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Federal agents, Portland protesters in standoff as chaos envelops parts of city

"What really crossed the line for me was when the feds started picking people off the street," a Portland woman said. "I don't want it in my city, and I want them gone."
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Even after tear gas choked downtown Portland in the early hours of Tuesday, Riots Ribs kept the food coming.

A volunteer, who has been camped outside the Multnomah County Justice Center since demonstrations against police brutality began more than 50 days ago, slathered barbecue sauce on the meat cooking just a few yards from federal forces trying to push back protesters.

Despite the surrounding chaos, the young woman in charge of Riot Ribs' social media account took a moment to tweet.

"Still cooking. Still being tear gassed. Still have broken ribs," the 22-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of law enforcement, wrote in her tweet. "Still feeding people 24/7."

The tweet was followed by a red heart and an orange flame.

For nearly two months, protesters have gathered in the park to march against the police-involved killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and others. Recently, demonstrations have become increasingly heated after federal forces arrived without the consent of local leaders.

The standoff between law enforcement and protesters in the streets of downtown Portland has caused what some legal experts say could be a constitutional crisis. In the crosshairs are residents trying to assert more control over the city's police department while being somewhat ambivalent about the violence that erupts every night like clockwork.

"What's happening here is, we have dozens, if not hundreds of federal troops descending upon our city. And what they're doing is, they are sharply escalating the situation," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said over the weekend.

Since the protests started at the end of May, a small section of downtown Portland has been transformed into a kind of pop-up city surrounding the Justice Center and the federal courthouse. In a park across the street, tents have sprung up to house a makeshift pharmacy filled with emergency kits, a pantry where people can get free snacks and water, a secondhand clothing store and free outdoor catering now known as Riot Ribs.

Riot Ribs only accepts donations to help cover the cost of providing ribs and mac 'n' cheese for anyone who wants it. It's been 18 days since volunteers first started feeding protesters and they intend to continue until federal forces leave Portland.

Over the weekend one of Riots Ribs' cooks, Rico Rivera, was shot point-blank in the chest with a tear gas canister. He had been standing in a crosswalk near the Justice Center during broad daylight when police issued an abrupt order for the crowd to disperse. Rivera was standing near a patrol SUV when he was shot, he said.

"I wasn't even a foot away from them," Rivera said. "First he aimed at my head and then he aimed at my chest."

He suffered two broken ribs and a bruised lung.

"I was just astounded," Rivera said.

Portland protesters have learned to anticipate the ebb and flow of violence near the Justice Center. Peaceful demonstrations make up the majority of what is seen there throughout the day and early parts of the night. Graffiti dots the outside of both the federal and county courthouses. Signs read "Black Lives Matter" and "Feds Go Home." Sometimes music blares from loudspeakers or cars, and sometimes people dance in a drum circle.

Marches around the Justice Center begin shortly after nightfall. Recently they have been led by an older generation of parents who form a barrier between protesters and law enforcement. The "Wall of Moms" and PDXDadPod link arms and shout things like "Feds stay clear, moms are here!"

Cheers broke out when the parent groups arrived at Monday night's demonstrations. Some of the moms danced while they marched as others squeezed small squeak toys in the shape of tiny pink pigs. Later, the moms asked protesters to light up their phones as the crowd sang the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

Leslie Yeargers, a mother of two, attended her first protest Monday night after seeing coverage of armed federal forces using tear gas against demonstrators. She was "horrified" by the violence and worried about the world her children, both in their early 20s, will inherit as civil unrest lingers.

"What really crossed the line for me was when the feds started picking people off the street," she said. "That is a totalitarian and authoritarian tactic, and I don't want it in my city and I want them gone."

Equipped with goggles and a face mask, Yeargers said she was nervous about attending Monday's demonstration. She doesn't like seeing downtown Portland surrounded by burning trash cans and graffiti, but she likes seeing her neighbors hit with tear gas even less.

"My kids want a better world. They want a world of peace and justice where they feel safe," she said. "Their futures right now are very precarious."

A Black Lives Matter protester burns a sign outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore.Noah Berger / AP

Like many of the protesters gathered outside the Justice Center, Yeargers wants more accountability from law enforcement in Portland. Progress was made in recent weeks after a federal court in Oregon issued a temporary restraining order against Portland police, limiting their use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to instances in which the safety of the public or police is at risk. Under the new law, those means can only be deployed if a riot is declared. Federal forces are not subject to those rules, however.

At the beginning of July, agents with Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protection Service arrived in Portland. They began appearing from behind the boarded up U.S. courthouse, firing pepper spray or tear gas at protesters who got too close to the building.

That same scene played out shortly after midnight Tuesday. While the protests on Monday were calm and peaceful, the mood changed as a small group of protesters wearing helmets and gas masks began to kick and hit a makeshift wall protecting the federal building. Some people tore at the plywood, and by 12:30 a.m. law enforcement starting using tear gas.

The moms quickly dispersed, but federal officers remained on the street past 1 a.m. In the park nearby, Riot Ribs continued serving free meals for anyone with an appetite.