There’s the picture painted by right-wing media about protests in Portland, Oregon, and then there’s what is actually going on. Veteran Sean Davis experiences it firsthand.
Thousands of Portland citizens, moms, dads, social workers, teachers, and now veterans fight unmarked and unnamed federal troops on a nightly basis in front of the federal building in Portland, Oregon. It’s been going on now for almost two months.
Make no mistake about it, over weeks of fighting, tactics, weapons, and equipment have escalated on both sides, to the point where the protesters themselves look like a paramilitary force.
- The camouflage-clad federal troops shoot rubber bullets and pepper balls and hit the protesters in the head—so, the protesters start wearing helmets and carry shields.
- The federal troops throw CS gas canisters into crowds and pepper spray people directly into their faces—so, the protesters start wearing gas masks, goggles, long-sleeve shirts, and pants.
- Federal troops break windows out of the federal building six, seven stories up to fire down on the protesters—so, the protesters start using laser pointers and high-powered flashlights to keep the snipers from seeing them.
- The federal troops repeatedly gas and injure protesters—so, the protesters have medics and ACLU observers.
- Federal troops come out every night—so, a camp has been set up in Lownsdale Square in front of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.
I debated about putting myself in this narrative because I don’t want to take anything away from the movement, but I patrolled the streets of Port au Prince during a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti during their revolution, I led men on daily combat missions in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, I deployed to New Orleans on a humanitarian mission during our country’s largest natural disaster after Katrina, and I worked law enforcement for three years. The federal forces in Portland have more and better equipment than I did in any deployment the US Army ever sent me on. They are using weapons and tactics that would have brought me up on war crimes if I did them in combat in any other country. How are they getting away with this in Portland, Oregon, United States?
In the military, during any deployment, we are given Rules of Engagement (ROE). This tells us the type of equipment we’ll have, how our unit will be used, and every time I’ve received one it stated that I cannot shoot anyone, even with less than lethal weapons, unless my life is in danger or someone else’s life is in danger. I have no idea what the ROE is for these federal troops, but they are gassing people in the face without provocation. They are aiming at people’s heads with “baton rounds” 40 millimeters wide. They target the vulnerable and throw flash bangs and gas grenades into areas they cannot even see, not caring who it affects.
These federal troops, while some may be veterans, aren’t in the military. We can’t know for certain since they don’t show their faces, won’t wear name tags, and won’t identify what department they work for, but it’s been reported by reputable sources that the federal troops are contractors who are led by BORTAC, which is an elite team for Border Patrol under Homeland Security that use special weapons and tactics (yes, SWAT). These men don’t take an oath to uphold the Constitution like every one of our military men and women do.
While I won’t tell you that everyone in the military is a good person (Tom Cotton is a veteran for instance), I will say that honor, selfless service, and duty are the cornerstones of military belief. They are the foundation the military uses to build the character of a young recruit. None of these traits are a job requirement when getting hired on as a contractor. This isn’t to say that all contractors are bad. In fact, I know many who are stellar people, but none of the ones I know would gas a veteran point blank in the face and beat someone with a baton like they did to Navy Veteran Chris David. None of them would gas an elderly Vietnam Veteran in the face for simply talking like they did to Mike Hastie.
Like many, I watched the live feeds for a few days, but I needed to see for myself, so I drove three and a half hours with a good friend and combat veteran to stand with the Wall of Vets. The news picked this up and showed a wall of male veterans who put themselves between the federal troops and the moms and dads, but what you didn’t see is that many of the veterans were women, one was on crutches and she stood there with us for five hours protecting the protesters.
At the end of the Wall of Veterans were two women in wheelchairs. Now that is courage. We stood there while Black Lives Matter speakers spoke to thousands. The bulk of the crowd left after the speakers were done.
Like many, I watched the live feeds for a few days, but I needed to see for myself, so I drove three and a half hours with a good friend and combat veteran to stand with the Wall of Vets.
Only fifteen minutes later, explosions rang out and echoed from the buildings surrounding us. Younger protesters ran to the front and started pushing down the wall around the federal building. Right behind them were wartime reporters decked out in bulletproof vests and gas masks filming it all. This was followed by more explosions. I couldn’t tell which side set them off, but within minutes the first gas grenades were thrown.
Most of the crowd lacked military grade gas masks. In fact, the majority of the people out there only had cloth masks or maybe an N95, this does little against CS gas. Someone yelled for people to “walk, not run” so no one would be trampled, and despite the stinging in the eyes and nose and an inability to breathe, people didn’t run.
Many of the protesters used umbrellas and leaf blowers to block the gas and send it back. That’s when I noticed that the federal troops had leaf blowers of their own. The first time I was gassed, I walked to the back and, through the tears, I saw a transgender woman pick up a stack of makeshift shields, maybe eight or ten plastic lids with handles duct taped on, and she ran to the front because she knew the pepper balls were coming next. On my way back to the front, she was headed out, eyes red, coughing, snot running down her face. By the end of the night, the feds would throw a gas grenade over the wall, the protesters would pick it up and throw it back, and it would go back and forth until the gas ran out, like some weird post-apocalypse lawn game.
We are heading into the third month of this battle and both sides are escalating, tactics are evolving. And I will tell you this from experience, someone is going to die soon. There is no doubt about it. Either here, or in Chicago, or wherever else Trump sends his secret police, someone will die. And the truth of it all is that it can be avoided. The protesters don’t want to be there anymore than the angry people on the right want them there. All they want is for black men and women to stop getting killed on our streets.
Many people believe that there is some fringe army of anarchists who want this violence to keep going. They are the ones breaking the windows of businesses, starting fires, and spray painting their hate on our city. Being there, on the streets, I can tell you this isn’t true. There is definitely an element of young protesters who feel disenfranchised from society. I believe they have no other rite of passage afforded them, so they’re willing to pick a fight with authority. They are pissed off and want to break something. They want to poke authority in the eye, but they aren’t the Black Lives Matter leadership.
It’s easy to get upset when you look at the photos the right-wing media is showing on heavy rotation. Thank the gods that right-wing media wasn’t around when our Founding Fathers created our country, they would have been labeled domestic terrorists. It’s a sad perspective, but only five people died in the Boston Massacre, a catalyst to our revolution. How many people of color can you name off the top of your head who were killed by police in the last few years? Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, and so many more.
I don’t know how this will end if the federal troops aren’t removed. Their presence will keep the protesters there every night and their actions continuously provoke the property damage and graffiti that justify the federal troops presence. Until a clear leader comes to Portland, or rises up in Portland, we will keep seeing thousands of moms, dads, social workers, lawyers, teachers, and veterans risking injury and death on a nightly basis just to tell the world something they should already know: Black Lives Matter.
All photos by Sean Davis. To see additional photos, click here.