Agents of Chaos

The brutal response to Portland’s protests against police brutality

A protester is pepper sprayed by a federal agent during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland. Since the end of May, there have been about three hundred incidences of police brutality in the city. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP photo
01 October, 2020

At about 1 am on 20 July—the fifty-fourth consecutive day of protests against police brutality in Portland, Oregon—a flash grenade exploded about four feet to my left, shooting out blinding light and a burst of sparks, illuminating the vast cloud of tear gas near the Mark O Hatfield Federal Courthouse. A journalist in front of me stood behind a large plexiglass shield with a camera affixed to it. I hid behind him, peeking out in an attempt to film the federal agents unleashing this barrage on the few dozen protesters and press.

As the onslaught appeared to slow down, another tear-gas canister came in our direction. I stepped too far away from the shield in front of me, and an expletive passed my lips as a rubber bullet hit my thigh with the force of a cricket bat at full swing. Later, rooftop snipers painted targets with a high-powered laser. The federal agents in front of the courthouse tracked it using infrared goggles, launching more impact munitions and chemical agents at protesters who would otherwise be obscured in the thick cloud of tear gas.

Across the United States, protests have arisen since the police killing of George Floyd in late May. In Portland and many other cities, the initial nights of protest brought chaos, with destruction and theft in some of the city’s high-profile sites of advanced capitalism—Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the Apple store were hit particularly hard. But as the passion of those first nights ebbed, the protests began to take a different tone. Every evening, thousands of demonstrators marched across the city. As night fell, many congregated around the federal courthouse and the Justice Center, which houses the Portland police’s administrative headquarters and jail.

Soon, a familiar pattern set in. As the midnight hour approached, protesters became more rambunctious, pushing at the fence the police had erected in front of the government buildings, tossing over half-consumed water bottles in the general direction of the police, occasionally landing a hit, and launching firecrackers at the tall concrete buildings before them.