PORTLAND, Ore. — Kia Rae’s first memories are strung-together scenes from a Jesse Jackson rally in 1988. The 34-year-old lifelong Oregonian remembers the smell of the fairgrounds, the current of waving signs, the colorful pins stuck to the chests of strangers.
Some parents take their children to sit in the stands of football games or baseball diamonds. The children of Portland come of age clapping to protest songs and stomping their feet to chants for justice and peace.
“This is your real education,” Rae’s mother told her older sister, Essence Belle, when she pulled her out of school at age 11 to hear Angela Davis speak.
Rae and Belle draw on those moments as they ready themselves to join the demonstrations that have rocked Portland for months, dressed in all black with patterned masks and bandannas covering their faces and earplugs to block the burst of explosions. In their hands, they cradle bundles of burning sage — an ode to their Native American roots used to calm protesters and clear chemicals from the air.
“I’ve always been passionate about politics, and our mom started talking to us about politics really young,” Rae said. “In a way, this is the world I was born into. I really don’t know how many protests I’ve been to.”
In this waterfront city, protests are as natural as the salmon swimming in the Willamette River. The unrelenting demonstrations have yielded real results: City officials have agreed to slash the police budget. An initiative to create an oversight board to review police use of force will be put on the ballot this year. And more than 100 federal agents sent by President Trump to fortify the federal courthouse have retreated, turning over the task to state police.
Still, the protests continue. Demonstrators say they’re not finished. Getting the feds out was just one item on a lengthy to-do list.
“Stay together, stay tight,” the crowd chants in unison, voices hoarse from days of yelling and breathing in fumes. “We do this every night!”
This is what Portland does.
The Brolutti family
Retired nurses Toren and Kim Brolutti were encouraged to join the protests by their adult children Maya and Mischa amid images of Portlanders being hit with chemical irritants and detained in unmarked minivans. The family was tear-gassed on their first night at the demonstrations, and Kim was pepper-sprayed, they said.
Toren, 65: “You know, Portlanders are very peaceful people. It’s not like we’re just misguided youth, which is what I think people are labeling the protesters. I’m a retired nurse with a really long career who just sees what’s happening is wrong.”
Kim, 67: “I hadn’t expected that they would attack the people. When they started shooting, I go, ‘This is not America.’”
Maya, 29: “I began a conversation with my parents about it from which we collectively decided to take action and show up at the Justice Center.”
Mischa, 31: “I am protesting because it is unacceptable and wrong on so many levels to have a police force that the majority of citizens are afraid of. I am opposed to the existence of the police in their current form of a culturally corrupt, armed, cruel and tyrannical force that patrols the streets and instills fear into the people.”
Oregon’s largest city has for decades cultivated a reputation as a place where protests can erupt over anything and nothing at all. Issues such as the environment, antiwar sentiments, LGBTQ rights and economic inequality have long taken center stage.
But after the police killing of George Floyd in May, something shifted in this city where less than 3 percent of the population identifies as Black. While White residents largely tout liberal ideals of civil rights and equality, Oregon’s racist history looms large here, said Shirley Jackson, a sociology professor in the Black studies department at Portland State University.
White Portlanders began to openly wrestle with the history of blatant racism in a state founded as a White haven. Black Lives Matter signs multiplied so fast, they seemed to outnumber Black residents.
“Portland thinks it’s pretty progressive, but it’s pretty easy to think you’re progressive when you’re a mostly White community,” said City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty (D), who in 2018 became the first Black woman elected to the city council. “But if you’re Black in Portland, the experience is so radically different.”
For weeks, demonstrators directed their anger at the federal courthouse, where they broke windows and tagged the building with bright paint. The vandalism drew the attention of Trump, who sent in federal agents.
But he didn’t account for the stamina and creativity of Portland protesters. By the time federal agents packed into the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in early July, the crowds were ready with helmets, respirators and goggles to mitigate the worst effects of crowd-control munitions. Many donned the all-black uniform known as “black bloc” meant to anonymize its wearers. An elaborate network of aid stations and volunteers provided free food, water, gear and medical help.
Federal agents and police officers say they have been attacked with rocks, bottles, ball bearings and balloons filled with paint and feces. Small groups set fires at Portland police stations, police union offices and the Justice Center, which houses the Multnomah County jail.
In Portland, it’s not just the usual suspects who take to the streets. Moms in yellow shirts and bike helmets folded sunflowers into the iron fence around the federal courthouse. Teachers made signs likening Trump to tyrants and dictators of the past. Military veterans waved flags hung upside down to signal distress and strapped on gas masks and respirators to stare down the front line of federal troops.
City bus driver and Army veteran Eric MacCartney, who was inspired to protest after his daughter was gassed by Portland police officers during a demonstration in North Portland, joined the Wall of Vets to stand in front of other demonstrators outside the federal courthouse, creating a barrier between them and federal agents.
MacCartney, 50: “I am truly horrified; this is not the country that I served. This is not okay. I was two feet from the federal goons, and I told them to their faces that they are traitors betraying their oath."
Even Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) sought to make a point by standing in lab goggles before a gathering cloud of gas in late July. His eyes red and burning from the dense fog, Wheeler called the situation “abhorrent,” saying he stood with the protesters against an “occupying force.”
But in Portland, a common enemy doesn’t make you a friend. The crowd shouted for hours for Wheeler to resign.
Once buoyed by high approval ratings, Wheeler has faced questions about his handling of the unrelenting demonstrations and police response. As mayor, he is also the city’s police commissioner, and in June, Wheeler decided not to ban the department’s use of tear gas against protesters.
