Last night saw an amazing local achievement within the justice movement for Ferguson and the supporters of Mike Brown, as well as opponents of police violence and institutionalized racism at large.
Portlanders, like most the world, have watched events unfolding in Ferguson closely. After a grand jury refused to indict Brown’s killer, riots broke out across the nation.
Portland is far too passive for lighting cop cars on fire. Monday night, though, our city did indeed march without the consent of the Portland Police Bureau, albeit briefly and with only about 200 protesters.
It turned out to be but a warmup for Tuesday.
A large rally and sanctioned march was ordained by many elder clergy-members and organizations the police maintain a working relationship with. Some 3,500 people showed up, pensive, but calm. Speakers spoke, most of them over 50. Then we marched, briskly, but predictably, around downtown for something like twenty-five minutes. While several of the organizing groups were rooted in radicalism, this event was ruled by the clergy.
Returning to the ‘Justice’ Center from whence the march began, the same clergy members insisted we’d return yet another day to ‘make sure the movement kept momentum’. Younger members of the crowd weren’t having it. One person of color I overheard challenged this passive logic, “This is 2014, we’re done playing games.”
The clergyman on the mic tried silencing him by singing over his critique via the PA. This seemed to distance the younger members of the crowd even more who already didn’t want to see so much energy wasted by just singing songs and going home.
Some younger men of color and several dozen black blockers began pushing to the North end of the rally. Bullhorns came out. Focused rage was articulated.
“I don’t care if they arrest me, I’m done sitting down,” a 25 year old black man said into the horn to many cheers. When asked his name, another young man of color replied something that would be reiterated throughout the night, “Today, I’m Mike Brown. So are all of you. We all know why we’re here. Doesn’t matter if you’re white, brown, grey – today all of us are Mike Brown!”
What first looked like hundreds pulling away to join them soon swarmed to around a thousand – marching directly into the oncoming one-way traffic of SW 2nd avenue. People cheered even louder, “Fucking finally!” and chanting “They gonna’ start some shit up, we gonna’ shut the shit down!”
It was obvious a very different march had begun.
From weeks of watching Ferguson solidarity actions, there was a collective sense of where we were needed. The goal was clear: take the bridges, shut down the freeways.
The crowd rapidly approached the first ramp to the Morrison bridge.
A line of four motorcycle cops was already present. The marchers wasted no time pushing past them. A battalion of stormtrooper riot cops quickly formed a new line – maybe forty feet back, some of whom concealed their names with tape on their uniforms.
As the crowd attempted to press pass this new formation, dozens of yellow and black-clad bike cops, (known within some activist circles as Bumble-Fucks) began violently shoving protesters and hitting them with their bikes – forcing people aside to reinforce the SWAT goons.
Quickly, the crowd changed direction – some even running – towards the Burnside bridge. As the motorcycle cops tried to outflank us, we changed directions again, heading West.
We spilled out into traffic on Burnside. With the motorcycle cops heading the wrong way now, the thousand people in our group began sprinting up onto the Burnside bridge. We’d outflanked the PPB’s outflank for the first time this evening.
Pausing in the middle of the bridge, more cheers went up. The decision was made to keep moving on to avoid being eventually kettled. The freeway was the ultimate goal.
Again, the march stopped in the middle of Burnside, this time at the intersection of MLK for several minutes as people on the bullhorn reminded the crowd why we were here, for Michael Brown and other black lives taken with impunity by law enforcement.
The crowd then moved a block to Burnside and Grand, then South into jammed traffic. A couple motorists appeared angry, but most smiled, took photos, and raised their hands palms-up in solidarity.
Here’s where things started to get a bit more confrontational.
As we turned West again to approach Water Ave and the Interstate-5 freeway, the police appeared – this time far more reinforced with more bike cops, more SWAT commandos, and now with cops on horseback. The front of our advancement linked arms. We knew this would be an escalation.
Fortunately, we didn’t need to bother looking for an onramp. This stretch of I-5 has a strategic weak point several hundred feet long where a patch of unused ODOT lawn sits separated from the freeway by just a small cement wall. As the police attempted fanning out, they couldn’t initially cover the distance with as many of us as there were.
The front of the march suddenly broke into a scramble – shouting, “Go, go, go!” as we raced past police.
Forty or so of us made it over the wall and onto the freeway, where oncoming traffic was already backed up due to the congestion-inducing design of urban highways. Looking back, though, we realized the vast majority of us didn’t make it. In their place came the stormtroopers, batons drawn, shoving people with them, screaming to get off the freeway.
