Portland Protests For Black Lives: An On-the-Ground Report (July 24, 2020)

By J. Davis

“A Black Lives Matter sign was hoisted up the flagpole at the Justice Center, the epicenter of the protests. This was on a quieter night, June 28, with little to no police presence until later in the night. Such a beautiful moment!”
Credit: Author

What follows is an interview I conducted with my friend and activist, MK,1 about their experience being shot by the Portland Police at a non-violent protest this summer. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Will you lead me through the events that resulted in you being shot by the Portland Police Department in a non-violent demonstration, and the aftermath including your experiences with the healthcare system and in/ability to work?

On June 30, 2020, I attended a rally at Peninsula Park in Portland, Oregon. Various speakers talked about systemic racism and state violence; there were music performances and food was given out freely by donation. At the end of the rally, a group of around 150 people (including me), started marching towards the Portland Police Association Union Hall. This built on an action from the week before—an attempt to occupy the area around the North Precinct, a rapidly gentrifying, historically Black neighborhood. When we arrived, the police, already dressed in full riot gear, immediately made claims of property damage and said that we were throwing things and breaking windows, without citing evidence. Many residents of this neighborhood, who were standing on their balconies in an apartment building across from the PPA, attested to the egregious and strategic reaction of the police, but those perspectives have largely been ignored by popular media channels. We continued chanting and someone in the crowd reminded us of the recently-agreed-upon ordinance banning the use of tear gas against protesters that the organization Don’t Shoot Portland had filed. I now know that the Portland Police can decide to circumvent this rule by declaring any gathering a riot or unlawful assembly, which is completely at their discretion.

The police then began rushing at people with batons, which has been their frontline tactic. Very few of us had shields or physical protection for our bodies, unlike the police who were in riot gear. From my perspective, the dominant protest sentiment in Portland has been for white folks to use their privilege, and put their bodies between police and the other demonstrators. There is much debate about the efficacy of this tactic, but that’s what I chose to do. I was about 6-9 feet away from the police with no one in front of me when they started shooting at us. I saw something 2 inches in diameter hit my ankle, and I was in immediate and extreme pain. I called for a street medic, and two people carried me out of the immediate area where the police continued rushing people and beating them with batons and shooting tear gas. People not involved in the protests, driving along the streets, were abandoning their cars due to the tear gas flooding the interior of their cars. There were people helping one another who were suffering from tear gas injuries and there were clouds of tear gas in the air.

I was moved to a safer area, and a medic found a person with a car to drive me home. One of the medics that treated me followed up by phone saying that I could probably wait until morning for Urgent Care to get a few stitches. The bleeding continued for a couple of hours, and while at home I messaged both an acupuncturist and nurse friend who told me to come over. My partner drove me over and then carried me into their backyard. My nurse friend was also a street medic used to working on the ground with vulnerable populations (helping IV users, houseless people). He said my gash was very deep, and he could see straight to the bone. He recommended I go to Urgent Care. I am fortunate to still have health insurance through my employer (a non-profit movie theater) who received a PPP loan which enabled them in the context of COVID-19 to keep me on payroll and insured. The movie theater had just changed health insurance providers and it was going into effect that very night. I needed to wait until morning, so I could call the new provider to verify exactly who I could be seen by.

The first Urgent Care I called told me I could book an appointment online, but when I created an account online, I found that I had to be a patient already in order to book an appointment. So I went to another place that was closer and waited in the car for an available doctor. When they called me and I mentioned that I couldn’t walk, they said that they would most likely refer me to an ER and said it was basically pointless to come inside and have to pay for two visits. They said, if I couldn’t walk without assistance, I was too injured for them to help. I went to a third Urgent Care that would see me, which was also attached to an ER in case that was needed. My nurse friend had warned me that ER and Urgent Care have different doctors that are often covered by different insurances and to make sure that the doctor I was seeing was covered by my insurance. When I asked about this, the hospital staff said they did not know anything about health insurance, that all the billing happens afterwards. There was no reception in the hospital, so the staff wheeled me back outside so I could get cell service and call my insurance. By the time my insurance approved my Urgent Care visit so much time had elapsed (over four hours), that there was not much the health-care workers could do other than dress the wound and take x-rays to confirm that nothing was fractured. Stitches should have been given within 12 hours of getting shot. So they gave me a boot and wheeled me outside, but they did not look to see if the boot helped. The boot is appropriate for some injuries like sprains, but it’s not appropriate for my injury. It turns out that the edge of the boot rubs directly on my wound, actually exacerbating my pain, particularly when I put any pressure on my ankle. The doctors and nurses offered no information on the healing process other than mentioning that I should keep it elevated for at least four days.  

