These words came true on March 20, the day after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Thousands of protesters effectively took over downtown Portland, holding the intersection of SW 2nd Ave. and Burnside for over eight hours, and temporarily shutting down the Steele Bridge, the Broadway Bridge, Interstate 84, and Interstate 5.
By the end of the night, police had arrested 135 people; many more were pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, and hit with batons. One protester ill-advisedly hit an officer in the head with a baseball bat; and windows were smashed at a McDonalds and a Taco Bell. Reports that a protester sprayed acid on the police turned out to be false the acid in question was actually paint.
The events of the night showed how quickly Portland has become radicalized by the war. Many people undertook their first acts of civil disobedience on March 20; and many were arrested for the first time. Some acted in the heat of the moment, out of frustration and anger with the Bush administrations refusal to respond to gentler tactics. Others showed up downtown with a clear plan of actionwith a clear plan of action and definite objectives.
The action began at 4:00 p.m. with a rally in downtown Portlands Terry Shrunk Plaza. About 10,000 people were in attendance. The rally, sponsored by Portland Peaceful Response Coalition, was thoroughly law-abiding; but there was already a heavy police presence in anticipation of the unpermitted march scheduled to begin at 5 PM.
As the march began, the plaza quickly emptied. A few men who
had headed over from a pro-war rally of 100 or so at Waterfront Park were
standing on a corner yelling at the anti-war protesters. The protesters responded
by chanting, Support our troops! Bring them home!
Proceeding down SW 2nd Ave, the marchers found police blocking access to the Morrison bridge, anticipating that the protesters might attempt to get on the bridge and block it. The march continued on to SW 2nd and Burnside, where a group of young protesters in jumpsuits linked arms and sat down in the middle of the intersection, blocking traffic. Many others quickly followed suit.
The main march proceeded around the block and, finding the Morrison bridge still blocked, went on to the Steele bridge. This was the site of the first, and most violent, police/protester clash of the night. Police in riot gear, some on horses, managed to cut off the main body of the protest from the front line of about 50 protesters. As police hosed them down with pepper spray, the protesters defended themselves with make-shift shields. It was at this point that someone hit an officer with a baseball bat. One man began having a seizure after being hit with pepper spray and was taken away in an ambulance. Others were pepper-sprayed, then arrested and left sitting in handcuffs without access to medical care.
One protester who was present said that police used language calculated to egg the protesters on. He quoted them as saying, for instance, What you gonna do, buddy? Hey, you fucking fag.
The retreating protesters sat down on the ramp to the Steele Bridge for about 20 minutes before the police pushed them off. Then they got up and marched over the Burnside bridge, which was still blocked by the people sitting at SW 2nd and Burnside, into northeast Portland. From there, they managed to get onto I-84. The confrontation with police on I-84 was relatively mild - no one was arrested. The police merely pushed the protesters back. One protester was struck by a car in a hit-and-run on the interstate but did not sustain serious injuries.
While the main march moved back into northeast Portland (it was at this point that a McDonalds and a Taco Bell lost their windows to a protesters hammer), a small break-off march managed to get onto I-5. Some people on foot sat down in the road, while others, on bicycles, took it over Critical Mass style. When the police arrived, some of the cyclists managed to escape by running up a hill carrying their bicycles over their heads, then jumping back on the bicycles and riding away. Others, unable to get away fast enough, were thrown off their bicycles, beaten, and arrested. Those sitting in the road were also arrested.
Meanwhile, the main march occupied the Broadway bridge before heading back to Burnside, to join the crowd at SW 2nd and Burnside at about 9:30 p.m. At this point, the crowd in the intersection was quite large. The original group was still sitting on the ground with arms linked; others were drumming and dancing in the street. A few individuals burned American flags over the course of the night, sparking an altercation between the flag-burners and some passers-by. For the most part, however, the intersection was peaceful, with protesters chanting, This is what democracy looks like,Whose streets? Our streets! and, as it started to rain, Rain may pour and thunder crack. We dont want war in Iraq!
