A ‘journalist’ pulled a gun on protesters after his phone was knocked from his hand in a scuffle.Photo by Robert Scherle

Protests Heat Up

Lawsuits and tear gas fly in Eugene and Portland 

The late summer days are growing hotter and more intense, and so are the Black Lives Matter protests in Eugene and Portland. President Donald Trump’s election-motivated decision to send federal law enforcement into Portland only intensified the conflicts.

Eugene’s protests, which had begun to quiet down after a riotous first weekend, followed suit and heated up on July 25 and 26. There are federal agents in Eugene as well, according to Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner, but he said at a recent press conference that they have remained in the federal building.In addition to the main focus of the protests — systemic racism and police violence against Black people, such as the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — law enforcement tactics against both citizens and the journalists documenting the rallies have become a polarizing issue. 

Gov. Kate Brown announced July 29 that after her repeated requests, “the federal government has agreed to a phased withdrawal of federal officers that have been deployed to the Mark Hatfield United States Courthouse over recent weeks.”

In classic Oregon style, a Wall of Moms formed to protect protesters in Portland and later Eugene. Portland BLM protesters were also shielded by a Wall of Dads — some bearing hockey sticks to whack tear gas canisters back at law enforcement and leaf blowers to blow the tear gas back away from the crowds. A Wall of Veterans also formed. 

There has been a constant debate and balance between Oregonians seeking to be allies and shield people of color from attacks by the police and federal agents, and the sense that these white allies are getting headlines, rather than the Black people protesting who are at the heart of the issue.

The Wall of Moms and longtime BLM protesters Don’t Shoot Portland filed a lawsuit July 27 with the nonprofit group Protect Democracy alleging in part that they have been “tear-gassed night after night, left vomiting and unable to eat or sleep because of the toxic poison blasted at them.” The Wall of Moms state on their website that their “goal is to push the media to turn the focus where it belongs: Black leaders,” and to “use our white bodies, not our white voices.” 

A Eugene chapter of the Wall of Moms has formed and can be found on Facebook.

The Wall of Moms lawsuit was far from the first one concerning BLM protesters and police violence in Oregon. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a suit July 17 against the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Marshals Service, the United States Customs and Border Protection as well as the Federal Protection Service and their agents, alleging they have “engaged in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregonians by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.” That suit was denied on July 24. 

Eugene Weekly reporter Henry Houston and attorneys with the Civil Liberties Defense Center announced a federal lawsuit on July 21 against the city of Eugene and members of the Eugene Police Department (EPD). On May 31, Houston was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister thrown by an Eugene police officer from the top of a BearCat armored vehicle and shot at with pepper balls. 

“I ran out of my house at 11 pm when I heard reports of EPD responding to protesters marching peacefully for Black lives,” Houston says. “I was supposed to be exempt from the curfew and protected by the First Amendment. But across the U.S., protesters and journalists are targeted by overzealous police and federal agents. I’m suing because I want to change how policing is done locally in Eugene.”

At a July 27 press conference addressing the recent weekend riots and police response, Chief Skinner admitted, “When we started this in late May it was apparent to me that this police department has not had a lot of experience with crowds like that.” Skinner said that was “a good thing,” because, “if you get really good at managing riots then there’s something wrong with this community and society as a whole.”

He said lessons were learned that weekend, and “huge mistakes” were made “that we don’t want to repeat.” 

Journalists and legal observers in Portland, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, also filed a lawsuit. Index Newspapers LLC v. City of Portland seeks to stop the Portland Police Bureau from targeting and attacking news reporters, photojournalists and legal observers as they document and observe protests and the police response. 

Index Newspapers is the parent company of alt weeklies The Stranger and the Portland Mercury. Mercury reporters have been documenting protests since they started more than 60 days ago, despite not having an office or a print version of the paper due to COVID-19 financial cutbacks.

After Trump deployed the federal agents, the lawsuit came to include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service. On July 23, a judge blocked federal agents in Portland from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest or targeting force against journalists or legal observers at protests, according to the ACLU.

On July 29 the ACLU filed yet another lawsuit — this one to stop the Portland police from live streaming protesters. 

Independent journalist Mike Bivins — an EW freelancer — filed a statement in support of the July 23 temporary restraining order. The order not only blocked police and federal agents from “dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or targeting force against journalists or legal observers at protests,” it also said federal agents “cannot unlawfully seize any photographic equipment, audio- or video-recording equipment, or press passes from journalists and legal observers, or order journalists or legal observers to stop photographing, recording, or observing a protest.”

Bivins says the night he was tear gassed in the eyes covering the Portland protest at the federal courthouse he was on the sidewalk, not the street, when he saw the “feds getting defensive and pushing people back.” 

He says he was behind those people being pushed, and “I am thinking they are going to start beating people like the Navy guy.”

The “Navy guy” was Navy veteran Christopher J. David, who went out to the Portland protests to ask federal agents how they squared their actions with their oath to support, uphold and defend the Constitution, according to media reports. A Portland Tribune reporter videoed David as he was beaten with batons by the agents, breaking his hand as he stood unresisting.

As Bivins was thinking of that incident, he says one of the agents pushing the crowd back “lunges at me and just pepper sprays me.”

The spray got in his eyes, despite the glasses he had purchased earlier at Ace Hardware. Unable to see, he says he found someone wearing black who led him to a medic to get help. “I am in the road, down on my knees, I can’t breathe and it’s in my lungs, and my skin was on fire.”

Bivins says he was there covering the protests both as an independent journalist and with a press pass as a special correspondent for Village Portland.

“I didn’t anticipate getting pepper sprayed,” he muses. “I probably missed some good shots.” As an indie journalist, not on salary, Bivins is only paid if something happens and he is able to document it. 

“Unfortunately I sort of became the story,” he says, “but sold some footage to ABC.”

Bivins says he tries to “dress professionally” and communicate, “I am not a threat, maybe don’t kick my ass.” He adds, “I know they have to make a split second decision. They should have been able to register and make the decision to leave this guy alone.”

EW reporter Houston was also dressed in a way he says he thought communicated he was not part of the protest.

On the weekend of July 25, when local protests again led to arrests and tear gas, Eugene police say they were monitoring online “chatter” leading them to believe people from out of town would be coming down to Eugene. Skinner said at the Monday press conference, “It’s not lost on me that what we see in Portland and the emotions we see in Portland have a tendency to manifest themselves down here.”

On a Saturday night there was a Eugene protest in solidarity with Portland ”against the federal occupation and all state repression,” and on Sunday night, a “No Feds No Fascists” protest. Both kicked off at the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse. Neither was organized by local BLM group Black Unity, which has spearheaded several events around town.

Skinner said none of the arrests made those nights involved people with out of town addresses. At a July 27 press conference he addressed the concerns that federal agents had been or would be sent to Eugene, saying, “What I can tell you is that any federal officers that have been deployed here have been deployed inside the federal building and have not exited the federal building.”

Skinner continued, “I have been really clear: Eugene Police Department takes care of Eugene streets.” He said, “When it comes to protecting the streets of Eugene that’s our job, and they have been really respectful of that.”

On both nights in Eugene guns were drawn by people in the crowd, and on Saturday night a shot was fired by a counter protester. On Sunday, a man wearing a gas mask and a helmet marked “press” and open-carrying a gun, pulled that gun on a crowd that was angrily concerned at the presence of his gun. EPD followed the man after he left the march and arrested him with guns drawn. It is unclear if he was “press” beyond the fact he was holding an iPhone and wearing the word on his head.