I tried getting an appointment with a naturopathic doctor, but finding one urgently is nearly impossible under the current US medical system. A friend who is an acupuncturist/herbalist came over that day to give me acupuncture on my porch. This friend had a similar ankle injury, and shared some antibiotic medicine originally from Denmark via Thailand that really helps kill bacteria, but is not available in the US because of trade restrictions. This friend also recommended various anti-inflammatory herbs that I started taking right away. There was a high risk of infection given how deep the wound was and it being open. Another friend found a friend with adjustable crutches (originally $500) and brought them over on the second day. Before that, I had to hop to get around.

How did you experience the intersections of these multiple institutions (police, medical, wage-earning under capitalism)? What insight do you have now that was not as obvious to you before the police injured you?

I have been able to work very minimally back at the theater, which I have to do to fulfill the PPP loan mandate. It’s been a month since the initial injury and while the wound is healing, the swelling continues. I am not able to walk. I have been borrowing crutches from a friend. I worked one outdoor screening and was able to sit to project the film, but the bathroom was so far away—down several flights of stairs and across a parking structure. Working that one time laid me out for days. I’ve been lying on the couch and elevating my leg most of the time. Even standing to make tea is excruciatingly painful. Now with COVID-19, I’m reliant on my roommate who works six days a week as an essential worker and my partner who is also working full time and going to nightly protests. I’m relying on people who are already really taxed. People have also been dropping off food for me. And I’ve been experiencing memory loss; I’ll often lose words, which I feel is a sign of the trauma around the violence of this injury.

I know you have spent a significant amount of time in Hong Kong. How were you inspired or motivated by the current protests there? Do you see connections between what protesters are advocating for in Hong Kong and in Portland?

I happened to be in Hong Kong during the end of the Yellow Umbrella Movement and have been following politics there ever since through various protests such as the Fishball riot in Mongkok. A few of the leaders from the Umbrella Movement and subsequent protests have been imprisoned. Other leaders pursued the legislative route, were elected into government and then forcibly removed because of their pro-democracy views. The most recent protests over the past year started against the extradition law that Beijing backed, highlighting police brutality and the tactics police employ to escalate violence. There seemed to be so many lessons learned from the Yellow Umbrella Movement, such as having no leaders and being very adaptable in actions using encrypted apps such as Telegram. Also, using umbrellas around the shields in the front to advance against the police and using traffic cones to put out tear gas effectively. Many protesters in Portland seem to be inspired by the creativity and adaptability of the HK protest movement. I’ve been watching videos of the “be water” phrase Hong Kongers used (now being heard on the streets of Portland), which I take to mean smaller groups without centralized leaders, rotation of leadership (i.e., who speaks), executing a lot of different actions in a variety of locations, moving between actions fluidly, and sustaining on-the-ground protests until real change happens. Similar to HK, I see the state forces centering themselves as victims of violence, not as actors within pervasive systems that perpetuate injustice.

What factors did you consider in your decision to protest? In other words, why did you take this form of political action?

I have taken this form of political action for a long time. In the last few years, I developed a rhythm of working a lot and traveling, which resulted in my more limited participation in protests. I recently became friends with people who came to political consciousness during the Occupy movement. They were amazed by the 10,000 people marching in the current BLM movement in Portland versus the 100,000 people I experienced marching with in 2001. In the last few decades, I felt devastated by the Iraq War, by protesting and not seeing policy change. And to see Democratic leaders support state violence through this and other wars. I made the decision to go out the second night of the George Floyd/BLM protests in Portland, even though the City of Portland had enacted a curfew for 6pm, and even though I had not been out in public much (other than grocery shopping), or among people other than my COVID pod, for months. I’m able bodied, in good health and am fortunate to have health insurance—I felt I had no excuse to not go protest. It’s not okay for things to continue the way things are. The government re-openings in spite of the health risks of COVID-19 are so racist; they are affecting BIPOC at alarmingly high rates. I felt completely without hope about humankind watching this happen. I was so depressed in May, so when the call for action happened after George Floyd’s murder, I was ready. I continued to go to day and/or night protests 5-6 days a week for over a month, until I was injured.

Can you describe your alternative care and support systems, specifically those outside of dominant (and often state-sponsored) forms? What do you think these networks and strategies accomplish?

