Long Read: Black Lives Matter, Portland Justice Center, Juneteenth

By Sarah Handyside, June 19th, 2020

Phase 1: Anticipation

Portland, Ore. — Snipers aim down from the rooftop of the Justice Center, which looks west, across SW 3rd Ave, at a row of three parks: Terry Schrunk Plaza, Chapman Square and Lownsdale Square. People mill about the crushed lawns looking restive, sparking with agitation. An orange cone sits askew between the antlers of the bronze elk statue that stands proudly in its fountain in the middle of Main Street. People perch on the edges of the fountain’s empty bowl. Super-sensitive antennae beam out the corners of their eyes, always scanning. People walk without ever putting all their weight into a footstep. They know at any moment they might have to run. A girl in overalls does the splits on the corner of 3rd and Main Street, a book open on the cement between her thighs. Despite her overt efforts, even she fails to look relaxed.  

North of the justice Center, just across Main Street, people tag the walls of the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse. They also tag the steps, stone walls and sidewalks. Layer upon layer of multi-colored graffiti scrawls over the building’s thick, geometric pillars giving them the look of an Ayn Rand creation wearing a Bill Cosby sweater. “De-fuck your mind,” a black strand of yarn says. “The Final Oink!” says an orange strand.

Those wildly woven yarns pulse with the beats of hip-hop and reggae that boom from the cars parked along the curbs and across the intersections. Driver doors and passenger doors gape open, people sitting in seats and on bumpers and hoods. Three women dance together in a crosswalk like they’re at the club.

On the corner of SW 3rd and Main, in front of Lownsdale Square, there’s a white van. It’s covered with messages scrawled in sharpie. In huge green letters on the driver’s side, it says BLM. A Ziploc bag of sharpies is taped to the back bumper. The sliding side door stands open, revealing a shelf of water bottles, sodas, twinkies, energy bars and other snacks. A laid-back , soft-spoken young man sits outside the van on a folding chair. He drives regularly between Seattle and Portland, attending BLM rallies and providing free snacks for protesters. He even has instant coffee. He’s been at the Justice Center every night for weeks. He has a name, but many people know him as Snack Van.    

The smell of weed. The Velcro sound of skateboard wheels on asphalt. Someone walks by with an open box of cheese pizza, offering a slice to everyone he passes. At the 4th Avenue side of Chapman Square, there’s a table with stacks of pizzas, crates of water bottles and granola bars, and even poster board and sharpies for making signs. It’s all free. One protester kneels on the ground, writing out the words, “Then they came for me, but there was no one left to speak up.”

A chorus of car horns arises from between the buildings. A parade of vehicles comes down SW 4th Avenue, signs taped all over them, fists raised out the open windows, torsos sticking out of sun roofs. A girl inside a passing convertible rings a cowbell. “We are only as blind as we want to be,” says the lipstick scrawled across a passing window. It’s a Maya Angelou quote.

Wild abandon mixes with keen alertness, creating a charged mix of invincibility and euphoria that could snap into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. People know the whole world is watching. All those eyes and lenses form an invisible protective shield. They also know the second those eyes glance away, they’re fucked. It’s a buoyant rush, like standing on the edge, knowing you’ll be kicked off and knowing you’ll be able to fly, but only as long as someone is watching.

“How many weren’t filmed?” a passing sign asks.

Isn’t is beautiful being woke together? What happens when the initial fire of protest burns out and we’re asked to maintain our newfound understanding from across the chasm-like boundaries of our segregated lives? What happens when the adventure is over and the novelty wears off and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement becomes work that we must do in our precious little free time?    

Phase 2: Ignition

This is the part where someone kindles the idling engine and presses the gas pedal. It’s usually one of the dozen or so Black activists that have been coming to the Justice Center every night for weeks. Sometimes, they rile the crowd of hundreds of white supporters with chants and speeches and everyone stands at the foot of the towering police fortress, antagonizing the cops inside. Tonight, they round everyone up for a march.

