Portland protests relatively calm after US drawdown

Dramatic change in tone outside federal courthouse changes after federal agents begin withdrawing.

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National News

July 31, 2020 - 4:08 PM

Police use tear gas and stun grenades on a group of protesters in downtown Portland on Tuesday night, June 3. The group of several hundred marching through downtown Portland broke from a crowd of thousands that had gathered in Pioneer Square. Protests continued for a sixth night in Portland, demonstrating against the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis. Photo by Brooke Herbert / Staff

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Leaders in Portland, Oregon, caught their breath and moved forward with cautious optimism Friday after the first nightly protest in weeks ended without any major confrontations, violence or arrests.

The dramatic change in tone outside a federal courthouse that’s become ground zero in clashes between demonstrators and federal agents came after the U.S. government began drawing down its forces under a deal between Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and the Trump administration.

As agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement pulled back, troopers with the Oregon State Police were supposed to take over. There were no signs of any law enforcement presence outside the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, however, where a protest lasted into early Friday.

“Last night, the world was watching Portland. Here’s what they saw: Federal troops left downtown. Local officials protected free speech. And Oregonians spoke out for Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and police accountability through peaceful, non-violent protest,” Brown said in a tweet Friday.

Mayor Ted Wheeler also struck an optimistic tone but cautioned that there was much work to be done after more than 60 days of protests — and not just in cleaning up downtown Portland. 

Local and state leaders are taking action on calls for racial justice reform, he said. Brown and regional and local leaders are pushing for a raft of measures that would address systemic racism in everything from policing to housing. Those proposals could be fast-tracked for consideration in a special legislative session later this summer. 

Portland’s City Council also voted this week to refer a ballot measure to voters in November that would create a police review board independent from any elected official or city department.

“We need the time to heal. We need the time to allow people to come back downtown and experience the great downtown that people remember from just a few months ago,” said Wheeler, a Democrat. “The mass demonstrations that we’ve seen over many, many weeks, those demands have been heard. The demands have been understood.”

The scene outside the federal courthouse stood in sharp contrast to the two weeks of violent clashes between protesters and the agents sent by President Donald Trump to quell the unrest in Oregon’s largest city. 

Protests have roiled Portland for more than 60 days following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

And while thousands have marched and rallied peacefully over the past two months, Portland’s federal courthouse became a target for some protesters. Smaller numbers of demonstrators tried to tear down a fence erected to protect it, lit fires at the courthouse entryway and hurled fireworks, flares and bricks at the agents holed up inside. Most nights, the agents responded by firing tear gas.

But at the protest that began Thursday night, there was little violence and few signs of confrontation as several thousand people gathered near the courthouse . 

A handful of protesters pointed lights and lasers at the building, but state troopers remained inside and did not respond. Soon afterward, hundreds of demonstrators gathered about a block from the courthouse to listen to speeches, with little sign of a law enforcement presence. The mood remained calm into early Friday as the crowd dwindled to about 500 demonstrators.

In preparation for the handover from federal authorities to state troopers, the local sheriff and Portland police met and agreed not to use tear gas except in situations with a threat of serious injury or death, the mayor said.

Wheeler, who was gassed when he joined protesters outside the courthouse last week, added that tear gas “as a tactic really isn’t all that effective” because protesters have donned gas masks and often return to the action after recovering for a few minutes. He apologized to peaceful demonstrators exposed to tear gas used by Portland police before federal officials arrived.

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