Now running for a second term, Wheeler is being challenged from the left by Sarah Iannarone, who is running on a police reform platform. Last month, Hardesty told the mayor to hand over the Portland Police Bureau to her — saying if he would not direct them to stop firing tear gas and munitions at protesters, she would.
“So the story goes that [Portland is] under siege — but we are not under siege by these protests, we are under siege by the police,” Hardesty said in an interview with The Washington Post last month. “It breaks my heart to think [people] are coming to exercise their rights, and yet they have to come with a bike helmet, water and first aid and an understanding that they may be brutalized.”
The city that Trump described as “worse than Afghanistan” — full of “anarchists” who “hate our country” — has long worn the insults of Republican presidents as points of pride.
On a recent night, a middle school teacher wearing a Mighty Mouse T-shirt, rainbow-striped leggings and a cloth face mask adorned with cherries nodded brightly as she declared, “Oh yes, I’m an anarchist.”
Bev Barnum, a marathon runner and mother of two, helped found the Wall of Moms — a group of self-identified mothers who attend Portland protests to create a human shield around demonstrators. Barnum said she had never protested before, but when videos began to circulate of Portland residents being detained by unidentified federal officers, she said, she felt compelled to act.
Barnum, 35: “I hope mothers everywhere finally have the permission to put on their yellow shirts and get out there, come home, cry their [butts] off, leave their clothes on the patio, shower, get up, make breakfast for their kids and do it all over again until the world changes.”
City officials and soccer moms alike readily admit to being “antifa” — an abbreviation for anti-fascist that many conservatives and far-right groups have decried as violent, left-wing extremists prone to looting and fire-setting.
White supremacists and far-right militia groups have been drawn to Portland to stand against the anti-fascist movement. Extremists such as the Proud Boys, a group that espouses white nationalist ideology, have clashed violently with counterprotesters and anarchists.
“If [Trump] had it his way, the antifa label would be branded a terrorist group, but I’m anti-fascist. I’m not for fascism. I’m not for a government takeover of its people,” Hardesty said.
About 30 years ago, when President George H.W. Bush was in office, the administration was greeted with explosive protests every time he or a member of his Cabinet stepped foot in the City of Roses. Vice President Dan Quayle arrived in Portland for a fundraiser amid a demonstration of hundreds who had gathered outside, burning flags and desecrating photos of the vice president. A handful of university students from Reed College, a liberal arts school in town, swallowed colored food dye and vomited red, white and blue on the hotel’s front steps.
Presidential staffers had soon come up with a nickname for the riverside city: “Little Beirut.”
Residents embraced the nickname, emblazoning it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, music albums and businesses. A local group of peace activists even named their organization B.E.I.R.U.T. or “Boisterous Extremists for Insurrection against Republicans and other Unprincipled Thugs.”
In the fourth week of what Portland officials described as a federal occupation of the city, Ryver Hankins, 30, stood on a grassy knoll just beyond the federal courthouse with a hand-drawn homage to Portland history.
“Little Beirut lives!” the poster strapped to his back exclaimed.
Hankins was only a baby when the “Little Beirut” protests overtook downtown Portland, but their legacy has shaped a generation.
Essence Belle and Kia Rae
Afro-Indigenous sisters Essence Belle, a horticulturist, and Kia Rae, a healer and licensed massage therapist, have been attending protests in the Portland area since they were barely out of diapers. The siblings burn sage at demonstrations to help de-escalate clashes between protesters and police and bring a sense of calm.
Belle, 37: “The first night we went down, I grabbed my sage and said, ‘We gotta bring this.’ And then as soon as we got there, the energy was really intense and scary, and I was like, ‘We need to ground down.’”
Rae, 34: “You literally have skin in the game. It’s a choice for White people. You can choose to go to bed at 9 o’clock and live your peaceful life on the other side of town. But we don’t really have a choice, at least we don’t feel like we do.”
This summer, a new generation was undergoing a similar metamorphosis. Teenagers and college students hardened into seasoned protesters with each passing night. They wrote phone numbers on their arms in black marker and prepared to be detained, shot or beaten.
Adult protesters picked up tactics, too. They began to wear thicker clothes, body armor, helmets and homemade shields made out of plastic and foam. The number of people carrying leaf blowers to clear the air of chemicals multiplied nightly.
Mac Smiff and Ri Smiff
Mac Smiff, an artist, utility worker and editor in chief of a hip-hop magazine, has been attending Black Lives Matter events in Portland for more than six years. His wife, Ri, has attended the protests with him. He said though the federal deployment that began in early July received national attention, Portland police had been using tear gas and other munitions against protesters since late May.
Mac, 39: “We are prepared to do this for as long as we have to. I, for one, have no intention of going back to normal.”
Ri Smiff, 36, a nurse who joined the Wall of Moms movement to help shield protesters from federal officers’ use of force outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland.
With the first of many demands crossed off their list — get the feds out of Portland — protesters have continued to call for systemic reform: Defund the Portland Police Bureau by 50 percent at least, organizers recite. The money, they say, should be funneled instead into communities of color.
Demonstrators were able to gather last week without coughing, retching, choking on gas. They pushed through the weekend, marched through the city, chanted and rallied outside police precincts and government offices.
On the 68th straight night of demonstrations, police declared an “unlawful” assembly and rushed protesters on foot, scattering the crowd. A person was arrested, several more were jostled and shoved.
Still, the night ended as they all do: with a promise that protesters will be back tomorrow.
Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design and development by Irfan Uraizee.