Three cars full of BLM activists stand shoulder to shoulder, blocking off Main Street at SW 4th Avenue. They roll forward and protesters fall in behind. “Whose streets?” they shout. “Our Streets!” The chants feel dense but buoyant. They fill the space between buildings and expand, pressing on the windows, moving solid walls. “Take it to the streets and fuck the police! No justice, no peace!” I’ve always liked this one. It has a rhythm you can dance to. “A! C! A! B! All cops are bastards!” This one comes out like a combination of an angry cheer and a childish taunt. That acronym is spray-painted all over Portland. As we march west down Main Street, the chants roll backward through the throng like waves, rising, falling and changing. People stop to clang out beats on metal lamp posts and parking signs.

We make a few turns, but most people aren’t paying attention to the route. They trust that someone is leading with a purpose. Then people suddenly realize that we’ve taken over the Morrison Bridge, which crosses the Willamette River into southeast Portland. For a moment, nervousness subdues the crowd. Most people have only crossed this bridge in a car. Filling the wide lanes on foot feels not just illegal but unnatural. The lights of the city twinkle in the breathless tension. The slow black Willamette slides silently beneath us. Some of us are realizing for the first time that protesting is not safe.

Protesters on the Morrison Bridge, Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Garth Kiser

Bursts of argument break the positive ambiance. “Why are we going to fucking Rev Hall?!”

Revolution Hall is a music venue. It used to be the auditorium of the former Washington High School, which closed in 1981. Tonight, it’s host to a Juneteenth celebration. To some, dancing to live DJs at a music venue does not qualify as dissent. It’s just a party. It disrupts nothing.

“We’re going back to the Justice Center!” one woman says, leading half the protesters back toward SW 3rd and Main St.  

“Whose streets? Our Streets!” the chant breaks the tension, smooths over the confusion. People remember that they’re here to take space, not ask for it. A guy with an AK-47 slung across his torso helps direct the remaining protesters—still a very large group—over the peak of Morrison Bridge and onto SE Belmont Street. “Stay together! Stay tight!” the leaders yell as traffic piles up in a freeway off-ramp on our right. Despite the traffic jam, there is not a cop in sight. None of the drivers visibly object. Some raise fists and honk in solidarity.

Belmont Street is one of those places that travel guides describe as having a “funky feel” and “local color.” I liked coming here as a kid. I remember bead shops that smelled of Nag Champa incense. I remember hippies with dreads, drums and patchwork clothes. Accountants doing business out of pink and purple craftsman houses. Belmont Street always had Indian food, Thai food, vegan food and plenty of coffee. And there’s the Avalon Theater, which has been open since 1912. It stands out for its Art Deco design, but it’s cool because it was once a mortuary, then a brothel, and it shares space with the Wunderland nickle arcade. Belmont Street is Portlandia. It’s a hipster haven oozing with that transplant takeover vibe that makes me not want to live in Portland ever again.   

Here in transplant town, protesters discover clean walls and soon the smell of spray paint rises among the marchers. In the buildings, silhouettes stand in windows, fists raised.

Finally, we arrive at Revolution Hall, a hulking 4-story brick building that presides over a vast swath of lawn. Its white columns grin out over the tents that fill surrounding sidewalks, houseless people sleeping inside them. Photos of Black people killed in Portland hang on the chain-link fence that encloses the lawn, roses woven in between them. Hip-hop blares from a stage in front of the building. Flashing lights flicker over a crowd of revelers as they dance, drink, and wave fire fans. The words “Black Lives Matter” and “Fuck the Police” shine from the top of the building, projected in neon blue block lettering. The atmosphere is that of a victory celebration, but it’s a slippery feeling. It might get away.  

Sensing something less socially sanctioned may be happening back at the Justice Center, I traverse the Morrison Bridge again, heading toward  SW 3rd and Main. A thorny bouquet of red and blue lights stabs out from between the buildings west of Chapman Square. A plume of pink smoke billows forth. I switch on my camera and run toward it.

Phase 3: The Chase

A crowd of protesters shout from behind a row of cops in riot gear. More cops cling to the sides of a white van.

“Why should I be peaceful when you’re the crooks?” a man shouts at them. “I’m out here with my camera making sure you don’t kill nobody!”