Many people don’t have health care or access to essential medical services in the US. What’s happening on that level is not effective. In my experience, alternative care attempts to support people as whole people, on the interlocking emotional, psychic, spiritual—not just physical—levels. The alternative care and support systems I engage in aim to support people, not only acutely, but also for the long-term. I’m interested in sustainable solutions, being able to have time and space for self-care. But there’s such a juxtaposition when you are in a trauma situation. You are so vulnerable to the care and the specific medical advice available to you. Often that does support long-term solutions and building self-trust. In other words, healing. I think there needs to be a combination of allopathic (imaging, vaccines) and holistic approaches. And access to a variety of support.

What roles do you see gender and race playing (for you personally and at large) in the protests? I’m thinking here about the recent protests against Trump’s deployment of federal officers by moms linked arm-in-arm and a naked person doing yoga poses. What do you think the body in protest does here that’s unique?

There are so many amazing things happening right now. There are lots of actions on the ground, but only certain ones are selected for media focus. While not new, popular media is overlooking and under-acknowledging the sustained work of BIPOC, particularly female and queer individuals. Every Thursday morning, for YEARS, Patrick Kimmons’ mother has organized a march for her son, murdered by the Portland Police in 2018. Black organizers have regularly protested the murder of Jason Washington by Portland State University campus officers. Yet, PSU campus police still carry guns. Black-led, grassroots organizations like Don’t Shoot Portland and the Urban League have been doing this work for so long. They are ready for systemic change, no more stalling by the government, no more committees. Many local and independent journalists have been live streaming and utilizing social media like Twitter to document what is going on at the street level, but have been hugely underrepresented on the national and global media front until very recently.

BIPOC efforts have largely paved the way for the “Naked Athena” and the “Wall of Moms,” both of which garnered major media attention.2 Their “innocuous” or even humorous presence rests on racist and sexist stereotypes of who and what is violent (and who or what is passive). I do think the participation of these people, of older white people specifically, in the protests against racialized police violence is important. Just like the white mayor Ted Wheeler getting tear gassed alongside protestors. Now he is speaking out to ban tear gas, even though the police that he oversees have been using tear gas on the protestors for months. Critics argue his participation in the protests are largely performative, but even if so, I do think they can have a positive effect for removing the Feds from Portland. And at the same time I think it’s important to mention that Mayor Wheeler decided not to defund the police in any significant way during the City Council budget meeting in the second week of June, which might have changed the course of events significantly.

When it comes to the question of the body, it’s nothing new in white-dominated cities with racist pasts and presents, like Portland, to protect white bodies (and white supremacy), while killing others. For instance, Portland has the most strip clubs per capita in the US, but strippers of color only make up 1-3 percent of dancers. Black and brown people have been concurrently protesting the many strip club owners, almost exclusively white and male, who make outright racist remarks that they don’t want to hire strippers of color because they “don’t want to draw a certain crowd.” These strip club owners are also not reliably providing any COVID-19 protections for the workers who are mostly women. I think these issues revolving around racism and sexism, of whose bodies deserve protection, are completely connected with the mainstream media’s valorization of light-skinned “Naked Athena” doing yoga poses. 

Another interesting point about the body in protest is the media’s outright erasure of damage to bodies in favor of images of damaged property. During one protest with fewer people, I witnessed a major TV station show up, try to set up the camera in one position that would have actually shown demonstrators, then change the position of the camera to only include a dumpster on fire. It was the only time I saw them show up at any of the protests I’ve been to recently. The way they seemed uninterested in the small, peaceful protests made me think about how popular media has distorted and amplified property damage (which has been quite minimal—mainly art painted on boarded up government buildings), and de-emphasized the injuries and deaths of people and their bodies at the hands of the state.

We need to continue to center BIPOC voices and experiences, histories of policing and killing certain bodies and protecting others, executed through intertwined legacies of Indigenous genocide and slavery. The protests for increasing community resources and defunding the police have largely been peaceful. The police generally escalate things. I mean water bottles, dildos and apples are being thrown at police in full riot gear. And many, many, many people are, and have been, significantly injured by the police in protest and in quotidian life.

J Davis is an experimental screen/dance artist, a film programmer, and a PhD student in World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA. Her academic writings concern queer/punk subculture, Jewish/German transnational identity, and performance dynamics in 1920-1930s Weimar Germany and 1940s New York City. Davis is the recipient of CSW’s Fall 2019 Travel Grant.

  1. I have purposely left out the names and identifying markers of people involved for their safety.
  2. CSW EDITOR’S NOTE: While the interview with MK did not get into a more detailed analysis of the “Naked Athena” incident, it should be noted that in addition to being lauded by many, the naked display also drew criticism for upstaging the BLM protests and for being an exhibition of white privilege.