After being repeatedly tear gassed Wednesday by federal police, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is in agreement with protesters: Law enforcement’s response to nightly demonstrations is disproportionately violent.
“The tear gas… it’s indiscriminate,” Wheeler told reporters, standing in a swarm of protesters on the street outside the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse at 11:45 pm. Wheeler, who had just been hit by a heavy volley of gas, said he didn’t believe the public’s actions warranted the use of tear gas and munitions.
“There are a lot of people out here who are not doing anything wrong,” he added, looking over his shoulder at several hundred demonstrators. “They’re loud—they’re saying ‘Fuck you Ted’ a lot, but that’s legal. That constitutionally protected speech.”
Wheeler’s concerns echo those of protesters who’ve experienced the same indiscriminate violence coming from Portland police officers since the city’s protests against police brutality began on May 29.
Wheeler arrived at the 55th night of protests in downtown Portland at 9 pm with a promise to listen to protester’s demands. He was met by an energized crowd of nearly one thousand Portlanders, many who dismissed his visit as a publicity stunt in line with his recent appearances on national media networks, where Wheeler has condemned Donald Trump for federal police’s heavy-handed response to these protests. For more than an hour, Wheeler attempted to assuage the skeptical crowd’s concerns with promises of eventual police reform, skirting the group’s demands for an immediate end to the nightly assault on demonstrators by both federal and Portland law enforcement.
“We’re working with our United States senators and congressional delegation… they control the money, they control the paychecks,” said Wheeler. “That’s probably the fastest tool we have [to address federal police].”
Asked to stay and experience the effects of tear gas—a now-regular presence at the nightly events—Wheeler donned clear safety goggles and walked with his security guards to the front of the crowd at the courthouse fence.
After several people shot fireworks toward the federal building and lit a small fire on the steps outside, federal police dressed in combat gear burst out of the courthouse’ front doors, shooting flash bang grenades and tear gas canisters into the crowd.
Wheeler appeared shocked by the use of force. "I can say with 100 percent honesty that I saw nothing which provoked this response," he told reporters standing by him at the fence.
Wheeler said he saw some people in the crowd were rattling the fence erected between the courthouse doors and the public, throwing water bottles towards the doors, and lighting off fireworks—but still didn’t believe gassing and munitions were an appropriate response from federal police.
Yet it’s these exact actions that have prompted Portland police to indiscriminately gas and assault non-violent protesters for the past 55 days.
Countless Portland Police Bureau (PPB) press releases regarding recent protests have cited fireworks, “fence tampering,” and small fires as reasons officers decided to assault members of the public with batons, gas, and so-called “less lethal” munitions. These actions have prompted countless lawsuits over the past two months, the latest filed Wednesday afternoon by a group of volunteer medics who PPB has repeatedly assaulted with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, batons, and flash bang grenades during downtown protests.
Wheeler’s swiftness to condemn the actions of federal officers over the PPB, a bureau which Wheeler himself oversees as police commissioner, brings to mind another legal case. In June, the ACLU of Oregon filed a lawsuit against the City of Portland and PPB for using threats of physical violence, less-lethal munitions, and arrest to keep journalists and legal observers from documenting officers’ actions during a protest. (The Mercury is one of the plaintiffs in this case.)
City attorneys argue that PPB officers are only arresting and using force against people at protests who engage in criminal activity.
Yet, when the ACLU filed an identical claim against federal law enforcement agencies, Portland city attorneys agreed with the civil rights lawyers that the crowd control tactics used by the feds indiscriminately harm non-violent protesters and members of the media.
Wheeler remained at the fence for a second barrage of tear gas, pinching his paper medical mask over his nose as the thick chemicals doused the crowd. Behind him, dozens of Portlanders continued to chant, “Fuck Ted Wheeler" and "Tear Gas Ted," as others asked why he’d waited for federal police to assault his community before joining the crowd.
“What is this publicity stunt?” yelled a man in the crowd as Wheeler spoke to reporters through fogged-up goggles. “You were gassing people a month ago!”
Wheeler left before midnight, coughing and downing a bottle of water as he made his way out of the haze. Before leaving, a reporter asked if he’d now consider banning PPB's use of tear gas (an action he declined to take in June).
“Yes, I would absolutely consider it,” Wheeler said, wheezing. “I hate it."