lots of people are educating themselves and opening their minds to experiences beyond their own. Colorado ended Qualified Immunity, and many more small victories [have been won]. Even…symbolic concessions that major brands are doing are a good sign. They aren’t particularly helpful, but it still shifts the cultural paradigm away from accepting racism as a facet of American life.”
One thing Yenta wants people to know when they are staying up to date about the protests is that “most mainstream media is doing a terrible job of covering these protests.” While the protests had grown smaller near the end of June, many protesters expressed frustration on social media that the movement had not ended but was being treated by news media as though it had. This is not an issue restricted to conservative news outlets, but has been apparent in liberal media as well.
“I’ve stood right next to reporters, witnessed the same things they did, and when I read their recounting of the events that happened, they will sometimes be outright lies,” Yenta said. “I’ve had to wipe teargas out of the eyes of reporters from major news stations, teammates of mine have had to bring them out of panic attacks or traumatic shock after they experienced police brutality, only for them to be forbidden to report on it or use the footage.
“For people that would like to help but can’t…due to COVID [or] disabilities or any other reason, I’d ask that you reach out to local community organizers and see what they need. If that’s not an option, the NAACP, and ACLU are always great options for donations. I’d also recommend trying to find mutual aid networks that are helping give food, medical supplies, and other resources to protest ‘hot zones’ like PDX.”
Since this interview, protests have once again escalated nationwide in response to the deployment of federal agents in Portland. Oregon State officials and Portland City officials have repeatedly stressed that the violence of the feds has only escalated situation in Portland, as reports have continued to surface of unidentified federal agents in unmarked vans pulling protesters off the streets. Such incidents markedly do not involve Miranda rights, and those who have experienced it have sometimes reported being held in undisclosed locations with large groups of other protesters.
(1) Nokes, R. Gregory (9 February 2014). “Black History Month: Oregon’s exclusion laws aimed to prevent blacks from settling here (guest opinion)”. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/2014/02/black_history_month_oregons_ex.html
(2) Sykes, S. (2019, February 13). Quality Information, Informed Choices. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.qualityinfo.org/-/african-americans-in-the-oregon-workforce
(3) Novak, M. (2015, January 21). Oregon Was Founded As a Racist Utopia. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://gizmodo.com/oregon-was-founded-as-a-racist-utopia-1539567040
(4) The history of the emblems. (2007, January 14). Retrieved July 26, 2020, from https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/resources/documents/misc/emblem-history.htm