The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Portland protesters set fire inside county building as tensions continue to escalate

Police declared a riot around midnight Saturday in Portland, Ore., as protests continued for the 80th consecutive night. (Dave Killen/Oregonian via AP)

PORTLAND, Ore. — A crowd of protesters marched to a county building in southeast Portland on Tuesday night, where a handful of people in masks and all-black outfits threw rocks through windows and lit a small fire inside, marking the 83rd night of protests in Portland that have led to millions of dollars in damage to city property, officials said.

Several hundred people participated in the peaceful protest before a smaller group broke off, police said, lighting fires in dumpsters in the street to block traffic and slow down police who later tried to clear the scene. Some sprayed anti-police graffiti on the county building and scrawled instructions to “aim here” across the windows on the first floor. A few masked people threw rocks through window panes, and someone tossed a flaming newspaper into the building, according to reports.

The fires lit inside the building remained relatively small, leaving behind scorched curtains and piles of ash on desks near the shattered windows. The flames did not burn for long, but they grew large enough to set off alarms and trigger the sprinkler system, officials said. Police made two arrests Tuesday: Peter Curtis, 40, on charges of criminal mischief and reckless endangering, and Jesse Hawk, 23, on eight common protest-related charges: riot, interfering with a peace officer, resisting arrest, unlawful use of a weapon, assaulting a public safety officer, harassment, disorderly conduct and attempted escape.

The weeks of destruction and intense clashes with police following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May have spurred angry backlash from Portland officials and some residents. Tensions have risen in recent weeks following a period of relative calm after federal law enforcement left Portland last month.

“The unprovoked actions by those who engaged in criminal behavior is reprehensible,” Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said in a statement Wednesday. “It is simply violence and serves no legitimate purpose. It does nothing to solve the issues our community faces.”

In recent weeks, fires have been lit inside the police union headquarters and the Justice Center downtown, which houses a police precinct and a jail. A fire also was started just outside the police’s East Precinct building earlier this month. Some have lobbed fireworks at buildings and police. Many have painted anti-police messages on government buildings and private property across a few blocks downtown.

More than 550 people have been arrested at protests since the demonstrations began on May 29, and more than 100 have been charged with felonies.

In response to the protests, public officials in Portland have voted to reduce the Portland Police Bureau’s budget. They cut $15 million in June, which fell short of the $50 million cut activists had rallied behind. The city also disbanded the bureau’s gun violence reduction team, which had been known as the gang enforcement task force and had long been criticized for over-policing Black teenagers and young Black men in the city. Portland Public Schools also removed the armed school resource officers from campuses in June.

“We continue to get asked how this will end and how the violence will stop,” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said Wednesday. “The solution is in a critical mass of community and partners coming together to denounce this criminal activity and call it out, as it does not represent what we know our community at large wants or values.”

Public concern has grown since a violent attack Sunday left a man unconscious after people surrounded him near a protest and one kicked him in the head. Police identified that suspect as Marquise Love, 25, who has not been found.

Outraged over the assault, Portland resident Eric Michael Potratz walked through southeast Portland with an aluminum baseball bat Monday, tearing down Black Lives Matter posters in shop windows and breaking a plexiglass door worth $200, according to an affidavit. The affidavit alleges Potratz shouted at a Black customer waiting in line outside a restaurant who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, telling him, “I’m tired of you people” and “stop supporting a murderous organization.”

“I’ve been watching [police] get blitzkrieged for the last 80-plus days here in Portland, by the violent mob that is marauding around our streets every night,” Potratz told The Washington Post. “Seeing the guy get nearly killed just a couple nights ago by the Black Lives Matter protesters just hit the ‘go’ button, and I just had to do something that would stimulate some conversation, maybe ruffle some feathers, and wake people up to what’s going on.”

Potratz was arrested on charges of burglary, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, bias crime and harassment. He denied being motivated by racism, but said he opposes the Black Lives Matter movement because of violence that has broken out at rallies. He said he’d be willing to pay to replace the broken door.

“I do know there are some Black Lives Matter protesters that do not support the more radical violence,” he said. “But I haven’t seen a lot of accountability. I don’t see these more peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters really firmly denouncing these more violent types. And so, I think there needs to be some separation of the wheat from the chaff, or the entire movement needs to just go, because it is creating a tremendous amount of problems.”

Chad Draizin, who owns Fifty Licks, an ice cream shop targeted by Potratz on Monday, said he supports the protests and has not experienced any other pushback from customers for putting Black Lives Matter signs in his shop windows.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to use the prominence that I have to stand up for what I believe in and stand up for justice,” he said. “As an ice cream company, I can show to the world that something unscary, like ice cream, can be in support of this. It’s not just radical people committing vandalism, it’s regular people who care about other people, too.”

Potratz tore down a sign in Fifty Licks and frightened one of Draizin’s employees, but otherwise left the shop undamaged, Draizin said.

The Multnomah Building, where the local sheriff has offices, was a new target for the protesters. Previous protests focused primarily on police precincts and the police union building. Unlike those locations, the Multnomah Building also houses offices for county departments that provide social services that have no connection to the police. The building has been closed, except to take donations of masks and other protective equipment amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday night’s fire damaged important county resources that have nothing to do with policing, officials said, including the county’s Office of Community Involvement, which aims to engage historically marginalized communities in local political decisions about social services and the distribution of public resources.

“The lobby where the first same-sex marriage in Oregon took place, and where millions of pieces of personal protective equipment are being distributed to help our community battle covid-19, was damaged,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said in a statement.

As protesters tried to light a fire inside the building, a curtain briefly ignited. Several pieces of burning debris were left on a desk just behind a broken window. Police said some people squirted lighter fluid inside the building and tried igniting the accelerant. The ensuing fire grew large enough to set off alarms and trigger the building’s sprinkler system, Portland police said.

Shortly after the fires were set, police declared a riot. They created a line of officers in riot gear and rushed protesters, pushing them deeper into a residential neighborhood. The Portland Police Bureau said officers deployed some crowd control munitions, and video shows police using pepper spray, but officers did not use tear gas to drive the crowd away from the Multnomah Building.

Officers also used batons to strike protesters caught up in the bull rush. In one instance, an officer pushed a woman from behind as she was moving away from the line of police, causing her to fall. She sat up and appeared to show identification hanging around her neck as the officer shoved his baton into her face. He did not arrest the woman.

Nearby, at least seven officers engulfed one person carrying a large speaker while walking in the direction police had dispersed the crowd. Some of the officers dragged the protester and repeatedly hit the person with batons. Then, they let the individual go.