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Portland protests draw thousands Thursday, after state troopers start duty at federal courthouse

Portland protests draw thousands Thursday, after state troopers start duty at federal courthouse

Oregon troopers arrived Thursday at the downtown Portland federal courthouse, the scene of nightly clashes between federal officers and protesters. State police are now taking over to try to defuse the sometimes violent confrontations.

Hours before the planned handoff, federal officers filled city streets late Wednesday in the largest visible response yet. Officers set off tear gas, shot impact munitions and detained some people.

Thursday marks a new chapter in the police response to 64 straight days of protests. It remains to be seen what the oversight of Oregon State Police will mean. Several hundred people gathered downtown by 9 p.m. Thursday to protest and to witness what might unfold.

Jasmine Lea-Miller often attends the nightly protests, sometimes staying as late as 5 a.m. She has seen repeated use of tear gas and force, by both local and federal officers. Lea-Miller questioned the change that Oregon State Police can bring about.

“What’s the difference, really?” Lea-Miller asked. “They’re still not giving the people what they want. They’re still not bringing these officers to justice.”

The demonstrations began in late May after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Federal officers began policing the protests about a month later. Federal officials have said agents won’t leave entirely until they are satisfied the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse is protected.

On Thursday afternoon, a handful of state troopers, wearing their standard-issue two-tone blue uniforms and broad hats, milled about behind the federal courthouse fence, chatting with each other and courthouse security workers.

They looked at Lownsdale Square across Southwest Third Avenue, the city park that had been cleared early Thursday of campers and debris by Portland police in preparation for the changing of the guard.

The park was taped off and empty for most of the day. Neighboring Chapman Square and the surrounding sidewalks also were closed.

Police removed the tape Thursday evening just as people prepared for a Black Lives Matter rally at the local Justice Center next to the courthouse. Portland officers who had been walking around the area also left.

About 200 people, including Reese Monson, stood outside the courthouse and walked around the parks nearby. Monson, who is Black, said he hoped the change in guard will move the focus back to ending police violence against Black people.

“Even though the feds are not gassing us, because they’re not here,” he said, “doesn’t mean the police won’t kill us, and we don’t want that. We want to let them know that you can’t just kill Black people and get away with it.”

Dozens of demonstrators also started to gather on the waterfront. They planned to eventually march to the courthouse. Dr. Karen Mularsky dressed in her scrubs to help take medical care of protesters. She said she hopes the state police presence will deescalate the situation, but is still concerned protesters weren’t involved in the conversation between federal and state officials.

Katy Vatter, an educator, said it remains to be seen what impact the withdrawal of federal forces will have on nightly protests. But ultimately, Vatter said, people should keep showing up for the core reason behind the protests: the Black Lives Matter movement.

The marchers arrived at the Justice Center rally around 9:15 p.m. By that point, the crowd continued to grow, surpassing 2,000 people. Police stayed away.

Several people talked to the crowd, including Kent Ford, who helped start the Black Panthers in Portland in the Civil Rights era and a fixture at the recent protests.

“George Floyd was an opportunity for you people to see what we already know,” Ford said. “We weren’t surprised. Black people were not surprised.”

As people spoke, a person walked through the crowd and passed out goggles, helmets and ear protection in preparation for a looming late-night conflict with police outside the federal courthouse. Yet, by 10 p.m., only about 100 people gathered in front of that building. Nearly everybody else remained at the rally led by young Black community leaders.

“The whitest city in America has made the biggest movement for Black lives,” one speaker said, drawing rounds of applause. “Congratulations!”

The rally ended around 10:15 p.m. Hundreds of people shifted to the courthouse over the next 10 minutes. A few Black people stood outside the fence there and encouraged people not to draw out a police response. Some people countered that direct action brings more attention to the movement.

“This is not Black lives matter!” Dan Thomas said into a microphone. Thomas, of Portland, told the crowd that creating problems hurts Black people more than white people.

“Your playing Trump’s hand,” Thomas said.

Around Thomas, the crowd chanted obscenities directed at federal officers. A few people stood on the concrete barriers next to the fence. One person hit the fence with a skateboard. Some people aimed lights and lasers at the building. A firework exploded across the street.

By 10:45 p.m., police had not emerged except much earlier in the day. Maya Malika led the crowd in chants of, “Revolution, nothing less!” Malika, from Los Angeles, attended the protests as part of National Revolution Tour, a group that travels across the country.

Roxanne Crump, 41, of Vancouver, stood among the crowd in a group of veterans standing symbolic guard. Crump said she served eight years in Army. Crump said she got hit by impact munitions shot by federal officers multiple times Wednesday night.

Crump said she doesn’t believe federal officers are withdrawing.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Crump said.

Many people gathered in Lownsdale Square, where tear gas residue had built up and made the air harsh.

Oregon State Police took on the high-profile assignment to provide security at the courthouse after the Trump administration this month sent more than 100 federal officers to guard the building, leading to larger crowds of thousands protesting their presence and widespread condemnation by city and state officials and members of Congress.

Gov. Kate Brown brokered a deal with Trump officials to start withdrawing the federal officers, often dressed in camouflage and responding to fires, fireworks and incursions at the fence with tear gas, pepper spray and riot-control munitions. They have also swept the blocks around the courthouse.

The aggressive tactics have prompted a cluster lawsuits objecting to serious injuries they have caused and questioning the authority of the officers to move far off federal property to push people back and make arrests.

The Trump administration said it sent the extra federal officers to protect the courthouse from an element of protesters determined to do violence.

President Donald Trump on Thursday called them “professional agitators” and “professional anarchists” and repeated was his acting Homeland Security secretary said the day before — that the out-of-town federal agents will leave only if the new approach is successful.

It remains to be seen if the state troopers can shift the dug-in dynamic of the protests – usually an hour or two of peaceful speeches and rallies, followed by a tense face-off between a smaller group of protesters and the officers.

That pattern quickly unfolded Wednesday night when thousands of demonstrators turned out. A Black Lives Matter rally ended around 10:30 p.m. The crowd decreased in size, but those who remained shifted to the federal courthouse.

Federal officials issued their first warning of the night around 10:50 p.m., prompted by people shining different types of lights, such as flashing lights and lasers, at the building. Officers then quickly streamed out of the courthouse, releasing tear gas and using impact munitions on people outside.

The tension reached a higher level around 11:50 p.m., when at least several dozen federal officers emerged on the streets. They set off gas and munitions as they closed in on the crowd and walked toward the courthouse. Some of officers swept through Lownsdale Square.

Confrontations in a two-block radius of the courthouse continued for an hour. When officers finally retreated, they set off tear gas and stun grenades.

Mark Graves, Beth Nakamura, Andrew Theen and Sean Meagher of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this report.

Celina Tebor; [email protected]

— Maxine Bernstein; [email protected]

— Molly Harbarger; [email protected]

— Noelle Crombie; [email protected]; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie

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