Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on Friday promised a tougher response to people who commit violence and vandalism, in a press conference organized after two successive days of people damaging property and clashing with police downtown.
“We need more accountability and we need to hold people responsible for their criminal conduct,” the mayor said, hours after police said demonstrators launched commercial grade fireworks at a federal courthouse and Portland Justice Center and hurled projectiles at police. Video and photos of the night’s events also showed extensive damage to downtown store fronts with scores of smashed windows and fresh graffiti.
Wheeler said he will organize a meeting with local and state law enforcement as soon as next week to determine how best to respond to “anarchist violence” in the city, and he called for the state Legislature to pass a law in its upcoming regular session to increase penalties for people who repeatedly vandalize property.
The mayor also said Portland might need legislators to change state laws to allow increased city surveillance, although he provided no specifics when pressed for details.
New City Commissioner Mingus Mapps joined Wheeler and law enforcement officials at the press conference and said the day marked “both the beginning of a new year and a new chapter in Portland history.”
“We are the ones who get to write this chapter,” said Mapps, who noted the last year has been marked by police violence as well as the highest number of shootings in the city that he could remember. “Let’s make the story about recovery … Let’s make the story about peace.”
After months of nightly protests against police violence in Portland, protests had died down during the winter. Many of those demonstrations were large and peaceful, with most protesters leaving before smaller groups clashed with police.
Mapps, who is the third Black man on the Portland City Council in city history, thanked peaceful protesters and said “I literally would not be out here today at this podium” if people had not protested for racial justice throughout history. He distinguished those demonstrators from “vandals” sweeping through Portland neighborhoods.
Wheeler sought to put the focus on businesses harmed by the vandalism and cast the people who gathered downtown as extremists seeking to cause destruction and violence rather than promote change. He described the crowds in recent days as “violent antifa and anarchists” and said they were “rampaging” through downtown, causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage to taxpayer and private properties including damaging businesses struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.
Police Chief Chuck Lovell and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese made similar characterizations. Reese, whose deputies joined the response on New Year’s Eve as a group of 80 to 100 people gathered downtown, said that night was not about free speech but rather criminal activity, drawing out law enforcement “and then attacking them.” Reese said the projectiles that people hurled at law enforcement included “rocks the size of baseballs” and “a Molotov cocktail …”
Lovell said the New Year’s Eve demonstration “was about violence and criminal destruction, period.” He said people launched multiple Molotov cocktails at law enforcement officers, plus bricks and frozen water bottles. Three people involved in the gathering were arrested on suspicion of theft, burglary and riot, Lovell said.
Portland police declared a riot before midnight on New Year’s Eve and ordered people to leave the area of the courthouse and Justice Center. Portland police said few people in the crowd complied with the order to leave the area, and police deployed “inert smoke” and some impact munitions.
Sgt. Sergeant Kevin Allen, a spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau, said he did not have any photos of Molotov cocktails thrown on New Year’s Eve. “The photos I’ve gotten are all well after the event ended,” Allen wrote in an email. “Typically, we do not have time to snap photos during an active event. I’m not sure if there was any evidence left behind after the fact.”
Police also said demonstrators threw “paint balloons” at law enforcement officers and video posted online by a person who attended the event shows paint splattered on police shields and fireworks exploding behind the police.
An independent journalist who was recording the event also posted video in which the journalist appears to have been pushed by police while leaving the area, after police declared a riot and ordered people to disperse. The same journalist, Maranie Staab, said on Twitter that police did use tear gas.
Wheeler said he did not understand why, on a New Year’s Even when many Portlanders and other Oregonians were focused on “hope and optimism that can come with the dawn of a new year, why would a group of largely white, young and some middle-aged men, from all reports, destroy the livelihood of other people who are struggling to get by?”
“It’s the height of selfishness,” Wheeler said of the destruction. “There are just some people who want to watch the world burn. That’s what we’re up against here.”
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