In moments reminiscent of the once-nightly clashes, a few protesters threw rocks or fireworks at the empty space where federal agents had stood. But the crowds were largely peaceful Thursday night into Friday, listening to speeches about police brutality and racism and chatting on the grass.
“Federal troops left downtown. Local officials protected free speech,” Brown wrote on Twitter. “And Oregonians spoke out for Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and police accountability through peaceful, non-violent protest.”
The Department of Homeland Security is keeping more than 130 federal agents stationed near the courthouse as a “quick reaction force,” in case protests turn violent again, according to an internal DHS document reviewed by The Washington Post.
A senior Homeland Security official said the department was pleased with the first night after agents’ withdrawal but would wait until the weekend, at least, before leaving Portland altogether.
Among protesters, many feared that the peace was only temporary, noting that their concerns about racism and police brutality in the city predated the arrival of the federal agents.
But some felt a sense of accomplishment and said they hope the calm will last.
“Trump’s keystone cops absolutely lost. They retreated,” said Peter Buck, a 74-year-old lawyer who had been traveling to Portland from Olympia for vigils and marches, using a leaf blower to send tear gas away from protesters.
The protests at Portland’s courthouse began weeks ago, during the national movement that followed the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The Portland protests gained national attention because of the aggressive tactics used by camouflage-clad federal agents, who were seen on video grabbing protesters off the street and driving them away in unmarked vans.
The Trump administration said these tactics were necessary to stop people who had vandalized the federal courthouse.
But the protests became bigger and more violent with federal agents’ presence. For days, the fence around the courthouse was the scene of nightly street battles, as some protesters threw rocks, fireworks and cans, and officers responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and charges into the crowd.
Under the terms of the deal struck by Brown and the Trump administration, Portland police and Oregon state troopers took over most security duties near the courthouse. But the “quick reaction force” is intended to rush in if the state police need help, according to the Department of Homeland Security document.
The document says there are still more than 150 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel — including the 130 members of the quick-reaction force — in the Portland area. Among them are more than 110 Border Patrol agents, more than 30 members of Special Response Teams and more than a half-dozen air support specialists. The figures do not include additional personnel from the U.S. Marshals Service, part of the Justice Department, and the Federal Protective Service, another arm of DHS.
The CBP’s quick-reaction force is divided between two locations, both within 20 minutes of the courthouse. Nearly 100 CBP agents are stationed at one of the holding sites, while 35 more are at another site, according to the document.
The quick-reaction force’s instructions are to respond only to “major” felonies, including attempts to breach courthouse security or block the exits. Oregon State Police have assigned 80 officers to the courthouse protests, and state authorities will have primary responsibility for dealing with any incidents, according to the document.
On Thursday night, the state police officers remained confined to the courthouse, occasionally looking out at the protests.
Some demonstrators said that without a notable police presence, the crowd had a different atmosphere. “It’s much more low-key and a bit more subdued,” said Shannon Echavarria, a 53-year-old pet-care professional, on Thursday evening. “Normally by this time, people would be banging on that fence. There’d be fireworks. They’d be pouring debris over.”
The shift in tone was “100 percent because the feds are leaving,” Echavarria said.
But the change seemed to take some protesters by surprise. Many had arrived wearing helmets and gas masks, but found themselves sitting on the grass in the park near the courthouse.
“Looks like there won’t be much of a battle tonight,” one man said at midnight to a group of shield-wielding protesters. Minutes later, a small fire was started inside the cordoned-off area outside the courthouse, though protesters quickly put it out before it could spread.
Outside the federal courthouse Friday afternoon, a handful of state police officers, wearing their trademark campaign-style hats, stood behind a metal fence, observing the scene. A marked car for the Federal Protective Service sat behind the building.
In the adjacent Lownsdale Square, which had been cleared by city police early Thursday morning, several tents had already been installed again. The park’s central statue, a monument to Oregonians who died during the 1898 Spanish-American War, scrubbed clean by city workers Thursday, was again graffitied.
Some protesters suggested that a safer environment could draw larger crowds, including families and teenagers, downtown.
Adia Jones, a 17-year-old student who has been helping organize a popular youth-led event in Northeast Portland called Fridays4Freedom, said Friday that many of her peers had not been able to regularly attend protests downtown because of safety fears.
“A big concern on our part is safety,” Jones said, adding that she had been tear-gassed three times when she went to the courthouse Wednesday evening.
But Jones and her fellow organizer, 16-year-old Aslan Newson, emphasized that they did not oppose anyone protesting however they wanted.
“We are for full abolition of police. Until we see that, we are not going to stop,” said Jones. “Once those demands are met, we will evaluate.”
Some demonstrators remain wary of the state and local police as well, recalling that city police had used tear gas to dispel protesters long before federal officers arrived. Others noted that Trump on Thursday warned that he could call in the National Guard.
But most protesters welcomed the calm and believed that Portland’s protests would keep their momentum.
“That will draw families back to the protests. Ultimately, while we wanted the feds out, this was really about Black Lives Matter,” Echavarria said.
As the crowd lingered toward the end of the night, a freestyling rapper named No Shoes said that the time was right to just focus on having fun.
“I think this might be the first time we didn’t get gassed,” he told his audience.