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Portland police declare riot as demonstrators attack fence outside federal courthouse

06:18 27 July 2020 Author :  

PORTLAND, Oregon – Snot streaming down his face and tears dripping from his swollen-shut eyes, John Beck tried to shake off the pepper spray and compose his thoughts.

"Tell people what is happening here," he said. "I want them to know."

Federal agents pepper-sprayed Beck, 46, and hundreds of others during a raucous demonstration Saturday night outside the federal courthouse in Portland, which has seen 58 straight days of protests sparked by the Black Lives Matter social justice movement and the Memorial Day death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

After federal agents briefly retreated Saturday night into the courthouse, some protesters began rattling a fence encircling the federal building. Shortly after 1 a.m., protesters tore down a section but didn't cross onto courthouse property. Federal agents eventually reemerged and pushed protesters several blocks away from the courthouse, firing tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd after Portland police declared the gathering a riot.

"The violent conduct of people downtown is creating grave risk of public alarm," the Portland police department posted on its official Twitter account. "Portland Police have declared a riot on SW 3rd Ave. Leave the area to the west."

Confrontations between activists and federal officers have escalated for more than a week in Portland, with some protesters throwing fireworks, bottles of water and other objects at the officers. Other protesters said that the gatherings were largely peaceful and that the federal officers were instigating the violence.

The federal show of force in Portland sparked solidarity protests nationwide over the weekend as demonstrations and clashes with law enforcement unfolded in Seattle, suburban Denver, Anchorage and Louisville, Kentucky.

President Donald Trump has said he sent the officers to Portland this month to protect federal property. In recent days, Trump also directed federal officers to Seattle to confront protesters and threatened to do the same in other Democratic-led cities where activists have demanded police reform since Floyd's death more than two months ago.

Federal officials said at least six officers were injured in Friday night's violence in Portland. Federal officers said they were also hit with garbage and blinded by laser pointers and flashlights. One protester was arrested Friday after climbing over the fence, officials said.

Officers responded to the attacks by releasing tear gas canisters, prompting some protesters to throw each canister back over the security fence. The two sides used leaf blowers to disperse the fumes. Joining the protests were hundreds of moms in yellow shirts and dozens of veterans. Businesses in the area were boarded up, and many closed early Saturday afternoon.

"Fifty-eight days," one protester yelled as tear gas exploded around him. "We've been out here for 58 days. You think we're giving up now?"

Beck, an environmental analyst at a laboratory, said he attended Saturday's protest to voice anger at the federal presence. At one point, he stood by his bike and yelled at the federal agent separated from him by the tall steel and concrete fence.

"I told that man he should go home," said Beck, wearing shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt. "I know they have orders, but they also have a choice. And I told him that. And then he pepper-sprayed me."

Beck, like other protesters, said the federal response to their complaints has only strengthened their resolve. The Constitution, they said, guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.

"We've been quiet," said Denica Coombs, 37. "We told society that there needed to be justice. And there is no justice, so there will be no peace."

Coombs, a nurse, drove from Seattle to Portland on Saturday to participate in the protests. She's Black and wanted to show support for the Portland community.

"We are all standing up for each other. We're here to protect each other," she said.

Earlier in the day, ER nurse Beth Higginbotham organized a march of scrubs-clad medical workers to join the protests. Portland is a liberal, mostly white city, and many Black protesters said the groundswell of sustained support from white allies has provided a much-needed boost to their demands for police reform.

"Our country is sick," Higginbotham said. "We as nurses and medical workers take care of people. And right now we need to care for Black lives. Because they are being killed. They are being murdered. They are being hurt. Right now, to use an analogy, Black people are having heart attacks and strokes and white people have cuts on our fingers."

Higginbotham first joined the protest on Friday evening, staying late into the night to watch the tear gas and fireworks. Nothing she saw dissuaded her from coming back Saturday, she said, especially because all of the attention is focused on the federal building – no stores have been looted or set on fire.

"I have been amazed by the solidarity," she said. "People are here because it matters."

Melanie Hamlin, a children's ER nurse, said she, too, isn't bothered by the clashes between officers and crowd. More important to her, she said, is the support Portland is showing for the Black community.

"It's just so beautiful to see," she said Saturday evening.

USA TODAY

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