Everyone on I-5 scattered. Realizing we were now vulnerable, I sprinted back and dove over the wall. A friend of mine wasn’t so lucky. Even though he obeyed police orders to move down to Water ave, he didn’t move fast enough, and the cop shoved him repeatedly.
Now everyone was spread out, protesters and cops – all were at a disadvantage. While some of us tried to get back on the freeway, others began ascending a tall cement staircase that leads to a rather ridiculously designed pedestrian path along the Morrison bridge.
Almost everyone made it up. Looking down at the chaos below was a little unreal. Cops were running aboud trying to grab random people, mostly failing. I later heard from third hand accounts PPB made some arrests here after using chemical weapons on those who didn’t escape up the stairs in time.
Up on the deck of the Morrison bridge, more cheering and tightening of ranks. We’d taken our second bridge of the night, shutting down motor vehicle traffic in the process.
Crossing back West over the Willamette river the only negative altercation was an irate older white man who rammed a kid on his bike, knocking him down, almost killing the kid as the man drove over the bike, crushing it beyond repair – dragging it off into the night, totally unrecoverable. The asshole driver didn’t get away unscathed – several people hit his SUV with wooden sign posts as he sped off.
From here, the march still numbered almost 1,000. We’d move a few blocks, then the men who’d started us off would stop for a temp check, talk about justice, talk about the necessary tactics of disruption we were engaging in – then re-vamp the crowd.
We continued on to what was deemed the ‘Final Target‘ Providence Park, formerly PGE Park.
Upon arriving, most everyone piled onto the large sidewalk outside the stadium. Despite this, PPB riot goons suddenly rushed in with batons and grenade launchers drawn to fire. A loudspeaker demanded we complete moving to the sidewalk, despite virtually no vehicle traffic in the area.
It was clear the cops were tired and beaten and needed to flex to reassert their collective ego. In a fairly comical display of perceived superiority, PPB activated an LRAD weapon for a several second blast of sonic annoyance. Humorous as I found this, there were easily 100 officers armed with lethal weapons on the scene.
After a bit of taunting from the crowd, the cops rushed in full force and made several violent take-down arrests. The men arrested did not resist whatsoever. Their only ‘crime’ was passively standing in the street – essentially jaywalking, or actually jay-standing.
Then, for extra measure as we waited for what might transpire next, several male officers simultaneously struck down random protesters already on the sidewalk, without any physical provocation.
One such attack happened directly in front of me to a kid on his bike. The cop was completely out of line beating this young man to the ground in such a manner.
Just seconds later, the PPB packed up their riot squad and withdrew. The march had taken a beating, but wasn’t finished. We wasted no time reclaiming the street. Moving up to SW Salmon st, we headed East – all the way to the edge of the Willamette river.
All in all, we’d held the downtown streets for over four hours, not counting the earlier ‘parade’ PPB approved of. Worn, but inarguably victorious, the march remained totally silent with their hands up the last few blocks in honor of Michael Brown.
In Tom McCall Waterfront Park there was more clapping, more congratulations, more reflection on this new movement for racial justice. Never did any significant arguments between protesters go down, a rarity.
As everyone began to trickle out and head home there was a solid feeling of accomplishment. We’d beaten the bastards at their own game of holding space and controlling the streets.
This un-permitted march was initiated and helmed by young black men. Despite the crowd being mostly white, there was no doubt or hesitation of trust. This was their day, and everyone was there to support them. Aside from a few normal squabbles about tactics and direction, we easily out-maneuvered the police several times. Interviewed live by a local FOX affiliate, PPB officer Pete Simpson complained the march was “chaotic to keep up with this evening.”
This was due to several factors police struggle with. The size of the crowd – around 1,000 – meant we had high numbers to deflect a frontal assault or mass kettling. By keeping a tight formation, police weren’t able to isolate individuals to make snatch-and-grab arrests. By frequently changing direction, we prevented police from staging in mass numbers to halt our progression.
The contrast between our march and the one riot cops didn’t make arrests at are stark. I’m not the only one suspicious of career-long “community leaders” collaborating with police and city hall.
Last night proved that true leaders can be anyone, and can rise at any moment. Whatever the right combination of circumstances and group decision-making – this younger, sleeker form of street rebellion proved to be the correct model going forward.
If there’s to be a successful movement to abolish police violence and bring justice to killer cops, it’s going to require the kind of defiant hearts and minds we saw last night in Portland. As was confirmed repeatedly, “We are all Mike Brown.” From Ferguson to Portland, when we choose to, Mike Brown will run this town.
See you in the streets.