Experts discuss ‘What is a protest?’ amid ongoing Portland unrest

Is Portland Over?

PORTLAND, OR – APRIL 17: Protesters watch a structure fire, set following the police shooting of a homeless man on April 17, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. The shooting comes amid heightened tensions between police and activists as the country awaits a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As Portland continues to be the subject of direct actions by black-clad protesters that often result in property destruction, fires being set, and smashed windows to businesses and other organizations, the question arises: Just what is considered to be a protest in the first place?

In fact, it was the suggestion of Mayor Ted Wheeler that the press stop referring to participants at such events as “protesters,” but instead to use “their own description of themselves as anarchists.” 

That remark was made during an April 23 announcement he was extending a state of emergency for the city through the weekend in anticipation of more activity of what Wheeler described as coming from a small but determined group. 

The emergency declaration was first announced Tuesday, April 20, immediately prior to the reading of the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin. The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of three charges, including second-degree murder, after a viral video last May showed him killing an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck during an alleged forgery investigation. 

Rioters and vandals smashed windows and caused damage at the Oregon Historical Society, April 17, 2021 (PPB)

KOIN 6 News reached out to Shirley A. Jackson, a professor of sociology and Black studies at Portland State University, to talk about her thoughts about just what defines a protest.

She said a protest involves a person or people who want to get across a particular idea, such as disagreeing with a certain policy or issue with the government.

“What they’re doing is they are just simply showing that they…have some type of outrage, some type of a disagreement that they have with the way in which things are being done,” Jackson said.

She said it’s important for people to distinguish between a protest and a social movement.

“The difference between a protest and a social movement is that a protest can be something that is short term. It can happen [in] a day. It is not something that is necessarily sustained activity, that is what differentiates it from a social movement. A social movement is something that is sustained over time,” Jackson said.

“The co-optation, if you will, of Black Lives Matter’s movement for people who engaged in their own form of protest, unfortunately drew attention away from Black Lives Matter and erroneously and associating it with these other activities served to work against the Black Lives Matter cause.”

SHIRLEY A. JACKSON, PSU Sociology and black studies professor

Jackson gave the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of a social movement. 

“For some people, oddly enough, they seem to think the movement suddenly began, if you will, in 2020. But for many Black folks, that is certainly not true,” she said. “It was only probably in large part due to the pandemic and the fact that people were not engaged in the same kind of day-to-day activities that they were engaged in prior to the pandemic [that] brought people together in a way that had not really occurred before.”

Jackson said the Black Lives Matter movement can roughly be traced back to at least 2012 with protests surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin and many others.

More than 100 consecutive nights of protests occurred in Portland following George Floyd’s death in May 2020, coinciding with international calls for justice as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many peaceful marches brought thousands to the street during the day, with clashes between protesters and police and acts of vandalism and property destruction occurring during the night. 

But after historic wildfires interrupted the consecutive nights of protest in September 2020, more scattered direct actions remained. Direct actions of 50 to 100 people, or less, dressed in all black marching through concentrated areas of the city and smashing windows was a semi-common occurrence at the time we spoke with Jackson on the matter, back in mid-March. 

Black Lives Matter ‘co-optation’

Jackson said she thinks the direct actions that involve property destruction by people in the so-called “black bloc” are distinct from Portland’s broader Black Lives Matter protests. 

Beginning last summer, Jackson said there was an erroneous combining in people’s minds of the broader Black Lives Matter movement and “other kinds of protest where there were no specific leaders, there were no specific demands, you just have people who were taking advantage of the fact that there was this Black Lives Matter movement and there were protests that were taking place.”

A TriMet bus shelter is tagged with the anarchist symbol at NW 21st and Northrop during a riot, April 23, 2021 (PPB)

“The co-optation, if you will, of Black Lives Matter’s movement for people who engaged in their own form of protest, unfortunately, drew attention away from Black Lives Matter and erroneously and associating it with these other activities served to work against the Black Lives Matter cause,” she said.

Jackson said if people continue to link these two separate groups together, it may actually be setting back and working against the broader social movement, rather than move it forward.

When asked whether she thought the smaller direct action activities that often result in property damage can be defined as “protests,” she replied: “They’re engaging in a protest of sorts. But again, it’s not perceived necessarily as a legitimate protest because…there is no clear message about what they want to have happen.”

