PORTLAND—With roughly two-dozen federal officers in riot gear marching towards her, Demetria Hester linked arms with two other mothers in yellow shirts. “Hands up!” she chanted. “Don’t shoot!” responded the crowd, warily watching a line of federal agents coming towards them from behind a cloud of tear gas and smoke from munition fire.
Though the number of protesters in downtown Portland had dwindled to about 100 shortly after midnight Thursday, the number of federal agents out on the streets was larger than ever. Hours after Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the gradual removal of federal law enforcement officers from Portland, more than 200 of those officers were clashing with protesters outside the federal courthouse, using tear gas to clear the surrounding streets.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and President Donald Trump had disputed the governor’s announcement, the former tweeting that federal officers would “remain in Portland until the violent activity toward our federal facilities ends.” And if the scene in Portland early Thursday morning was any indication, the unrest there isn’t close to finished.
The line of federal agents, holding shields and riot shotguns, shoved a wall of protesters back from the front of the courthouse. Then came the tear gas, lobbed into the crowd by U.S. Marshals and officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Protesters frantically dodged the flying thick metal canisters and backed away from the rising smoke. With her hands still in the air, Hester pulled down a respirator mask over her mouth. “Hands up!” she kept chanting through her mask, and then slid on a pair of goggles. “Don’t shoot!” came the crowd’s reply, muffled by the sting of tear gas and the sound of jostled bodies.
After tackling and arresting a protester, federal officers continued throwing tear gas into the crowd to clear the area. Her bloodshot eyes tearing up, Hester backed away from the heavy volley of teargas and munitions, coughing into her respirator.
“We weren’t doing anything wrong,” she told The Daily Beast between coughs. “We were just peacefully protesting.”
Indeed, before officers closed in, Hester and the other demonstrators standing in front of the courthouse had been peacefully chanting. “George Floyd.” “Breonna Taylor.” “Black Lives Matter.” Earlier in the night, however, a small number of protesters had become violent: shining lasers at officer’s faces and chucking fireworks at the federal courthouse.
Now it appeared police officers were targeting specific people for arrest, and tear gassing anyone else in the way.
Another demonstrator dressed in yellow—the designated color of the so-called “Wall of Moms,” a group of mothers focused on defending Black lives from police brutality—offered Hester a moist towelette to rub across her stinging eyes. Though Hester came out Wednesday night to protest police brutality alongside other yellow-shirted moms, the 45-year-old mother of two and grandmother of three has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement since May 2017.
It was then Hester was assaulted by convicted killer Jeremy Christian the day before he killed two men on a Portland commuter train following a racist tirade. In her testimony, Hester said she interrupted Christian as he was screaming about minorities, after which he hit her in the face with a bottle, badly bruising her right eye. The next day, Christian directed another racist tirade at a small group of young girls, and fatally stabbed two men who interfered. The trial ended late last month with a sentence of life in prison without parole.
“It was really after that trial that I started coming down here,” Hester said of the protest site, where a final burst of intense clashes were coming to an end.
Hester and a few other mothers asked me where my car was and insisted on walking me there, because “that’s what moms do.” Hester, alongside several other Black activist mothers, has helped take charge of the Wall of Moms alongside a group called Moms United for Black Lives after the former’s original founder was accused of “anti-blackness.”
Amid the chaos on the street, Hester recounted the day she was attacked by Christian, when she approached an officer with the Portland Police Bureau and pointed her attacker out. Christian was not arrested.
“That white supremacist got special treatment from the police. That’s not acceptable,” she said, pausing to spit out the taste of tear gas. “And that’s what we’re here fighting for today.”
So even if the feds did pull out of her city, it was hard to imagine activists like Hester would be satisfied.
“It won’t make a difference if they leave or stay,” Hester said, referring to the federal officers. “It all comes down to white privilege in this country.”