Black activists in Portland call federal crackdown a 'distraction' from police reform efforts

Black activists in Portland call federal crackdown a 'distraction' from police reform efforts
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Near the front lines of protests in downtown Portland, longtime Black Lives Matter activist Danialle James recently found herself behind a large group surging toward the federal courthouse, chanting “Feds go home!”

James said it was then that she realized the federal intervention had “overshadowed” the original reason why protesters poured onto the city’s streets every night for more than 50 days: police killings of Black people.

Aggressive crowd control tactics by agents sent to protect federal buildings have reinvigorated protests in Portland, which has seen daily demonstrations since the May 25 death of George Floyd. Though the initial protests were mostly composed of young people, newly formed groups of mothers, fathers, military veterans, medical workers and others have formed human “walls” against federal agents.

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Protests have now spread to other cities in solidarity with the demonstrators in Portland.

Several longtime Black activists in Portland told The Hill that while the federal intervention has brought thousands of additional demonstrators to the streets, it has also diverted attention from the original goals of the protest: racial justice and local police reform.

Trump administration officials have cited nearly 50 days of demonstrations as justification for the president’s deployment of federal officers, but local activists note that the focus of earlier demonstrations was on local police, not federal officials. Since agents arrived, the attention of the protesters has shifted from local police headquarters to the nearby federal courthouse.

On the front lines Friday, James said she yelled as loud as she could, trying to remind the people around her about Floyd’s death. While she was able to lead the crowd in a brief “Black lives matter” chant, the crowd’s attention quickly turned back to federal agents.

“While we’re mad at the influx of federal law enforcement in our streets, they aren’t the original reason why we’re here,” James said. “The focus here should still be on George Floyd, it should still be on local law enforcement.”

Tony Hopson, the founder of Self Enhancement Inc., a local nonprofit providing youth programs and social services for the Black community in Portland, said the federal intervention appears to have changed the motivations that brought many of the protesters out to the streets.

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“You got a whole mixture of peaceful protesters, grandmas, and a little bit of everything now out there protesting about the feds, but neither one of these, in my opinion right now, are greatly supporting Black Lives Matter,” Hopson said.

“I think the motivation for the folks that are out there now that are good and positive, but we’re losing the message of what all of this demonstration was about originally,” he added.

Hopson said the opposition to federal agents has been a “second wind” to protests that had slowed down, but he called the federal agents a “distraction” from conversations about how to improve the lives of Black people in Portland.

“We're not having that conversation,” he said. “Now, it's all about Trump and the feds.”

Cameron Whitten, who has been involved in Portland protests since the Occupy movement in 2011, agreed that activists were starting to feel “burned out” by the time federal agents arrived, but said that intervention has “fueled a fire.”

Whitten said that while the demonstrations are still in support of Black Lives Matter, the federal intervention is “making it very hard for the message of these protests to be heard.”

“Our community members, the folks who've been on the front lines on the streets, were facing brutality before the federal agents even arrived,” Whitten said. “It's so sad to see how hard the work already is locally to address the realities of racialized violence, and then now we're facing this on a federal level.”

Gregory McKelvey, an activist who has organized Black Lives Matter demonstrations for five years, said the federal intervention has given local leaders a chance to divert attention away from local police reform.

Mayor Ted Wheeler (D), who is also the police commissioner, took in federal tear gas Wednesday with protesters, but local activists pointed out that his officers had deployed the chemical irritant dozens of times in recent months.

“It has been frustrating to see our elected officials shift blame on federal agencies as though that is who has been oppressing us,” McKelvey said. “I worry, as a student of history, that when people look back on this moment, we will have missed the opportunity to really have a reckoning at both our local levels and at the national level.”

Portland police deployed tear gas several times during the first month of protests, though its use has declined following lawsuits against the city and a new state law passed June 30 that limits departments using the gas to situations in which they declare a riot.

McKelvey said that 30 minutes after Wheeler left the front lines early Thursday morning, Portland police declared the demonstration a riot and threatened to deploy tear gas and impact weapons. They did not ultimately deploy either.

Portland police and Wheeler’s office did not respond to requests for comment on what conditions changed from the time Wheeler was in the crowd to the riot declaration, though the department said in a Thursday morning statement that a riot had been declared due to “violent conduct of the large group creating a grave risk of public alarm.”

Teressa Raiford, a longtime activist who has been involved in organizing the Wall of Moms, said she has been frustrated by the way opposition to federal agents has co-opted the media’s attention.

Raiford said the Wall of Moms originally formed not out of opposition to the federal intervention, but discontent with local police. She said many of the mothers first came to the demonstrations after attending a nearby vigil calling on police to solve the murder of Shai’India Harris, a Black woman who was shot in southeast Portland on July 10.

“The moms have been saying, they come crying right after the protests and I'm thinking it's because the pepper spray and they're like, [they] misquoted me they didn't talk about Shai'India,” said Raiford, founder of the local advocacy group Don’t Shoot PDX who ran for Portland mayor in the officially nonpartisan primary in May, but failed to advance to a runoff against Wheeler.

Mac Smiff, another Black activist who said he has been on the streets nearly every evening of the protests since late May, described city leaders as adopting a stance of “‘we're going work on [the federal intervention] and then we're going to work on police reform.’”

Smiff said he hoped demonstrators would keep coming to the streets, even after federal agents eventually leave Portland.

“The city is the one that has the police,” he said. “When the feds leave, the cops are still going to gas us.”