A calm, authoritarian female voice drones over his screams. “This event has been deemed an unlawful assembly. You need to disperse to the west past 6th Avenue. Failure to comply with this lawful order may subject you to arrest and force to include crowd control munitions.”

Booing and angry jeers arise from the corralled crowd. The voice repeats its announcement as more cops climb onto the van. It drives off and protesters spread out again.

“Whose streets? Our Streets!”

But not for long.

Suddenly pink smoke envelopes us. The cops have regrouped into a hard line of uniforms topped with shiny helmets, armed with long batons. They’re faceless, and silent. One woman stands at the front of the protest, shouting, “Why don’t you protect and serve us from the fucking Proud Boys?” Others stand around her, some aiming clear umbrellas at the police like shields, others with their hands in the air. “Quit your job! Quit your job!” they shout.

Police release smoke bombs amid Justice Center protests. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

“Portland Police has declared this an unlawful assembly,” the female voice drones again. “The area around the Justice Center is closed…if you return to this area, you are subject to arrest or force…”

“We just want you to stop killing black people!” someone yells,” raising both middle fingers in the air.

Inexplicably, cops crawl onto their white van again and retreat.  

The crowd tightens again and marches, screaming “Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name! George Floyd!” We advance slowly, cautiously, parting to flow around cars. The police line solidifies again in front of us. Determined, we approach, hands in the air, chanting, “Hands up! Don’t Shoot! Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” A protester signals for everyone to stop and wait at an intersection a block from the cops, but one man strides forward alone. He is a black man, his hair powdered with white.

“Why! Why!” he demands, as he marches toward the expressionless line of officers. His anger is different. It’s not the belligerent wrath of a youthful protester who knows she can easily blend into a crowd for protection. It is personal, the rage of a human who has been wronged for so long that he’s willing to carry his anger straight to the front line, alone and exposed. He walks fast. The tension in his body says he’s not going to stop a few feet from the police line and wave his fist.

A few others realize this and run after him. They walk alongside him, hands up. The protesters shout, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The authoritarian female voice drones over the loudspeaker, “You are ordered to disperse…” The man strides on. As he closes in on the police line, he raises both hands in the air, only one other protester at his side now. A bright spotlight throws his shadow back toward the crowd of protesters.  

When the man reaches the police line, he aims for a body-sized opening between two officers. Those officers close the gap and he bumps into them, chest to chest, his hands still up. One officer pushes a hand into his sternum, holding him back.

“Why are putting hands on me?” he demands. “Why are you putting hands on me! What are you doing? I have the right to walk!” he tries to step forward, but they block him.

A woman protester steps between the man and the cops. She tries to guide him away.

“Get him outta here!” an officer shouts.

“No! I have the right to walk!” the man says.

He shifts to the side, tries again to push through the line. An officer maces him in the face, the can only a few inches from his eyes. He reels backward, the crowd screaming as he falls to the ground. “Medic! Medic! Medic!” a woman screams. The man rolls on the ground, groaning in pain, his face to the asphalt. After what seems like ages, a medic emerges from the throng and pours water over the man’s eyes. As protesters help him to his feet, that bland authoritarian voice drones, “Portland Police has declared an unlawful assembly…” 

Protesters flood into the space behind the man, facing off with the police. Blue lights flicker behind them, flashing off their helmets, erasing their faces. They are featureless black cut-outs, standing rigid, gripping long batons and rubber bullet rifles, zip ties dangling in bunches from their belts. The protesters shout, “No KKK, no fascist USA, no cops!”  

Police in riot gear, armed with long batons and rubber bullet rifles. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

Suddenly, the police move forward as one, pushing the protesters backward. No one has time to turn around, nor do they want to. Turning your back on a line of cops is like turning your back on the ocean. You’re just asking to get fucked up. When I get smashed between a car bumper and an officer’s bullet-proof vest, another officer grabs the strap on my backpack and yanks me sideways. “You’re making it difficult,” he says into my camera. I scramble backward with the others, trying not to step on anyone. All the while, the red and blue lights flash over their shoulders and that voice drones on like the message that plays while you’re on hold with the unemployment office.  

