Since the ongoing Portland protests against police brutality began on May 29, Andrew Tolman has been a regular attendee. But Tolman isn’t just there as a protester—they also work to make the demonstrations accessible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) people who are participating in or observing the protests.
Sometimes, that means interpreting police orders from English to American Sign Language (ASL) and guiding people who are physically present at the protests.
“From the beginning, we’ve had Deaf and Hard of Hearing people at the protests,” Tolman told the Mercury. “The Deaf people I’m out there with, their safety comes first. I try to stay between them and an escalation, so I can interpret for them what’s going on, for their safety… The [police] escalations continue to be inaccessible.”
Other nights, Tolman livestreams the protests on Facebook, regularly narrating the action in ASL for hundreds of Deaf and HOH people watching along at home. Most livestreams and media outlets don’t cater to Deaf or HOH people—and while many American Deaf people can read articles in English, ASL is usually their first language, making it the easiest way to process information.
“I have my own personal opinions, but my goal is for accessibility, and for people to know what’s going on on the ground and make their own decisions,” Tolman said about their livestream work. “I have Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who openly disagree with Black Lives Matter—but I want them to have an informed opinion on why they don’t agree with it, and part of that story is what’s going on in Portland. I’m there to fill in the blanks for them.”
Tolman works with Fingers Crossed Interpreting, a local organization that provides ASL interpreters for political and activism events. But Tolman said they don’t attend or livestream protests as an official interpreter—rather, they are there as “a protester who is making my feed and interactions accessible to people.” Tolman said their work is particularly necessary because orders from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) can be difficult to understand, sometimes even for hearing people.
“There are people out there who have a huge range of physical, mental, cognitive, and emotional disabilities,” Tolman said. “The police are not only not proactive about meeting those needs, but also just don’t care about safety in general. It seems to me that riots and unlawful assemblies are called just so they can do the things that they do—rushing us and tear gassing us and arresting us.”
That’s what happened to Tolman when they were arrested last Saturday evening, August 23.
Tolman had been livestreaming since that afternoon, when violent right-wing protesters and antifascist counter-protesters crowded into downtown Portland—and PPB largely stayed absent from the confrontations. That evening, protesters against police brutality demonstrated outside the Penumbra Kelly building, which houses some PPB offices. Tolman livestreamed throughout the night, and police declared a riot shortly before midnight.
“I knew there were a lot of Deaf people watching and staying informed via my Facebook live,” Tolman said.
At about 12:30 am, they and a few friends were standing on the opposite side of the building from most of the protesters, talking and dancing on the sidewalk. The group was planning to leave soon when they spotted five or six police officers charging toward them, and Tolman quickly switched their livestream back on:
Tolman said that “all of us were thrown, all of us were beaten, all of us were pushed” by the officers. When Tolman tried to protect their friend from an officer’s blows, they said the officer replied “You want to be big and tough? Fine, you’re in it now,” and pushed Tolman to the ground. Tolman and one other friend were arrested—though they aren’t sure why.
“It was a bizarre evening, because usually police will do a couple different warnings,” Tolman said. “But we were just on the sidewalk dancing by ourselves, and that’s what we were arrested for.”
Tolman was charged with “interfering with a peace officer,” a catch-all term that means getting in a police officer’s way or not following a cop’s order. It’s been the most common charge pressed against protesters in Portland this year, and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said two weeks ago that he would decline to prosecute people with the charge. It’s often referred to as “IPO” for short.
“The officer that arrested me didn’t know what to charge us with,” Tolman said. “The sergeant was like, ‘IPO?’ and they said, “Yeah, sure.’”
Tolman spent the night in the Multnomah County Detention Center, and was released the next morning without bail. Tolman said an officer put his knee in their back while they were being arrested, and they’re still recovering from the injury, which is impacting their back, left shoulder, and left arm.
Tolman said their arrest and injuries are indicative of how PPB makes protests unsafe, and inaccessible for people with disabilities.
“That’s the whole reason I was down there—to interpret, and use my arms and hands to give access to people,” they said. “Now I can’t go out and do that stuff, which means things are now less accessible.”