As this went on at street level, a man in a second story apartment stood at his window flipping the crowd off, while in another window, one story down, a child hopped up and down flashing a peace sign. Across the street, a police officer was standing in a window with what appeared to be a camera. People moved in and out of the intersection, bringing the sitters food, water, candles, and medical supplies.
At about 10:30 p.m., riot police descended and surrounded the intersection. A voice over a loudspeaker ordered the crowd to disperse, at which point, the protesters sitting down in the center of the intersection donned their goggles, bandannas, and respirators; and locked arms. Some people began chanting Ohm, a sound used by Buddhists to aid in meditation, in order to calm their fear of the police. The crowd picked up the chant and sustained it for the next hour, while the police looked on in some confusion. Others continued to chant anti-war slogans; those few who yelled at the police were quickly shushed by the rest of the sitters, who admonished, Whatever you do affects all of us.
Meanwhile police began to disperse those in the intersection who were not sitting down, using concussion grenades, rubber bullets, batons, and pepper spray. In this manner, they cleared half of the intersection, with 50 people left sitting on the ground. The police began moving in andsound used by Buddhists to aid in meditation, in order to calm their fear of the police. The crowd picked up the chant and sustained it for the next hour, while the police looked on in some confusion. Others continued to chant anti-war slogans; those few who yelled at the police were quickly shushed by the rest of the sitters, who admonished, Whatever you do affects all of us.
Meanwhile police began to disperse those in the intersection who were not sitting down, using concussion grenades, rubber bullets, batons, and pepper spray. In this manner, they cleared half of the intersection, with 50 people left sitting on the ground. The police began moving in and arresting the remaining protesters one by one. A number of people decided to leave at this point and were allowed to disperse. One transgendered individual was arrested while attempting to disperse, ostensibly because she was walking in the wrong direction. By the time the last protester had been handcuffed and loaded onto a bus, it was between 1:30 and 2:00 AM. The intersection had been blocked for over eight hours.
In the meantime, another group had set up tents at Terry Shrunk Plaza, with the intention of camping out in front of the Federal Building until the end of the war. Police eventually conceded their right to stay, but on the condition that someone must be present at each tent at all times, or the tents would be confiscated as abandoned property.
Some of the organizers of the march and sit-in had set up a legal support number for those who were arrested. People were encouraged not to carry identification or give their names to the police. The theory was that if enough people were arrested and refused to give their names, the jails would not have enough capacity to hold them all and they would be able to collectively bargain with the police to negotiate the terms of their release. Although this might have worked in theory had everyone known about the plan and stuck to it; in actual fact, most people gave their names immediately, after being told that the jails did in fact have enough capacity to hold all of them, and that they could be held for over three days. Most of the arrestees were given a citation for disorderly conduct and released soon after they revealed their identities. A few were held on more serious charges, such as rioting and assaulting an officer. Lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild plan to represent those protesters who choose to plead not guilty and go to trial.
The jail situation highlights one of the main difficulties of carrying out massive civil disobedience; it is extremely difficult to create a unified front in a crowd of hundreds or thousands, most of whom had no idea what sort of action they were going to be involved in when they showed up downtown. Spontaneous actions certainly have their value, but in the long run it is important for those engaging in civil disobedience to know that they have a support network and that they can trust their fellow protesters.
In addition, there have been debates about security - how open should protest organizers be about their plans? What are appropriate targets? How far should protesters be concerned about avoiding bad press in the mainstream media? Most anti-war protesters are agreed that they should use no violence against human beings, but there is some debate over whether property destruction is a legitimate or effective tactic. Of course, the war in Iraq is only beginning, but these are all issues protesters will have to face if they are going to carry out an effective resistance at home.
Abby Sewell is a writer, Reed College student and a former intern
for The Portland Alliance.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: April 2, 2003