Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dispatch from Portland

Walking my dog this morning along the tranquil William Stafford trail which is an easy little stroll from my apartment, it occurred to me how distant it seemed from the protesting last night. We are only a few miles away, but I could already feel the experience of a couple hours ago melting in morning sun and floating away down the Willamette River. Since I am here, and saw it first hand, I thought how much more surreal it must seem to those of you in other parts of the country - or housebound locally for any number of reasons - to comprehend what is truly happening here, so I thought Id try to write up what I’m seeing and understanding. 

The little Stafford poem I pass on my dog walks.

I’m not in any way close to the center of any of the organizing. I am just a supporter of the protesters, who I believe more strongly than ever after last night are the thin line of defense between fascism and the rest of our nation. I encourage you to seek out the queer, youth and BIPOC voices that are the leaders of this movement, listen to them, cede your authority to them, to give them your money, and support them however else you can.
First: Some assumptions:
Black Lives Matter. Fascism is already here and is bad. The Portland protesters are freedom fighters, not insurgents. People are more important than property. Peaceful protests make change happen. Peaceful protests may include destruction of property. Jesus was a peaceful protester who sometimes destroyed property. Christians are called to follow Jesus.
Monday, about 7:30pm

I’m working on a double sided sign. One side says “Jesus was a protester. -Luke 19” (pastor-me wants to say look it up but non-annoying-real-person me says it’s Palm Sunday) and on the other “Jesus resisted fascism too -Luke 13” (a whole bunch of juicy stuff, but mostly the Healer calling Herod “that fox”). I locate some string and it hangs around my neck. I joke-not-joke that it will act as a shield too.

We have a lot of tradition, Christians, some of it pretty problematic, of writing Jesus’ name on shields and marching into battle. I think about all those other (self) righteous warriors who have gone before. I wonder what separates me from them, what joins me.

Monday, about 8:45 pmd
Partner Tara and I get into collars and text the kids where we are going. I put my ID and debit card and a twenty dollar bill and a phone into my pocket. Pull on the purple vests from Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance that say “clergy witness” over our heads. We are serious, not talking much, each of us getting ready in our mind, in our own way. I dont feel afraid, exactly but I definitely have a shit-getting-real feeling.

Monday, About 9:00 pm
In conversation with other clergy, we have decided to be a presence as often as we can, now that federal forces have been brought into the picture. Although the Portland Police have a similar history to other police departments around the country, and we have been working to address that, the addition of federal forces adds a layer of urgency and intensity. We are not just trying to reform a department. We are battling a fascist regime.

That said, T and I dont have a specific agenda except to witness - and testify to what we have witnessed - and to be supportive however that is requested. As we drive close, downtown Portland is quiet like you’d expect on a Monday night in summer in the middle of a pandemic. The actual area of the protests is maybe four square blocks.

Tara uses her magic powers to find a parking spot right next to Chapman Square, the park across the street from the Justice Center and kittycorner from the Federal Building. The next block is also a park - Lownsdale Park. There are several hundred people here already.

It’s supposed to be night three of mom bloc night (and dad bloc is meant to me here too), but most everyone I see is very young - late teens or early twenties. There are speakers, but I can’t hear them from the back of the crowd where we find ourselves, so I stand on a park bench to see if I can get a better look. My first conversation is not super inspiring to me, or, I’m sure to the person I talk to.

Dude next to me: “It’s good up here, right?”

Me: “Yeah, I like being able to see but I’m hard of hearing so I cant actually hear anything anyway”

Dude: “Well, you heard me, heh heh.”

Me: “What?”


Me: :::::::::

The gathering is in front of the justice center. Someone, we later heard they were activists from Seattle, project the words POWER TO THE PEOPLE and FED GOONS OUT OF PDX on the wall of the justice center and the crowd roars. People are shouting, and tagging the building. The energy is high and intense, but still definitely a peaceful protest.

Although my first conversation was kind of a bust, I still feel happy and expectant, which in general seems to be the mood of the rest of the crowd too. Except for the extreme kindness people are showing each other, and the sense that everyone has one another’s back, it’s like a festival or a concert when everyone’s waiting for the main thing to start but just grateful to be there.

Someone comes by with 6 boxes of pizza piled in his arms, handing out slices. Someone else comes by with a huge bin of something - when I go closer to see it turns out to be thousands of tiny plastic pigs that make squeaky noises when they are squeezed, and all around me people are grabbing handfuls of the pigs and squeaking them at each other and laughing joyfully like kids on Christmas morning. 

I meet someone older than me (notable!) who tells me his dad was a UCC pastor back in New Hampshire. A law student comes by with green hat that says Legal Aid Society of Oregon and offers to write his number in sharpie on our arms in case we get arrested. I ask him what will happen if I call the number. He says some people need help with kids, pets, or (if they are unhoused) their possessions being seized. I think of the terror of arrest, compounded by the terror of losing so much that is precious and thank him sincerely. We run into some people from Tara’s church and she takes pictures of them and their signs for the church facebook page.

I make eye contact when I can, but with everyone wearing masks, all my regular social cues are muted and awkward. I think one person is trying to engage me in conversation and smile so he’ll see my eyes crinkle up and say “What?” and even with the mask I can tell he’s flustered to have caught my eye. “I grew up catholic...and the...collar...and...I’m just glad you’re here.”

