PORTLAND: Teal Lindseth reacts to tear gas after federal officers dispersed protesters from in front of the Mark O Hatfield US Courthouse in Portland, Ore. — AFP

PORTLAND: Standing in front of a huge crowd, 21-year-old Teal Lindseth marches briskly through downtown Portland shouting into a bullhorn. “Tell me what democracy looks like,” she cries out as more than a thousand demonstrators respond: “This is what democracy looks like.” Their voices boom through blocks of high-rises and boarded-up storefronts in the city located in the western US state of Oregon.

Earlier protests in Portland-and much of the United States-to denounce racism and police brutality following the death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, began losing steam at the start of July. But then reports emerged of camouflaged federal officers snatching up Portland protesters in unmarked vehicles. Now, the demonstrations have ramped up, with thousands showing up daily to face off with police well into the night.

The agents, deployed from the Department of Homeland Security, have used tear gas, rubber bullets, flashbangs, and other munitions to disperse the nightly crowds. “Right or left, I think here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re all very much opposed to the federal government taking over our streets,” said Carlos, a demonstrator marching late Monday who asked to be identified only by his first name. “When you send federal troops here, you’re incensing the entire region.”

Carlos, like Lindseth, is an African American in his early 20s who carried a megaphone to whip up the crowd. “I’m hesitant to call myself a leader,” he told AFP. “I just speak up whenever the crowd seems directionless.” The nightly protests begin with assemblies and marches and often end with participants getting trampled, beaten, and pepper-sprayed by local police.  The Portland Police Bureau says it is responding to criminal activity-namely demonstrators chucking rocks and water bottles at officers, as well as shining flashlights and lasers at them.

President Donald Trump for his part says the federal law enforcement forces are there to restore order, describing the protesters as “anarchists and agitators” and threatening to send federal officers to more US cities.  One video posted to social media July 12 shows a protester being shot in the face with a rubber bullet and bleeding profusely.  The protestor had to undergo reconstructive surgery and is making a full recovery, according to The Oregonian.

‘Feds go home’

A few days later, another video on social media emerged of two federal agents jumping out of an unmarked minivan and snatching up a protester as he backed away with his hands up. Perhaps the most surreal image was that of a naked woman-dubbed “Naked Athena”-who wore only a hat and face mask several nights ago as she faced off with police who responded by shooting pepper balls at her feet. The unidentified woman performed some ballet moves and sat briefly on the ground, in front of a police line, before disappearing. — AFP

A group of mothers dubbed the “Wall of Moms” have also joined the protests in recent days chanting “Feds stay clear. Moms are here.” The increased presence of federal forces has drawn criticism from Democratic lawmakers, local leaders and civil rights groups-and hardened the resolve of the protesters. “Feds go home,” the demonstrators shouted on Monday, vowing to continue their action. Outside the central police precinct, demonstrators waved their cell phone lights as Lindseth led them in a broken rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

But the situation turned ugly after midnight as a small group of people moved toward the federal courthouse and tried to remove the fence around the building. Without warning, federal enforcement officers began streaming out of the building, throwing tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets and sting balls to disperse the crowd. One masked demonstrator hurled an expletive at the officers while others tossed back some of the gas canisters. “Stay together, stay tight,” the protesters chanted, backing away from the tear gas. “We do this every night.” — AFP