PORTLAND, Ore. – Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed by federal officers along with a large crowd of protesters late Wednesday night after he tried for hours to calm angry activists demanding police reform from City Hall and calling for federal authorities to withdraw from this mostly liberal, mostly white city.
The mayor was caught in a chaotic display of violence and mayhem that began around 11:15 p.m., after protesters threw flaming bags of garbage over a fence protecting the federal courthouse, prompting officers to fire tear gas at the crowd.
Wheeler had spent many hours in the thick of the protest, attempting to answer questions from the crowd, which booed and jeered as he tried to explain a lengthy process for making changes. He acknowledged that he’s a “white, privileged male.”
“Obviously, we have a long way to go,” Wheeler said. “Everyone here has a job to do, all of us.”
Before the crowd was tear-gassed, Wheeler huddled with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement who demanded he move more quickly to reform the police department.
Some activists said they were worried the fight over federal agents overshadowed their demands for change and vowed to keep the pressure on Wheeler and city officials. One mother pointed out that Wheeler showed up to the protests only after other white mothers attending the demonstrations over the weekend were tear-gassed.
“Enough is enough,” the crowd chanted. “Enough is enough.”
Thousands of protesters alternately booed and interrogated Wheeler after hundreds of mothers dubbed “the Wall of Moms” led a march downtown against police brutality. Many protesters carried signs demanding the withdrawal of federal agents dispatched last week by President Donald Trump over the objection of Wheeler and other officials.
“It’s hard to breathe, it’s a lot harder to breathe than I thought,” Wheeler told The Washington Post after he was tear-gassed. “This is abhorrent. This is beneath us.”
Trump said he sent federal law enforcement officers in to restore order. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said agents were in Portland primarily to protect federal buildings such as the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, a target of protesters.
Contractors surrounded the building with a tall metal-and-concrete fence Wednesday, and prosecutors warned that anyone who breached it would be arrested. In court files, officials said protesters inflicted more than $50,000 in damage to federal buildings in Portland, including tearing down security cameras and shattering glass doors.
Tai Carpenter, the board president of Don’t Shoot PDX, a Portland-based, nonprofit group advocating for social change, said the majority of protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights. She called the federal response disproportionate.
“It’s not a bunch of anarchists on the front lines,” said Carpenter, 29. “It’s moms singing and dads with leaf blowers to disperse tear gas. It’s not nearly as out of control as people think. I’m scared that the federal officers being here is going to result in someone being murdered.”
Wheeler echoed those concerns after speaking to protesters Wednesday night.