Monday, About 10:30 pm
The crowd that’s been listening to the speakers begins to march up the block. Last time I was here and that happened, I followed and ended up way across town, so I opt to stay in the park this time. Someone comes by sounding remarkably conversational, considering she’s talking into a bullhorn: “the group has gone to look at the memorial, in case you were wondering.”

We sit down for a minute, check twitter to see if we can get a better sense of the big picture. I pick up a thread about how the swooping - taking groups of people out of the park and on little marches - is met with disapproval because it just dissipates the energy of the crowd. There’s a mild conspiracy theory that maybe the swoopers are in league with the authorities somehow.

We decide to move across the street to Lownsdale Park. As we cross the street, we pass a wagon full of shields made from thin plywood, like the ones I’ve seen in the park before; a long time ago when I took the kids out for a day of LARPing. But these kids are not playing. They are really going to use these flimsy looking little toy shields to protect themselves against armed adults carrying the military-grade weapons that are carried into combat against other soldiers. Now I start to feel a little bit afraid. 

It’s pretty smoky and I’ve been coughing since we got to the park. Riot Ribs is a pop up restaurant that basically runs 24/7 and is comprised of several tents and dozens of coolers. They are running a bunch of grills - so maybe it’s that. Someone has started a fire where the elk statue used to be. That could be it. Or it could the clouds of smoke from cigarettes and pot, which is omnipresent.

Im coughing but one thing I’m not afraid of is getting sick. Everyone’s wearing masks. Some people have been deputized (or self deputized?) to go around picking up garbage. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. “I’m just here for the hand sanitizer,” I tell the young person behind the serving table at Riot Ribs. “Sure, honey, you go right ahead and there’s more down there,” she’s so warm and present in that little interaction, that her youthful smile brings me to tears, even though I havent felt weepy at all until now.

A guy pulls up his shirt and shows a small group on a bench a red bruise where another night he got hit with a tear gas canister. Someone with PRESS handprinted on their hat is furiously typing into a phone. On a bench across from them, a couple is making out. There are a dozen or so people sleeping in the park and it occurs to me that we are in their bedroom. I wonder what it must be like to have the place you usually sleep turned into a combat zone/carnival.

Monday, about 11:30 pm
The mom bloc and the rest of the marchers come back on down the street and gather again - this time in front of the Federal Building. Someone with a bullhorn, maybe the same someone who was being conversational before, is now leading chants, the energy rising and rising and rising. All around me, people are pulling on gas masks and strapping on shin guards and popping in ear protection. Someone offers me ear plugs which I unwisely don’t take. It feels like any minute Something is happening.
Then, like an ocean wave going out, I can feel the energy start to wane. The moms start leaving in groups of two and three. We didnt know how we’d know when it’s time to leave, but it’s starting to feel like now is the right time. A medic asks if they can use my sign, because “one of our elders” wants to lay down but doesnt want to get his shirt dirty. I give him Jesus Resisted Fascists Too, and as we make our way to the parked car, I put the other half on the fire that’s still burning, still sending its smoke into the night.

Tuesday, about 12:00 am
The protesters are moving barricades in what seems like a pretty practiced and organized maneuver, across the road where we’re parked, but we get int he car and start off in the other direction, when we see a wave of people moving fast toward us. T stops the car and I look at her. “I want to get back out.” “Ok, i can stop for a minute, but just a minute.’
From where we are, I cant see the federal troops moving, but I see the clouds of smoke a block away almost at the same time that we’re hit with a gut punching percussion sound. People are streaming past me, as I stand still, trying to see the soldiers. I feel like if I could just see them, I could understand better what they are doing and why.

But then another boom, this one much closer, and I realize I’m getting in the way of people trying to get out of harm’s way - the one thing I really didnt want to do. I turn all the way around, back to the car and there on the sidewalk in front of me I see a can sputtering and shooting sparks. My mind says “wow a firework!” before my mind says “that is a can of tear gas that did not hit me somehow.” I skirt around it, and get in the car, coughing - eyes and nose not streaming but itching. EVen in the car, T was taking in tear gas, which I guess is actually a powder?, as well. There was no escaping it at that point.
Theres no way to leave the car now, in the middle of the road, in the middle of the crowd. Driving is the only way out. A guy in the crowd is covering his mouth with one hand, trying to keep his pants up with the other. I think he’s one of the people I saw in a sleeping bag earlier. A medic pulls him over and without a word drops saline into his eyes. The crowd is moving all around and past us. Someone (I think it is the former Catholic?) helps stop people for a second so we can move past the crowd that seems to be assembling to go back, back toward the smoke and the flying canisters and the rubber bullets.

Tuesday 12:48 am
As we drive toward home, I wonder what that warm hearted young woman - the one who called me honey - is doing at Riot Ribs back at the park. I imagine her putting on a gas mask, picking up the scattered coolers and plates and donated granola bars, compressing someone’s rubber bullet wound, and getting back to feeding the people who keep coming and coming and coming.


  1. Thank you. I appreciate this eye-witness telling. I was in Portland a few years ago and can picture this in my head.

  2. Thank you very much for this. It's been hard to figure from afar exactly what's happening (other than the feds' fascism), so it's very helpful to have your perspective.

  3. Thank you for bearing witness--and being present

  4. Prayers, prayers, prayers. Thank you for sharing your witness.

  5. Thank you for doing this Jennifer