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From Black lives to 'white spectacle,' Portland protests have lost focus, civil rights leaders say

“The focus has been moved from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle," said the president of the Portland NAACP.
Black Lives Matter organizer Teal Lindseth, 21, leads protesters Thursday in Portland, Ore.Noah Berger / AP

PORTLAND, Ore. — Black community leaders are urging local protesters to shift the focus of demonstrations back to the Black Lives Matter movement and away from what has become a largely “white spectacle.”

Standing in front of a large banner bearing an image of Rep. John Lewis, the Black civil rights icon who died last week, the Rev. E.D. Mondainé, president of the Portland branch of the NAACP, told protesters, “The focus has been moved from where it is supposed to be and made to be a spectacle, a debacle.”

“This is no new thing we’re experiencing. We have seen this from the beginning of time,” Mondainé said. “Four hundred years we have struggled as Black people in this nation. … We have been made to be the last that were informed but the first that were affected.”

Mothers form a human chain during a protest in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland, Ore., on Thursday.Ankur Dholakia / AFP - Getty Images

Throughout the week, protesters have argued among themselves over tactics used to denounce the continued presence of federal officers in Portland. Some have called for nonviolent action, while others have thrown fireworks and lit fires outside the federal courthouse.

The ongoing unrest, which started at the end of May following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, initially began as a series of demonstrations against racism and police brutality. After federal officers under the command of the Department of Homeland Security arrived to defend the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, they became the focus of protests.

Lost in the shuffle were the millions of Black lives suffering systemic racism and injustice, said Lakayana Drury, executive director of Word is Bond, a Portland-based nonprofit.

“I want us to remember why we’re here,” Drury told protesters Thursday. “What’s happening downtown is not a Black issue. This is a battle between two white supremacy entities: the Trump administration and the local city of Portland.”

In the majority-white city, Black people comprise just 6 percent of the population, according to the latest numbers available from the U.S. census. Many of those residents live far from the downtown area, where thousands of demonstrators have descended every night for almost two months.

Demonstrators try to kick down a fence during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Thursday in Portland, Ore.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Drury said instead of drawing national attention to what transpired outside the federal courthouse in recent weeks, protesters should be talking about communities of color, who are subjected to increased policing and a lack of economic opportunity.

“The Black issues exist very far from here,” he said. “It’s in the classrooms when we have Black students in eighth grade who are not at an eighth grade reading level. That’s what we should be marching for.”

The Portland NAACP has repeatedly denounced the actions of federal forces in Portland but has also criticized “mostly white anarchists” for inciting violence during the protests. Much of the national scrutiny in recent weeks has centered on the melee that erupts nightly after small groups of demonstrators begin a cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement.

Over the past week, protests have settled into a cycle that starts early in the evening with peaceful marchers singing and chanting, “Black lives matter," and, “Feds go home.” Recently Portland parents have led a short procession from the Justice Center to the neighboring federal courthouse. There, the Wall of Moms link arms and form a barrier between protesters and the building. Members of the PDXDadPod wear gas masks and carry large leaf blowers to help disperse the inevitable tear gas used by officers against demonstrators.

Sometime around midnight, a small group of protesters, usually wearing all black and carrying makeshift shields and umbrellas, begins to lob fireworks toward the federal courthouse or light small fires nearby. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, after law enforcement erected a steel fence around the court’s perimeter, people targeted the barricade by shaking it or trying to climb over it.

Once the fence is breached, the federal officers come out. They throw tear gas into the crowd and use projectiles. No one standing near the scene is spared, not even Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Images of the mostly white Wall of Moms, PDXDadPod and aggressive protesters have dominated much of the news coverage. Last week, a photo went viral showing a standoff between law enforcement and a naked white woman later dubbed "Naked Athena."

While these images might speak to the constitutional debate created when federal agents use force against demonstrators on American soil, they do not address the bigger issue of systemic racism against Black communities, civil rights leaders say.

Protesters walk through chemical irritants dispersed by federal agents at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Thursday in Portland, Ore.Noah Berger / AP

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Mondainé denounced what he called the “white spectacle."

“Unfortunately, ‘spectacle’ is now the best way to describe Portland’s protests,” he wrote. “Vandalizing government buildings and hurling projectiles at law enforcement draw attention — but how do these actions stop police from killing black people? What are antifa and other leftist agitators achieving for the cause of black equality?”

Still, some Black leaders in Portland say any attention drawn to inequities is a step in the right direction.

Reginald Richardson Jr., pastor of Your Bible Speaks Seventh Day Adventist Church who describes himself as “nonviolent,” encourages white allies to act as shields for Black people, who have a historically fraught relationship with law enforcement.

“Black men and women will go to jail at a higher rate than our white brothers and sisters,” he said. “It is time for our white brothers and sisters to stand up and be that barrier.”