A Weekend of Fire and Protest

Peaceful protesters, SWAT teams and looters flooded the streets of Eugene this weekend

A protester throwing a barrel from a nearby auto shop into an already blazing fire, at the intersection of Washington Street and W. 7th Avenue Friday night. Photo by Ceara D. Swogger.

Thousands of people cheering outside the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse. Police shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters on Broadway. Looters smashing windows of businesses with shovels on 7th Avenue. Chants, marches and arrests. Anger, sadness and hope.

In Eugene, the weekend of May 30-31 brought thousands of people together in peaceful protest against police violence and systemic racism. It also tore the community apart as looters destroyed property and the Eugene Police Department forcefully broke up crowds with riot control weapons and arrested protesters. 

Sunday afternoon’s protest, organized by siblings Madeliene Smith and Spencer Smith, was the largest and most peaceful gathering of the weekend. An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people listened to speeches outside the courthouse, holding signs: “Black Lives Matter.” “George Floyd.” “Demilitarize the Police.”  

After the speeches, the crowd marched across the Ferry Street Bridge, chanting “No justice, no peace. No racist police,” among other Black Lives Matter slogans. They gathered again at Alton Baker Park to listen to more speeches. Almost everybody wore COVID-19 masks. 

When the new Ferry Street Bridge was built in the 1950s, it displaced the small African American community that had been living there — forced by racist laws to live across the river and outside city limits. 

University of Oregon student Max Ntege says he went to the Sunday protest to “ignite change.” Ntege grew up in Minnesota, where the recent Black Lives Matter protests started after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Ntege, who is African American, says he wasn’t surprised by the killing because he regularly experienced discrimination in Minnesota. But he was angry nonetheless.

“It shouldn’t be something that is normal,” he says. “It should be something that should be stopped by going out and protesting, showing the country that we’re sick and tired of our brothers and sisters being killed for these things.” 

Onias Mupunga, a Eugene resident born in Zimbabwe, marched with his family. Mupunga says he worries about his 4- and 15-year-old sons and hopes for a future when they won’t have to worry about being killed by police. He appreciated the support of the many non-black people who were at the protest. 

“We have everyone here — different colors, different backgrounds — supporting the cause,” he says. “That’s encouraging.” 

The protesters at the afternoon Black Lives Matter event were peaceful, and police did not disperse any crowds. But Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights were much more turbulent because of actions by looters and EPD. The city of Eugene enacted curfews that started in the downtown area, then expanded to the whole city,  Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights. 

What started as a peaceful protest Friday night became chaotic when it was hijacked by looters, who were mainly white. 

At 7th Avenue and Washington Street, young white looters wearing balaclavas threw large rocks through the windows of the Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Five Guys and Sprint stores, while Clea Ibrahim, a black woman, yelled at them to stop. People jumped through holes in the broken windows, carrying out bags of Starbucks coffee beans, packaged quinoa salads and phone cases.

Multiple fires burned in dumpsters and on the street. Two fire hydrants that were busted open gushed water onto 7th Avenue. Some protesters chanted Black Lives Matter slogans while bystanders watched, smoking and drinking. 

EPD arrived at 7th Avenue at around 12:30 am, spraying a round of tear gas and briefly telling people to leave before moving out. The crowd stayed, then moved downtown and looted other businesses, including the black-owned Juiced Up Vapors.  

EPD deployed a SWAT team at around 2:30 am, shooting tear gas canisters as they marched west on Broadway with a riot vehicle toward protesters. The crowd dispersed from there. 

At about 10 pm Saturday, a group of 30 or so gathered outside the fire station at 13th Avenue and Willamette Street, at the border of the curfew zone that ended at 13th. Ethan Klein, who was present at the protest, says some protesters crossed the curfew line, marching downtown at about 11:30 pm. Klein and his wife, who was also present, didn’t cross the line. Three people were later arrested, according to EPD. 

On Sunday after the organized protest, about 500 people marched in the downtown area at around 5 pm. EPD vehicles circled the protesters, but didn’t directly confront them until later in the evening. There were two incidents of guns being pulled by passing motorists, according to EPD, but nobody was hurt. 

According to EPD, police first used tear gas to disperse a crowd at about 8:20 pm, when some protesters didn’t follow orders to disperse. The rest of the night turned into a game of cat and mouse. EPD shot tear gas canisters and bean bag rounds at people downtown and later at 14th and Kincaid near the UO campus at peaceful protesters, including Eugene Weekly journalist Henry Houston. Seven people were arrested, according to EPD. 

Monday, a group of about 75 people peacefully marched through downtown Eugene after a vigil for George Floyd at Monroe Park. At 10:30 pm, EPD arrived and told them to go home because they were in the current curfew zone. Most of them stayed out until the citywide curfew started at midnight. Things stayed peaceful on the part of the protesters and the police. 

Malik McClain, known as Liko Sukoshi, part of the local rap duo Peacoat Gang, says he was arrested outside of Whole Foods on Broadway Sunday night and spent the night in the Lane County Jail. He says EPD SWAT teams ambushed his group of peaceful protesters, and that he wasn’t aware there was a curfew. 

“We’re out here protesting peacefully and you all are out here with gas masks and rubber bullets, shooting at us, rolling up with armor-covered cars and shit,” McClain tells EW a few hours after he was released from jail. 

McClain posted a video of him and other protesters kneeling outside Whole Foods before the arrest on his Facebook profile, which is under the name Liko Don Dada. He posted another video at about 2 pm Monday of him and other protesters outside the Lane County Jail. In the video, McClain says he was just released from the jail.