PORTLAND, Ore. — The makeshift city outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building here has swelled to more than 90 tents, and protesters appear to be willing to dig in for the long haul. It’s been 10 days now, and “Multnomah Camp” is fortified with a wall made of wood and blue tarps and is adorned with signs declaring a simple message.
In chalk, the protesters have written “Nazis Inside,” and those inside have looked down on the din from top-floor offices. Thus far, it has been boisterous but peaceful.
As the Trump administration continues its border crackdown on illegal immigration amid fluctuating policies — including a now-abandoned strategy of separating children from their parents, which drew international scorn — this protest has served as a spark to others across the country. Portland, already a protest-prone city, is again at the center of pushing back against the Trump administration and its supporters, this time by going after ICE.
Much larger cities have since picked up on the ICE encampment tactics started here, including in New York and Los Angeles, and protesters here aren’t surprised that homegrown Portland protest tactics are catching on elsewhere. This is a city that thrives on dissent, a place former president George H.W. Bush once called Little Beirut, that exploded in protests in the wake of Trump’s election and that continues to be a stage for antifa and Proud Boys to throw punches.
“It’s a part of our organic fabric of Portland. The energy and the anti-establishment fervor here is unlike any other place on the West Coast,” said T. Oliver, 46, who has come to the ICE protest during the daytime with his daughter. “This isn’t some Democratic Party agenda … it really is grass roots, nonviolent revolution.”
Danialle James, 32, leads an impromptu tour of the camp: There’s no leadership here, people say, but some members of the community speak via walkie talkies, and there’s a color-coded system of bandannas to signify duties. James, wearing a red Notorious BIG T-shirt, made her way through a camp kitchen where a walkway has been constructed out of wooden boards, where two volunteers were slicing watermelon and chopping vegetables. They put out bowls of fresh cherries and carrot sticks.
“People come everyday with stuff for us,” she said. A young man walked in with a tent to donate, another brought bags of ice and two grocery sacks of supplies.
Federal officials have been trying to get the camp to break up and move on. For the past two days, people have received notices detailing the laws the camp violates. “I guess you could call that a threat,” James said.
Robert Sperling, a Federal Protective Service spokesman, confirmed that right now “a collection” of FPS officers and ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers are inside the office building “ensuring the security of the facility.” Sperling said protesters have not tried to enter the building but “we have had people trying to barricade the doors so that anybody inside can’t get out.”
He said the warnings that have been given to protesters detail possible charges they could face for obstructing the facility. “Frankly, it’s kind of up to them at this point,” he said. Sperling said there is no timeline for arrests, but discussions in his office, he says, revolve around “how do we continue to mitigate the impact, while allowing them to continue to express their narrative?”
The protesters vow that Multnomah Camp will continue as a fully functioning mini-city until ICE shuts down.
The protesters have wrangled the basics for long-term survival: a hydration station, a medical tent, an “engineering tent” with volunteers who help campers fortify their housing with tarps, cords and repair kids. There’s a mental health tent, where a woman with a long gray ponytail and a purple bandanna says people can come “if they need a mom or a grandma” and to get some quiet. There’s a tent where people have offered massages and guided meditations. In a kids' tent lined with bookshelves and art supplies, a little girl flipped through a picture book.
The camp is in one of Portland’s newest neighborhoods, the South Waterfront — an area that a decade ago was an industrial brownfield. Now there are high-rise apartments, medical facilities, pizza joints, coffee shops and strips of urban park.
James says she has participated in several protest actions in Portland since Trump’s inauguration, many of which ended in mass arrests and local police deploying crowd-control devices such as rubber bullets and flash grenades. But in the case of Multnomah Camp, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted that he has refused to aid ICE in dispersing the protesters.
“I drove by the demonstration yesterday, it seemed to be very peaceful and I was pleased to see that,” Wheeler tweeted on June 20.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech here in September 2017, decrying sanctuary cities like Portland and condemning politicians like Wheeler for bucking federal policies.
If federal officials “are looking for a bailout from this mayor” to end the ICE encampment “they are looking in the wrong place,” Wheeler tweeted.
City Councilmember Chloe Eudaly said at a meeting Wednesday that her office is looking into the possibility of revoking ICE’s lease at the Portland building. Margaux Weeke, a spokeswoman for Eudaly, said the office is looking into options for removing ICE: “We are definitely very supportive of the occupy movement. We’re doing our very best to support everything that they’re doing.”
James says the character of this protest is different from others she’s been a part of in Portland, which often include majority-white crowds. At the ICE protest, she said, “you’ve got people from all walks of life. … Being here is what the world should look like. It gives you hope.”
She paused at the building’s entrance, where a handful of military veterans have camped, and glanced at the doors, which were plastered with protest signs. She pointed up to the top floor of the building where silhouettes could be seen peering out over the camp. “See them waving?” she said, turning her wave around into an obscene gesture.
Because there is no central leadership here, not everyone is on the same page about when this should end. Oliver considers the protest successful already: “What I would like to see happened has happened: the message, the shutdown, the back pedaling from President Trump.”
Others won’t budge, such as a group of military veterans who block a driveway leading to the building. Stu Tanquist, 57, is one of them.
“As vets, we swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” he said, arguing that ICE is violating the Constitution by committing “horrific human rights abuses.” He is refusing to leave, pointing over his shoulder to a gray tent steps away from the building’s entrance. “The only way they’ll get me out is to drag me out.”
Tanquist, who served in the Minnesota National Guard and is now homeless, says he arrived last week when he heard a call for more protesters; he believes it is more difficult for authorities to expel veterans than others who might protest.
“I’m just appalled at what’s been done in the name of this country,” he said. “I have a choice. I can choose to stay here, or I could choose to leave,” he said, noting that this is part of his “privilege of being male and being white. … All that compels me to be in front and stand in front of people who have no choice.”
John Grimes, 56, sat with a friend in recliners near the camp kitchen. Grimes said all that he needed to see to bring him here was “the kids locked up and crying for their parents.”
The looming threat of arrest is bothering him. What will happen if law enforcement raids the camp? Could he jeopardize his social security benefits?
A veteran protester behind him chimed in: “Better losing your SSI than your life or your due process.”