A Portland police officer pulls out a knife to cut a trucks tires during a August 15 protest.
A Portland police officer pulls out a knife to cut a truck's tires during a August 15 protest. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

On August 5, street medic Davis Beeman was using his truck to block other vehicles from driving into a crowd of protesters—a practice known as “corking”—when Portland police declared the gathering a riot. As officers used tear gas and munitions to push the crowd of protesters away from Portland Police Bureau’s (PPB) East Precinct, Beeman sprinted back to his truck and tried to drive away.

“By the time I got in the truck and got my [gas] mask on, they were almost to us, and the crowd had swarmed around the truck,” recalls Beeman. “They threw a flashbang that went off right next to my open window, so I was deaf on that side, just focusing on safely rolling forward.”

According to Beeman, that’s when police officers punctured two of his truck’s tires. “I felt them pop the tires, but never heard them tell me to stop beforehand,” he says. “I was just trying to leave to the north, along with the crowd, as instructed.”

Just across the street, another driver, Gila, was having a similar experience. Gila, who requested the Mercury only identify them by their first name out of privacy concerns, had been corking to the north of the protest when police began forcing the crowd north. Suddenly trapped between a crowd of protesters and a line of riot police, Gila began driving very slowly away from the scene.

“They ran up behind my car, opened my car doors, and tried to rip me out by the hair,” says Gila. “They let my car fill with tear gas, shut the door on me, and then stabbed both of my passenger side tires.”

Gila and Beeman aren’t alone. In the course of reporting this story, the Mercury learned of more than a dozen alleged instances of police puncturing a vehicle’s tires in the course of Portland's recent protests against police brutality. The tactic has drawn so much attention that PPB Deputy Chief Chris Davis addressed the topic in an August 19 video produced by PPB.

“Vehicles and crowds are an extremely dangerous combination, as seen in other cities where vehicles have been intentionally driven into people,” Davis says in the video. But this isn’t just happening in “other cities”: in June, a man was arrested after driving through a crowd of protesters in downtown Portland, hitting at least three people before speeding away. And just this month, a driver accelerated through a protest outside the Portland Police Association building in North Portland, knocking over a motorcycle and dragging it through the crowd. (The driver was interviewed by police, but released without charges.)

It is this very threat that motivates volunteers to cork for the protests in the first place. In the video, however, Davis claims that corkers and other drivers are “intentionally interfering with a dispersal and shielding people from being arrested,” leading officers to puncture their tires “to increase safety for all.”

Many drivers insist that they were attempting to comply with officers’ orders when their tires were punctured.

“We were trying to leave the area as they told us to evacuate, but then they slashed our tires as we were trying to comply, and then they threatened to arrest us for failure to comply,” says a protester who asked the Mercury identify them by their nickname Birdy, due to concerns of harassment. Birdy was inside Snack Van 2—a vehicle that delivers free snacks and water to protesters—when its tires were punctured by PPB officers on August 6. “Every [PPB] riot van and police car that passed us pretty much told us to do something different,” Birdy said.

According to Birdy, officers provided a range of answers for why the van’s tires had been deflated. “One officer said we weren’t complying quickly enough,” she recalls. “Another officer said we were putting people in danger by driving too closely. I think another yelled at us that we were impeding police?”

There is no mention of the van in PPB’s official account of the August 6 protest. Because the police bureau does not consider tire deflation to be “use of force,” officers are not required to report or track these instances. The August 6 press release does include a lengthy description of a protester using “rebar spike devices” to puncture a tire on the PPB’s sound truck; the protester was arrested and charged with riot, criminal mischief, and interfering with a police officer.

Neither Birdy nor the van’s driver, Jeva, were arrested that night. Of the several “corkers” the Mercury spoke to for this piece, only one, Beeman, was arrested after their vehicle was disabled.

“The report they published the next morning said, repeatedly, that someone tried to hit officers with a truck,” says Beeman, who was held in jail overnight and charged with reckless driving and interfering with a police officer. “I have nine different video feeds that show this is BS.”

(PPB did claim that a truck associated with the protests “attempted to run over several officers,” but it’s not clear whether this truck was Beeman’s.)

PPB declined to answer the Mercury's questions for this story.

Among the drivers interviewed for this article, the average cost to replace the damaged tires was roughly $600. Given the fact that PPB often cites property damage as justification for declaring an unlawful assembly, it may seem odd that officers are themselves damaging personal property, especially when the property owner isn't being arrested or charged with a crime. But according to Dr. Tamara Herold, a director of the national Crowd Management Research Council, such damage often occurs when officers take a “hierarchy of harm” into account.

“[Officers are] going to incur property damage in order to prevent greater harm,” says Herold. “If they believe that a vehicle proposes a serious risk of serious injury or death, disabling that vehicle becomes an option to consider.”

It remains unclear, however, how officers decide which vehicles propose serious risk. PPB declined to share any official policies or directives regarding tire deflation, and the August 19 video merely states that tire punctures are “avoidable if vehicle operators did not engage in interference and criminal acts.” PPB declined to clarify how drivers can avoid committing “interference” when trapped in a crowd of protesters.

Meanwhile, as the number of punctured tires continues to rise, protesters are once again taking matters into their own hands. "A really important thing, from what I’ve seen, is making sure each van has the equipment to replace tires themselves,” says Birdy. “[Two days later], when the tires got slashed again, Jeva and I were able to pick up jacks and tires and just did the whole thing ourselves.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story identified a source by their full name. The name has since been replaced with a pseudonym, after the source expressed concerns about harassment tied to the article to the Mercury.