Mayor Wheeler speaking to protesters on July 22.
Mayor Wheeler speaking to protesters on July 22. Nathan Howard / Getty Images

Hall Monitor is a regular column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves.


Now that the federal police have retreated from the front lines of Portland’s nightly demonstrations, Mayor Ted Wheeler has returned to demonizing those protesting police brutality.

"This is not advocacy to reform or transform any system," said Wheeler, speaking at a Thursday news conference, where he condemned the previous night’s protest outside the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) East Precinct, claiming that the demonstrations are no longer about racial justice and police accountability.

“The conversation we are having right now is keeping us from the important work of racial justice, equity and comprehensive and thoughtful reform,” Wheeler said about the protests.

Yet it was just two weeks ago that Wheeler stood among the same group of protesters, inhaling plumes of tear gas and decrying the actions of federal police outside the city’s federal courthouse. It appears that defending his citizens from police brutality is only a priority when it’s not his own police force swinging batons at nonviolent protesters.

When camouflaged federal officers shot tear gas and impact munitions at Portlanders, Wheeler quickly severed PPB’s ties with federal law enforcement agencies and went on national TV shows to decry the feds’ “unconstitutional” tactics, and applaud his city’s uprising against police violence.

But now that the nation’s attention has shifted away from Portland, Wheeler’s back to trusting law enforcement’s incendiary narrative about these demonstrations without considering the experiences of protesters and observers on the ground.

On Thursday, Wheeler alleged that several people who set a garbage can on fire outside the East Precinct’s front door were intending to kill people working inside, regurgitating a claim made by PPB Chief Chuck Lovell.

"When you commit arson with an accelerant, in an attempt to burn down a building that is occupied by people that you have intentionally trapped inside, you are not demonstrating," Wheeler said. "You are attempting to commit murder."

Videos taken by journalists on the scene of the demonstration show a fire contained inside a garbage can, leaning up against a glass door that appears to be barricaded with pieces of plywood. Other videos show a person attempting—unsuccessfully—to break the glass doors with a hammer.

PPB did not arrest anyone for arson or attempted murder Wednesday evening. While there were 20 police and civilian staff inside the precinct at the time, PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said the building had two other unblocked exits that officers could have used to escape, if the building had caught on fire. The building did not catch on fire. PPB did not report any officer injuries.

It appears that defending his citizens from police brutality is only a priority when it’s not his own police force swinging batons at nonviolent protesters.

Wheeler told reporters Thursday that this vandalism is fueling Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

"You are creating the b-roll film that will be used in ads nationally to help Trump during his campaign," he said, directing his comments at protesters. "If you don't want to be part of that, then don't show up."

It’s the same refrain Portlanders heard before the feds arrived: If you’re at a protest where some people are committing crimes, be prepared to be treated like a criminal.

Wheeler did not mention the video clips taken immediately after the small fire was extinguished, which captured groups of armored PPB officers sprinting towards a group of retreating protesters—trampling and tackling several in the process. Other clips show officers indiscriminately shooting canisters of tear gas into the largely residential neighborhood surrounding the precinct, and footage of officers slashing tires on cars delivering medical supplies to injured protesters.

Wheeler also failed to mention PPB’s reckless and reactionary social media posts surrounding the recent protests, which undoubtedly escalated tensions between officers and the public. In the midst of Wednesday night’s protest, just before officers began using tear gas on the public, PPB tweeted that they had “reason to believe” there was an explosive placed outside the East Precinct. Hours later, PPB returned to tweet that no, it wasn’t actually an explosive. On Thursday, PPB tweeted a post from a youth-led activist group, which included information about another evening demonstration at the East Precinct. While the group’s post did not mention anything about violence, PPB drew this inflammatory conclusion: “This announcement means there is intent to engage in violent acts like we saw last night where attempts were made to burn an occupied building and people in vehicles tried to run over officers.” PPB added that the group’s call to protest “will not go unanswered,” appearing to be an open threat to people who planned a demonstration.

Wheeler instead used his platform Thursday to elevate the voices of police officers, city staff who believe their exhaustion from working months of protests is a bigger concern than the public’s right to oppose their years of disproportionate abuse against people of color. It helps that Wheeler believes the original goal of these demonstrations has been reached.

"The nonviolent demonstrations have been successful in achieving their ends, which is racial justice and equity… elevating the conversation,” he told reporters Thursday.

Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, has promised immediate and long term reforms to the police bureau. In June, he approved an annual PPB budget that was 3 percent smaller than the previous year's allotment. He's also backed a ballot measure proposed by City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to create a more independent police oversight system.

Yet many protesters say that's not enough.

Demetria Hester, who’s spent weeks attending protests with her group Moms United for Black Lives, wants to see more PPB dollars reinvested in local education, housing, and other support services.

“We’re protesting to defund the police and invest in the community. And we haven’t seen that yet. It’s pretty simple, this isn’t over until we achieve that.”

“We’re protesting to defund the police and invest in the community,” said Hester, whose voice is raspy from leading nightly protest chants. “And we haven’t seen that yet. It’s pretty simple, this isn’t over until we achieve that.”

Hester says that her group is consistently non-violent during the evening protests, but is regularly met by police violence. On Wednesday, Hester said several of the fellow women she protests with were injured after police officers charged at the crowd.

“It only gets violent at these protests when the police come out, tell us to move, and then say we're not moving fast enough—so they start rushing at us,” she said. Hester said it’s “arrogant” for Wheeler to claim that these protests are no longer about defending Black lives.

“For Ted Wheeler it was never about Black Lives Matter—but for the community, it has always been about Black lives,” Hester said. “He’s just not listening. He’s taking the word of police without investigating the claims. He’s made it about him. He’s no different than our president.”

Wheeler mentioned Trump’s campaign tactics Thursday, but he didn’t mention another re-election campaign headed to the November ballot: His own. Like Trump, Wheeler is using these protests as a way to gain political points, not an opportunity to question if the reforms he’s comfortable with are what
Portlanders are actually asking for.

Each morning, Wheeler receives a briefing from PPB leadership about the previous nights’ protests, which inform his understanding of a movement meant to dismantle the police force. He’d do well to start giving the same type of attention to the people calling for change.