A protester rests after being pepper sprayed Saturday.
Photo by Sarah Mirk

MORE THAN 500 protesters gathered in Portland's Holladay Park three days before the election to make a sad statement: No matter who is elected, the country will likely see more cuts to education and social services. The mostly upbeat and festive march then took a surprisingly dark turn when police officers pepper sprayed roughly 20 protesters—including at least 10 high school students.

Organized primarily by advocacy groups including Occupy Portland, We Are Oregon, and Jobs with Justice, the protest on Saturday, November 3, brought out a diverse crowd for a march around the Lloyd Center mall protesting "government austerity."

Since President Barack Obama took office, more than 600,000 state and local government jobs have been cut nationwide—a much steeper decline in public-sector jobs than in previous recessions. In Portland, perhaps the most visible cuts were some 110 teachers that Portland Public Schools had planned to axe last school year. Students helped save those jobs, marching on city hall in May and prompting Mayor Sam Adams to offer the district a $5 million "band-aid" from city coffers. Some of those same students turned out Saturday to protest continued budget shrinkage. But instead of being met with the mayor's support, at least 10 wound up sprayed by police.

Grant High senior Dylan Tingley was among the group of students at Saturday's protest holding the large wooden banner reading "Bring the ruckus! No more cuts to education!" He was motivated to attend the event after being involved in the successful march on city hall this spring.

"We would have lost a lot of our staff," says Tingley. "I was worried about losing advanced classes when they cut teachers."

The student contingent was at the front of a crowd that pressed up against police lines. For about a minute, the crowd inched forward, slowly walking the wooden banners into the line of bike police as a moving wall. Then, several officers began pepper spraying the crowd.

Police say they were worried that the large wooden banners could be used as weapons against officers—they confiscated at least three of the wooden signs at the march.

Interviews with six high school students at the front of the crowd reveal that none heard any warning about use of pepper spray. Though it is not required by bureau policy, typically police will shout warnings before pepper spraying at protests.

"It was the most painful thing I've ever experienced," says Halley Steiner, 17, also a Grant senior, who was still having trouble sleeping and eating a day after the protest. She and others laid on the sidewalk as volunteer medics poured water and Maalox over their faces. After a few minutes, the rest of the protest marched onward, still surprisingly festive and with no other police altercations.

As part of the protest, Jobs with Justice also occupied the offices of the largest lobbyist of Portland City Hall, the Portland Business Alliance, on the afternoon of Friday, November 2.

"They represent corporate interests in our area," said activist Laurie King. "We're against the austerity that they're shoving down our throats."