The officers push relentlessly as we stumble backward, our hands and cameras in the air. “Stay together! Stay tight!” someone shouts through a megaphone. “Get off the sidewalks and get in the streets!”

They’re not arresting anyone. They’re not beating anyone. But the way they shove and grab makes it clear they would love to. Why are they showing such restraint? Today is Juneteenth. Violence tonight, after everything that’s happened, means very bad publicity.

“Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” people shout.

At the next intersection, the cops stop. The protesters raise their fists and shout as one, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”

BLM protesters face off with police. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

Phase 4: The Standoff

After about three rounds of square-dancing, in which protesters and police move forward and push back, the cops retreat into the Justice Center. The teeming river of people that began the night has dissolved into a loose-knit crowd that prowls the corner of SW 3rd and Main Street. Flood lights obscure the cops as they hide behind the huge pillars that top the steps leading to the front doors. They aim rubber bullet rifles at us. One of them fires. Protesters yell with outrage. A trans woman in a pink dress and heels, struts into the intersection alone and shouts at them through an orange construction cone as if it’s a megaphone. As she turns to leave, the cops toss a flashbang grenade. It spins toward her and explodes right between her feet. She whirls around to face them again, walks right into the rising smoke, and roars at them through her orange cone.  

Police toss a flashbang grenade at a protester while her back is turned. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

This standoff stretches into the early hours of morning, officers on the Justice Center steps armed with rubber bullets and flashbang grenades, protesters in the street, armed with cameras and voices. Floodlights beam into the intersection, filling it with a surreal brightness.

Cops armed with rubber bullet rifles, protesters armed with cameras. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

At one point, the trans woman and a Black man with a megaphone approach the chainlink fence to talk with the police while the rest of the protesters stand back. Someone from the group holds up a rubber bullet in blood-crusted fingers and yells, “You bitches shot me in the head tonight! Fuck you guys! You know what y’all shot me with? You shot me with this goddamn shit!” The bullet is the size of a short cucumber. His head is wrapped in bandages, each layer soaked with blood. Another protester coaxes him toward the chainlink fence, saying, “Walk up there! You need to go up there! Come on!” “No! I ain’t talkin’ to Po!” he says.

Pop! Another shot. “They’re shooting at him! What the fuck! Hey! Fuck you guys!” People move forward a few cautious steps, arms outstretched in disbelief and outrage. “Hold the line! Back up! Back up!” shouts the man with the megaphone. He returns to the fence. Two cops come down to speak with him while the others remain on the top step, still aiming down at us.

“They just want us on the other side of this intersection,” the man with the megaphone announces. “Back up and we won’t be shot.” The crowd jeers in disapproval. Another protester challenges him and they argue. “I don’t care what they say either, but for those who want to be safe, back up! This is where we at! Well, then what? What else are we gonna do? I’m gonna leave it up to y’all then!”

Another Black man with long braids and a plaid shirt takes the megaphone and says, “I’m gonna leave it up to y’all too, ‘cause I was trying to be peaceful and still got shot in the face by one of their bombs, so I really don’t give a shit. We were trying to be peaceful, so let them decide! We’ll stand wherever the fuck we want!”

Standoff at the Justice Center. Protesters refuse to move across the street. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

People cheer and clap as he returns the megaphone and walks away.

With their hands in the air, the crowd shouts “A! C! A! B! All cops are bastards!”

The trans woman wanders up to the fence again, kneels on the sidewalk, raises her orange cone. The cops twitch nervously, still aiming their guns. “Don’t shoot!” says the man with the megaphone. “That is not a threat!”

A protester kneels in front of the fence surrounding the Justice Center. Portland, Ore. Juneteenth. Photo by Sarah Handyside

“This is an unlawful assembly,” the female voice drones again. “You are ordered to disperse to the north or the west…”

For a long time, the trans woman shouts through her cone, the man paces with his megaphone and the authoritarian voice drones out its institutional warnings. Angry protesters shout and swear, waving their fists and shining green lasers at the cops, whose fingers are always a hair’s breadth from their triggers.

