On the evening before Columbus Day—which Portland renamed Indigenous Peoples' Day in 2015—hundreds of people gathered in the pouring rain to stand for indigenous rights. Protesters marched and prayed, while some toppled statues and broke windows throughout downtown. In the days leading up to the protest, a number of flyers on social media called the event “Indigenous Peoples' Day of Rage.”
Amidst cries of “No good cops! No good presidents!” and warnings from Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) LRAD sound cannon, protesters in masks used chains to pull a bronze statue named Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider, which depicts the 26th US president astride a horse, from its podium to the concrete sidewalk of the South Park Blocks. The Roosevelt statue took upwards of twenty minutes to budge, but a nearby bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln fell with ease.
Since the Portland protests began—organized in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer—activists have brought down statues of historical figures who they argue should not be lauded or admired. On a historical scale, this action is common for regime changes. In fact, statues are being torn down not just in US states, but around the world—video of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston's statue in Bristol being rolled into a harbor this past June quickly went viral.
In Portland, statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were toppled over Juneteenth weekend. The ire drawn by the Roosevelt's statue is perhaps easiest to understand due to Roosevelt's continuance of Dawes Act which broke up indigenous lands. The words "Dakota 38" were painted on the podium of the Abraham Lincoln statue, calling attention to Lincoln's suppression of the 1862 Dakota Uprising which saw 38 Dakota hanged on the same day. That event remains the largest mass execution in US history.
After felling the statues, protesters broke the entry windows of the Oregon Historical Society and marched swiftly south to Portland State University grounds, before swinging over to walk north against traffic on SW Fifth.
According to Kerry Tymchuk, the director of the Oregon Historical Society, people stole one item from the museum: a quilt stitched in the 1970s by 15 Black women in Portland to commemorate the United States Bicentennial, with each square depicting a moment in African American history. Tymchuk said the quilt was discovered several blocks away Monday morning, "very wet."
People in identity obscuring clothing—historically called "black bloc"—broke the windows of businesses along SW Fifth, including those of a jewelry store and a cell phone store.
Marchers sang mní wičhóni or “water is life” together, a Lakota anthem that became better known after Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. They could have been referencing the relentless rain falling on their heads or the Hong Kong protest tactic frequently traded between activists: "Be water." The latter means that protesters should split up and move around opposition, instead of facing it head on.
Despite the rain and instructions from PPB's LRAD for protesters to move to the north (the direction they were already heading), the crowd remained a consistent size until shortly after 9:30 pm, when PPB declared a riot, and the mass of protesters splintered in the North Park Blocks and disappeared into the rainy night. Several police cars and a riot van chased pockets of protesters through the Pearl and into the streets of Old Town. Another group was chased by a riot police across the muddy grass of Waterfront park.
Portland Police pursued protesters, legal observers, and press through a soggy Waterfront Park, near the tail end of last night’s Ingenious Peoples’ Day of Rage. pic.twitter.com/a56Rd032qK
— Suzette Smith (@suzettesmith) October 12, 2020
At a Monday press conference, PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said that three people were arrested Sunday night: One, a person who broke several windows and was carrying a pistol, another who was driving a van that allegedly pulled down the statues, and a third person for assault charges. Lovell also said someone in the crowd had shot into a restaurant twice, leaving bullet holes in the business' wall. Windows were broken at at least three other businesses, he added.
"These events late at night, they purport to have racial justice nexus," Lovell said, "but they aren’t that."
Asked if the group of protesters included indigenous activists, Lovell said he didn't know.
Mayor Ted Wheeler condemned the protesters' actions during the press event, calling them "anarchic behavior."
"I want to be clear: These acts are obscene," Wheeler said. "They are an affront to the values of this community."
"[The protesters] attacked institutions that support the people they purport to be marching in the streets on behalf of," he continued. "They are not engaged in any activity that has any relationship to racial justice. They are purely engaged in violence and criminal destruction for the sake of violence and criminal destruction."
Wheeler was joined by state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, who represents north and northeast Portland. Sanchez, who is Native American, prefaced her statement by noting that she "does not speak for the entire indigenous people here in Oregon."
"We as indigenous people stand with the Black Lives Matter movement," Sanchez said. "But the fact that someone would hijack Indigenous Peoples' Day to cause more violence is not appropriate. We know, as people of color, that violence doesn't work for us. We also know that we cannot tear down the system using fire or rocks, and then build it back up with nothing."
Sanchez said that the destruction of the Oregon Historical Society was "unconscionable." "That place is so amazingly a part of the actual truth of our state," she said.
At the press conference, OHS director Tymchuk noted that the latest issue of the museum's "Oregon Historical Quarterly" was entirely dedicated to Oregon's white supremacist past.
"As I say often, our job at the Historical Society is not the be the chamber of commerce or the tourism bureau," said Tymchuk. "It's to tell the true and accurate history of Oregon and share that history."
The incident also sparked a response from mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone. "People are hurting and that pain is valid," wrote Iannarone in a Monday press release. "But anonymous acts of destruction outside of any agreed-upon process are toxic, unaccountable behavior that has no place in our city.... That’s not democracy, nor is it fair to those of us who believe in our public process.”
As of Monday morning the toppled statues remained in the South Park Blocks, fenced off by yellow caution tape. It's not yet clear if—and where—those statues will be relocated.