PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler stood with thousands of protesters outside the federal courthouse Wednesday night as federal police unleashed a barrage of tear gas.
Wheeler had called a listening session at the Multnomah County Justice Center on the 56th consecutive day of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Dozens took a turn at the microphone, speaking about their experiences being hurt by police and demanding that Wheeler take concrete actions to hold police accountable for violence.
Many criticized him for allowing Portland police to use violent tactics to squelch protest before federal police arrived.
The City Council on Wednesday banned Portland police from collaborating with federal officers, from clearing the streets alongside federal agents, and from using force against journalists and legal observers — even as the city’s attorneys defend the police in a lawsuit claiming they target those groups.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said Wednesday that Portland police should shoulder the same blame being levied against Homeland Security police and the Border Patrol, who remain in the city despite demands that they leave, from city, state and congressional officials.
“Let me be clear,” Hardesty said at the City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon. “The opening came for Trump to send in this malicious squad because of the overaggressive actions of Portland police.”
As Wheeler spoke with protesters Wednesday night, hundreds of activists faced off with federal police outside the building next door, at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Wheeler was about to leave. Instead, surrounded by half a dozen bodyguards, he turned and strode directly up to the steel fence federal police had erected earlier that day.
Protesters had set a small fire on the stone steps in front of the federal courthouse, and police with the Federal Protective Service ordered the crowd to disperse over a loudspeaker.
Then the federal police shot the first tear gas cannister of the night.
“I actually want to see this,” Wheeler told the head of his security team.
He stayed through two rounds of tear gas deployed by federal police he has said he does not want in the city.
Asked whether he would ban the use of tear gas, now that he has suffered it first-hand, Wheeler equivocated.
“I hate it, and I’ve said that before.”
A protester interjected with a criticism levied at the mayor repeatedly throughout the night: “This is a publicity stunt!” the man yelled. “You’ve been gassing people for over a month.”
Wheeler paused before continuing.
“The answer is yes, I would absolutely consider it,” Wheeler said. “Right now, I’m thinking about my runny nose, my eyes and my lungs. But it’s not a good tactic. It’s indiscriminate.”
Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced plans to send “a surge” of federal police to Chicago and Albuquerque.
“My first duty as president is to protect the American people,” Trump said. “And today I’m taking action to fulfill that sacred obligation.”
Trump said the move was necessary to battle “extreme politicians” who back “a radical movement to defund and dismantle our police departments.”
He said the effort to “shut down policing” has caused “an explosion of shocking hate crimes murders and violence.”
Critics say Trump’s unleashing of police violence is a calculated attempt to further divide the nation in an election year, simultaneously diverting attention from his failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 140,000 American lives.
Pending lawsuits accuse the federal police of using excessive force against protesters, of snatching protesters off the streets and into unmarked vehicles without probable cause, and of targeting journalists and legal observers for violence and arrest.
Volunteer street medics and the ACLU of Oregon on Wednesday added another complaint to the pile. Medical workers say police also target them — for bandaging injured limbs and faces, for flushing burning eyes, and for guiding to safety protesters who are temporarily blinded by tear gas and pepper spray.
Michael Martinez, a graduate student at Oregon Health and Science University who is studying molecular genetics, said he began attending Portland’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality in early June. Martinez and other medical students set up a tent with medical supplies donated by the hospital and its staff in Chapman Park, across from the federal courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center, where there have been protests for 56 days in a row.
On June 13, Martinez said, police cleared the city park.
“We told them that we needed a moment to pack up and get out of there and they said to leave,” Martinez said Wednesday. “One of them pointed at me and said, ‘Arrest him.’ And that’s what it takes to get arrested in Portland.”
Martinez said police told him the medical supplies they seized had been stolen, but Martinez later found them in the trash behind a police precinct.
Volunteers returned, setting up another medical tent. Late Tuesday night, federal police reportedly covered medical supplies there in pepper spray.
Savannah Guest and Christopher Durkee described an incident captured on video that later went viral. They were helping an injured man who was lying on the ground when several federal police approached, shoved them away and beat them with batons.
Durkee said the July 12 incident strengthened their resolve to keep going back each night.
“Medics ensure that protesters can continue to come out night after night,” Durkee said Wednesday, “that those who are injured can continue to make their voices heard. So I think the police will continue to target us because they perceive us as force multipliers.”
Volunteer medic Chris Wise, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Wednesday that police shot him in the head with a tear gas cannister.
“This is not the first time I’ve been targeted,” Wise said. “I don’t want to see people get hurt, and that seems to make me a target for rubber bullets and tear gas cannisters.”