“By the way,” says the guy with the megaphone, “I would like to remind you that today is Juneteenth. I would like to wish all the protesters and yourselves a happy Juneteenth. And understand what that day means to us! Understand what’s going on right now! All this shit would be over so much faster if y’all had let us talk and listened.”   

Time wears on a bit before another voice emerges from the crowd. “I just left my other people at a party!” he says. He’s tall, lean, energetic. “They party! Y’all sit here, watchin’ the house that needs to be watched!” He waves at the Justice Center. “This house needs to be watched! And the prisons need to be rocked!” People cheer.

This is how it works. For an hour or so, someone leads and people follow. When that person gets tired, another leader materializes and reinvigorates the thinning crowd. This guy is the most energetic leader of the night, on his toes like a boxer, using his hands like gavels. “We can win if we stick together! Tonight, if they beat y’all, they’ve beaten me!” He rips his shirt off like it’s in his way. “Brotherly love! This is what we do! Do not give up!” When someone tries to hand him a megaphone, he says, “No! They hear me! We don’t party! They partied after they killed that boy! But what the fuck are y’all partyin’ for? We don’t party until we kill them! I don’t mean literally! Break the system and then party!” He leads everyone in a march around the block, shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Phase 5: Clocking Out

It’s about 3:30 in the morning. People shift and straggle in front of the Justice Center, dead tired. They visit the Snack Van in search of fuel. I meet the guy who got shot in the head with a rubber bullet. He’s a travelling kid, a train hopper. He has no home and was sitting in the park on a bench when he was shot.

“They waged war on the community tonight!” he says, gesturing toward the cops. “And I got shot in the fuckin’ head tonight! This is the fourth time I’ve been shot in two weeks!” He speaks through a blood-soaked bandana. Dried blood crusts his temples. “You see my head? You can’t make this shit up!” When I suggest asking a medic for some fresh bandages, he says, “No, I’m alright, really.”

The guy with the megaphone paces within the tired crowd, talking to keep himself and everyone else awake. “It could’ve gone bad,” he says. “It could’ve gone completely the other way. They retreated three times, and we are now at the front door! The front door! We are all out here together! We are all out here together!”

The cops turn off their floodlights, plunging the protest into darkness.

Why are you aiming at us!” someone shouts. “Shut the fuck up!” someone else screams. All I can see is an armed silhouette pointing a rubber bullet rifle from the top of the stairs. “They’re gonna fuckin’ aim!” a voice yells. “They’re gonna fuckin’ aim! Put your hands up!” “Stand down, gentleman, please,” says the guy with the megaphone. Among the protesters, friendliness turns to edginess. Some shout demands at the cops, some shout at each other.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!!” one female voice roars over the rest. “I’d like to remind y’all that y’all are out here for Black lives, and there’s not a lot of us out here,” she says to the crowd. “I was asking a question. So when a black person speaks, y’all please, listen. I ain’t running shit. All I’m asking for is respect.” People clap and cheer. 

A new voice comes over the mic. It’s the white-haired man who was maced earlier in the evening. “We are not going to be denied the right to express ourselves!” he says. His anger is more palpable than that of the younger protesters. It’s been building up longer. It’s edges are rougher and much sharper. “I’m not gonna try to give you words, to try to pretend like something’s happening that’s not, because the reality is this: People have been oppressed too damn long!” Each word hits like a stun grenade. Cheers and shouts erupt from the crowd. “We’re tired of it! We’re tired of it! But here’s what you need to know though…Please, know this. Please, understand this. That the only way, the only possibility that exists for us to make a difference, is for us to do this COLLECTIVELY!!” The cheers grow louder. “Stay together!” he shouts. “Stay together!” the crowd repeats.

“Regardless of the color of our skin,” he continues. “What it boils down to is our HEARTS!! And we HAVE HEARTS! Because we’re standing in front of the fucking Justice Center right now!” He turns around, grabs the fence and shakes it.

“We got you!” people say. “We’re with you!”

“I stand for justice!” he yells. He doesn’t wait for a response. He yells it over and over. He’s not doing this for an audience. He’s been screaming his whole life, fighting his whole life. The only difference now is he’s doing out loud. And he’d be doing whether these kids were with him or not.

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