A video still taken of a Multnomah County office ablaze Tuesday night.
A video still taken of a Multnomah County office ablaze Tuesday night. Catalina Gaitán

On the 83rd day of protesting police brutality, demonstrators found a new building to focus their attention: the Multnomah Building. The SE Hawthorne and SE Grand building is home to Multnomah County's administrative departments, elected officials' offices, and public meeting rooms—in many ways, it's the county's equivalent to Portland City Hall. It also contains the office of Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, which is why it attracted protesters' attention Tuesday night.

After about an hour of chants, several protesters broke into the building by shattering glass windows and doors, and set a fire inside a first floor office. According to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, the office belonged to the county's Office of Community Involvement. Reese's office is on the third floor. The fire was extinguished by the building's sprinkler system.

During a Wednesday morning press call, Kafoury said no one was in the building during the incident, but if the flames had spread, they could have destroyed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) stored on the first floor.

"If that life-protecting equipment had been damaged," she said, "health care workers, patients, and seniors would have paid the price for those actions last night."

Kafoury noted that the Multnomah Building is the third county facility that's been damaged since the mass protests began on May 29. She said vandalism to the Multnomah County Justice Center and Multnomah County Courthouse has cost the county $1.3 million in damages. But, while Kafoury condemned the destruction, she empathized with the emotions behind them.

"There are a lot of people who are frustrated and I understand the frustration, especially in the criminal justice system," said Kafoury, referring to the overrepresentation of people of color in jail. "I urge the community to work together to help us change this system. Protests help drive change but they are not an end in and of itself."

Officers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) responded to Tuesday night's destruction with physical force. After declaring the event a riot, officers chased protesters through Southeast Portland streets on foot, appearing to indiscriminately strike people with batons. One video shows an officer shoving a woman to the ground, and then hitting her in the head with a baton. According to PPB records, she was not charged with any crime.

Reese, who previous served as PPB's chief of police from 2010 to 2015, commended PPB's "swift and professional response" to Tuesday's protest during the press call. He said that if protesters felt officers acted out of line, "there are strong accountability systems in place to deal with that." (That accountably system is the city's Independent Police Review office, which Portland City Council has unilaterally criticized for not being strong enough.)

Two people were arrested during Tuesday night's demonstration

Reese stressed that he supported Portlanders' rights to demonstrate peacefully, but "criminal activity under the guise of peaceful protest should never be tolerated." He said there's no plan to change his department's response to the protests.

Pressed by a reporter to explain why protesters have been released after their arrests, Reese explained: "If a person is arrested on low-level criminal charges, they're going to be released on their own recognizance."

Multnomah County has received recent pushback from right-wing commentators and organizations for a new protest policy out of its District Attorney's office. On August 11, DA Mike Schmidt announced his office would dismiss certain non-violent charges against Portland protesters, and closely examine the validity of several other types of charges made by Portland police.

"If we leverage the full force of the criminal justice system on individuals who are peacefully protesting and demanding to be heard, we will cause irreparable harm to them individually and to our society," Schmidt said at the time.

On Wednesday, Schmidt also condemned the previous night's destruction.

“The violent and intentional criminal behavior that occurred at the Multnomah Building is the antithesis to the work Multnomah County and its dedicated and diverse staff is doing daily to uplift, support and improve our community," said Schmidt in a media statement. "The people working in the Multnomah Building serve a critical mission to the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to adversely impact marginalized communities. Breaking out windows, setting fires and committing assaults will not bring the much-needed reform we need."