PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The mayor of Portland, Oregon, a city wracked by nearly 70 consecutive nights of unrest, on Thursday angrily denounced those who attempted to set a police precinct on fire with officers stationed inside as props in President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and said those individuals were not protesters, but criminals.
“You are not demonstrating, you are attempting to commit murder,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in hastily called news conference alongside Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell.
“Don’t think for a moment that you are if you are participating in this activity, you are not being a prop for the reelection campaign of Donald Trump — because you absolutely are,” he said. “You are creating the B-roll film that will be used in ads nationally to help Donald Trump during this campaign. If you don’t want to be part of that, then don’t show up.”
The show of solidarity among Portland’s leadership came after two consecutive nights of violent clashes between protesters and local police less than a week after an agreement between state and federal officials appeared to be ratcheting down sky-high tensions that had simmered for weeks.
The clashes between thousands of protesters and U.S. agents sent by the Trump administration to guard the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse stopped after an agreement between Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that called for the agents to begin drawing down their presence in Portland’s downtown on July 30.
But after a brief weekend reprieve, protest activity has continued nightly in other parts of the city, with Portland police, local sheriff’s deputies and, in some cases, Oregon State Police troopers on the streets as demonstrators demand an end to police funding.
Wednesday night’s activity was in a residential neighborhood in the east part of city, 6 miles (10 kilometres) away from the federal courthouse that was a focus of the violent protests that attracted Trump and the nation’s attention in early July.
Police used tear gas for the first time since federal agents left the federal courthouse last week. A federal court order bans the local police from using the chemical irritant unless they declare a riot, which happened on Wednesday.
Protesters on Wednesday gathered outside a police precinct and shined lasers in officers’ eyes, disabled exterior security cameras, broke windows and used boards pulled from the precinct to barricade the doors and start a fire, authorities said. There were 20 sworn officers inside, as well as civilian employees, said Capt. Tony Passadore, who was the incident commander at the time.
The violence began after a group of about 100 people gathered in a nearby park for a rally advertised on social media by the group Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front with the slogan “No cops. No prisons. Total abolition.” The group then marched to the precinct.
Passadore noted that at the same time, there was a larger, peaceful gathering of Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the federal courthouse downtown, listening to speeches. That gathering required no police resources, he said.
“I don’t want people to get confused to think that this was something related to Black Lives Matter,” he said of the precinct rally. “I’ve been the incident commander for 24 nights of the 70-plus events, and I’ve seen amazing protesting going on in the city of Portland where people gather together.”
It was at least the third time since protests broke out in the city in late May that smaller crowds have targeted police precincts with barricades and fire. A precinct in North Portland, a historically Black neighborhood, the downtown police headquarters and the police union headquarters have also all been focal points for demonstrators who are calling for the defunding of the Portland police.
Wheeler said the city anticipates “additional planned attacks on public buildings” in the coming days and said he was giving the police leeway to do what they needed to do to counter those plans as long as it can be done without threatening peaceful protesters.
“Based on the briefing I received this morning …I believe that city staff could have died last night. I cannot and I will not tolerate that,” said Wheeler, who is also police commissioner.
Protests have gone on unabated in Portland since May 25 following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him by the neck. Floyd’s death prompted national outrage and a reckoning in cities around the U.S. with systemic racism.
In Portland, the civil disobedience prompted Trump to send federal agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to guard the federal courthouse, which was increasingly targeted in demonstrations that often turned violent.
It was a move intended to quell the unrest but the presence of federal agents instead reinvigorated demonstrators and created a focal point for the protests each night.