Fiery Protest

A night of destruction, including, fires and looting, rocks Eugene at a time of national unrest

The protest started as a reaction to the killing of George Floyd and other acts of police violence against black people that have gone on unstopped in America.

As the hour grew late, what had been a peaceful gathering and march became what the Eugene Police Department later called “unruly.”

A fire in Starbucks. A PeaceHealth bike thrown through the window of Jimmy Johns. A man gleefully exiting Sprint holding a printer over his head, walking towards another fire; this one is in the middle of 7th and Washington and is kept ablaze by a myriad of dumpsters, signposts, benches and construction equipment. There’s a fight involving several people in the parking lot next to Starbucks that leads to a small car crash. A crowd of protesters smoke, drink and chant, “Say His Name! George Floyd!,” as everyone stands around, waiting to see what will happen next.

A black woman used a megaphone to beg the crowd of largely white protesters to stop smashing windows. In the end, she was ignored.

EPD has not officially called the destruction on the night of May 30 a riot.

What began as a peaceful demonstration at the Lane County Courthouse, ended in window smashing, burning, looting and eventually tear gas, as EPD deployed SWAT teams a little after 2:30 am in an attempt to disperse protesters angry over the death of Floyd, a black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck while Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe. His death was captured in a viral video last week.

Numerous protesters said they decided to participate after it was reported that EPD’s Chief Chris Skinner was invited to speak at the Black Lives Matter protest planned for Sunday, May 31. Local organizers for the BLM march quickly rescinded the offer to speak after social media backlash, saying that the invitation had been a mistake.

The crowd went from the courthouse to 7th and Washington complex, which houses Five Guys, what used to be T-Mobile, Jimmy Johns and Starbucks; the building suffered smashed windows and looting. Across the street, the Sprint store was also smashed and looted, while The Stereo Store next door remained virtually untouched, thanks to a security guard standing near the front entrance.

At the height of what EPD called an “unruly crowd,” there looked to be around 300 people and three separate fires happening, one of which was started inside Starbucks. EPD also had reports of looting at both the Buy 2 and Hunky Dory, as well as shattered glass at the FireHouse.

In the midst of the protest, Juiced Up Vapors on 7th was broken into and looted, according to a Facebook post from owner David Nettles. An African American, Nettles says there aren’t that many black businesses in Eugene and it’s unfortunate his shop was burglarized.

Nettles set up a GoFundme campaign to help restore the lost product and fix the damages to his store.

EPD said officers were made aware of a small gathering a little after 8 pm at the Lane County Courthouse related to the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.

Eugene resident Celeste Heath was there at the beginning. “It started off as just a sit-in on 8th and Oak. We held signs and a lot of people drove by and showed support,” Heath says. “Some people came and were trying to work up the crowd from the beginning, saying we needed to do more and show the cops what we were about. That felt very intentional. Then we started walking to the police station, and I noticed a few people had guns and most of the people with guns had on goggles as well. The cops started following us when this one person started shooting fireworks at buildings and trying to do more damage.”

According to Facebook live streams and reports from The Register-Guard, people were actively trying to get rid of the protesters with guns and encouraging others to not incite any further destruction.

EPD says that about an hour later, the crowd had swelled to about 200 people and began to act “unruly.” Bottles and rocks were thrown, LTD buses were spray painted and fireworks were thrown into the Lane County Jail and at parked cars, police said.

The crowd ended up at the intersection of 7th and Washington. A local activist, Laurabell Harlow, parked her car across 7th to block off traffic and to contain the area where the fire was. In addition to signs, recycling dumpsters and outdoor seating, at least one Eugene Weekly box was burned.

Harlow said she was one of the people who helped organize the evening demonstration. “I had heard about the protest that’s happening this Sunday, and I was pretty mad that they were involving the police and planning to have the chief speak,” Harlow said at the protest. “So I made a post on Facebook giving people my number, saying they could contact me if they wanted to plan any other anti-cop protests.”

Harlow continued: “I think it’s awesome, burn more shit. We need more explicitly anti-police protests. We need to make a bigger scene or we’re not going to get the attention we need to change the world.”

Standing away from the fire, Beverly Palacios said she saw the protest forming downtown and wanted to see where it would lead. Palacios said that a majority of participants didn’t appear to be acting in good faith and that the point of the demonstration was lost somewhere along the way.

“In Minneapolis, I understand, but here? I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never heard of a single police shooting like that. Our police aren’t like that,” Palacios said. “It doesn’t make sense to make a scene this big here when it’s not happening to us. It’s mostly just white people, homeless people and kids burning shit, and if the police roll up everyone is going to run because they don’t care about the national issues.”

Around 12:30 am, EPD showed up on 7th, briefly ordering protesters to leave and spraying a first round of tear gas. Police then left quickly after but the crowd stayed, until eventually people started slowly making their way back downtown, on 7th.

EPD said in a press release that in order to value life over property, police officers avoided the intersection where the fires were and instead monitored the surrounding areas for safety.

“The situation reached a stage that required police move in to stop the situation from becoming more dangerous as windows to the local business were broken out and concern mounted regarding the potential for fires spreading inside the businesses and looting,” according to the press release. “Announcements were made to allow people to leave before gas was deployed at 12:40 am. A second fire was started on Lawrence subsequently, with a crowd of more than 50.”

In an email to EW, Chief Skinner denounced the demonstration and condemned the property damage. “What is happening tonight is not a legitimate, free speech event,” Skinner says. “It is illegal, irresponsible, and is destroying local business and city property. It threatens the reputation of other peaceful and lawful events that don’t damage our city and put our residents and guests in harm’s way.”

A little before 2:30 am, EPD deployed its SWAT team with assistance from Springfield Police Department and the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, according to EPD. They then used tear gas to push protesters away from downtown Eugene.

The vandalism and the looting seemed to be caused by a small number of the otherwise relatively peaceful protesters. The looters were mostly white, while the activists discouraging the destruction were people of color.

In a video that has since gone viral, off-duty Register-Guard reporter Jordyn Brown spoke to Clea Ibrahim, a protester who was using a megaphone both to lead protesters in chants about Floyd and to discourage people from smashing out the windows at the 7th and Washington complex.

“I didn’t want to vandalize the town,” Ibrahim says. “I wanted to run through the town and scream George Floyd’s name. I didn’t ask for the fire, I had no idea that the windows would be broken. That’s why I was trying to stop them because this needs to be peaceful. Because I don’t think George would have wanted those windows broken.”

But Ibrahim was quick to underscore the importance of the demonstration, hopefully reminding viewers of the real reason everyone was here in the first place.

“I’m really sad with the way America is right now. I’m really disheartened about the way America is right now and I want justice for George Floyd,” she says in the video. “And I’m not going to stop yelling his name until the sun comes up. I’ll stay out here all night, I don’t care.”

Stephanie Babb, the sister of Brian Babb, a military veteran who was shot and killed by EPD, can be seen on her live stream also trying to stop the crowd from destruction.

The protest in Eugene comes at a time of national unrest, as violent protests continue to break out across the country. In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler issued a State of Emergency last night after similar protests erupted in Oregon’s biggest city. So far, Portland police have arrested 13 people on charges of rioting and theft.

The Black Lives Matter march remains scheduled for 1 pm, May 31. Posting on the official Facebook event page, organizer Madeliene Smith says that Sunday’s march is in no way connected to the protest from last night and that the event on Sunday was always intended to be nonviolent.