Portland police officers kettle a group of activists in the Pearl District Friday night.
Portland police officers "kettle" a group of activists in the Pearl District Friday night. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

Mayor Ted Wheeler expressed his support Monday for the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) latest technique to quell protester activity.

"I applaud the Portland Police Bureau for their thoughtfulness, for their planning, and their attention to detail," Wheeler said during a virtual press conference.

He was referring to PPB's reinvigorated reliance on a tactic called "kettling," in which officers corral and detain a large group of people under the presumption that they may be involved in criminal activity.

On Friday night, a group of at least 100 individuals were kettled by PPB officers during a march through Northwest Portland's Pearl District. According to police, several members of the protest had begun smashing nearby shop windows, and officers had reason to believe that vandalism would continue if police didn't stop the march. At 9:30 pm, PPB had successfully kettled the crowd and charged at least 13 people with related crimes. Those who weren't charged with crimes (including members of the media) were photographed, and officers recorded their names and birthdates for further investigation.

In the past, this tactic has landed the city at odds with civil rights groups, who argue that mass detentions are wholly unconstitutional. This weekend was no different: Less than 24 hours after police detained protesters, the ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Justice Resource Center, and the CAIR Oregon called on the US Department of Justice to investigate PPB's use of kettling.

PPB hasn't kettled protesters since 2017, when police used the maneuver to detain hundreds of anti-Trump protesters in downtown Portland—and were promptly sued by the ACLU and others representing detained demonstrators. Only within the past few months have those cases come to a (near) close, and none of them have prohibited PPB's use of kettling.

On Monday, Wheeler appeared to welcome its return to PPB's crowd control toolkit, as the city sees a springtime reemergence of last year's protest activity.

"My observation is that that tactic was used peacefully, and it ended what could have be further criminal destruction in the City of Portland," said Wheeler. "I think it was used appropriately."

While kettling isn't novel in Portland, it's a new response to the scattered vandalism and property destruction that has accompanied more recent protest activity.

Wheeler called the Monday press conference to address a spate of protests that began last Thursday, spurred in part by the unceremonious removal of a large industrial fence from the perimeter of downtown Portland's Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse.

The federal courthouse became a central gathering point for Portland's racial justice protests last summer, especially after Donald Trump deployed a heavily militarized unit of federal police to defend the building in late June. The building itself became a target for the group's collective frustration with law enforcement: The courthouse's windows were regularly shattered by protest participants, and its outdoor walls became a canvas for anti-police graffiti. Some activists would set off fireworks or light bonfires in the portico in front of the courthouse entrance during the nightly demonstrations. Federal contractors erected the fence in early July to deter these actions.

On Thursday morning, the fence came down as part of "an effort to help the city return to normalcy," according to federal officials.

That afternoon, a group of Portland activists gathered in Pioneer Courthouse Square to protest the planned expansion of a Minnesota oil pipeline that would threaten native land agreements. The group then moved to rally outside of the nearby branch of Chase Bank, a corporation that has helped finance the Line 3 project. When the group attempted to enter the bank, a security guard pulled a gun on a protester, scattering the group and quickly escalating the already-present tensions between activists and law enforcement.

Then group then moved to the federal courthouse. A few participants shattered a first-floor window in the courthouse, and others sprayed graffiti on the outer walls. This vandalism continued into the evening, with at least one person starting a fire near the courthouse's entrances. Federal officers dressed in riot gear responded by shooting canisters of tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and other chemical weapons into the shouting crowd—creating a scene reminiscent of 2020's nighty protests.

It was this militaristic response that drew more activists out to the Pearl District march the following night, where more than 100 individuals met to participate in the pipeline protest and document it. But instead of stopping the demonstration with tear gas and munitions—tools both the feds and PPB have been penalized for heavily relying on over the past year—officers chose to kettle the crowd.

"We decided not to wait until there was more widespread action," said PPB Deputy Chief Chris Davis Monday. Davis said officers allowed legal observers and press to leave the kettled area.

Press who were in attendance, however, tell a different story. Photojournalist Maranie Rae said she was "forcibly removed" from the group by officers, despite requesting to remain with the detained group to document the scene. This action appears to contradict a 2020 court order prohibiting Portland officers from dispersing press and legal observers during protests.

Davis didn't directly comment on whether or not this tactic violated the court order. But he did tell reporters that he believed the kettling itself was lawful, since officers were certain the demonstration was organized by individuals who have a track record of vandalizing private property during protests.

"This is not a protest group," claimed Davis. "This is a group that feels entitled to break windows. Criminal activity in the name of political extremism is still criminal activity....We’ll do everything we can within our resources to end this."

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Davis noted that on Saturday night, protesters returned to the federal courthouse and some continued to vandalize the building. By Sunday afternoon, the fence had been re-installed around the building's perimeter.

Wheeler said he trusted PPB command staff to act within the law, and he expressed gratitude for their renewed response, calling PPB an "evolving entity."

"I believe that [PPB] is evolving as the tactics of the self-described anarchists have evolved, and that’s what I’d expect them to do," he said.

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