In the last few weeks, several direct action incidents have included property destruction at places like multiple Starbucks locations, a police building, and even someone’s home. Fires were also set at times, like at the Portland police union building in early April, as well as a fire lit in the street downtown another time. 

Windows were also smashed recently at downtown’s First Christian Church, an establishment known to serve the homeless community; the Oregon Historical Society, where someone spray-painted “No More History”; and the Blazers Boys and Girls Club, a community center in inner Northeast Portland that serves children. 

“What the police may be perfectly correct in calling a riot as a matter of a legal definition may come very close to what many others consider to be simply a legitimate protest. So I think it’s important that journalists make sure that they accurately describe the situation in front of them.”

Tim Gleason, U of O school of journalism and communications professor

Jackson said historically, violent protests tend to evoke greater government suppression, rather than resulting in their desired result of social change. 

On April 20, the day the Chauvin trial verdict and Portland’s emergency declaration was announced, an open letter was published and co-signed by dozens of self-identified Black writers, speakers, artists, activists, teachers, parents and professionals to call in the Portland protest community “In response to ongoing behavior seen as detrimental to Black Liberation.”

The letter reiterated a call for accountability for police violence “that continues to disproportionately impact Black communities, the disabled, those with mental illness, the unhoused, and other marginalized people.”

It went on to say that the co-signers of the letter have struggled “to survive in a state that makes every effort to reshuffle and erase us.”

“We need our allies in this fight to understand and honor this fact. Understand that doing damage to us, our communities, and our resources undoes the work we do,” said the letter, which was co-signed by local activists Donovan Smith, Mac Smiff, rapper Mic Crenshaw and many others.

The Black Liberation movement has suffered from decades “at the hands of both well-meaning allies and predatory opportunists, and over the last year we have watched as people have profited from and damaged our movement without our consent or approval,” the statement read.

The ethics behind the language of unrest

In order to discuss the ethics surrounding the media’s coverage of direct action events, protests, and the language we use to describe those events, KOIN 6 News reached out to Tim Gleason, a professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communications. 

Gleason said that in regard to unrest activity, the critical and ethical question from a journalistic perspective is: Is the reporter describing what is happening accurately?

He said while it may irk some to continue to call something a protest that has been designated by authorities as a “riot,” he points out that sometimes “a riot is a form of protest.” Moreover, the legal definition for a riot can vary widely from one governmental jurisdiction to the next.

“What the police may be perfectly correct in calling a riot as a matter of a legal definition may come very close to what many others consider to be simply a legitimate protest. So I think it’s important that journalists make sure that they accurately describe the situation in front of them,” Gleason said.

Windows smashed at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Portland during a direct action demonstration on Monday, April 19, 2021. (KOIN)

To help with that description, Gleason said it’s good to employ “a lot of adjectives.”

“So was it a lawful protest? Was it an unlawful protest? Was it vandalism? And also try to sort out the very hard thing to do, which is in many instances you have both going on.”

Gleason said it is important to not characterize an entire event in one particular light where, for example, 90% of the people were peacefully protesting while the other 10% were engaged in “destructive protesting, illegal protesting, vandalism, whatever it may be.”

Gleason said in the world of video news, it can be especially hard to differentiate the nuances of how a protest unfolds in a given evening and not let compelling images of destruction overpower the bigger picture of the situation.

“I think that that’s where the journalist needs to be very careful in not…sort of not falling for the appeal of the powerful image. But rather trying to determine what’s behind that image.”

Gleason said it’s important to try to not just examine Portland’s sustained level of protests on the surface level, but asking what the underlying cultural and political issues about the city are at play for that to occur.

 “We tend to not get to those issues, we tend to focus too much on who’s protesting and what have they done as oppose to why is it happening,” he said.

Continued unrest in Portland amid high-profile police killings

The direct action events of the past few weeks in Portland occurred as high profile killings by police continue to be reported locally and across the nation.

Portland police fatally shot a man in Lents Park after reports of a man pointing a gun, though it was later identified to be a replica with an orange tip. Forty-six-year-old Robert Delgado was killed by police on the morning of Friday, April 16, and protests followed that same afternoon and into the evening and become destructive. 

Nationally, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, was fatally shot by police earlier in April in what police called “an accidental discharge.” The officer who did the shooting said she meant to use her taser on him, but instead shot him with her gun. This was during a traffic stop in which they attempted to arrest Wright for an outstanding warrant after being pulled over for expired registration tags on Sunday, April 11.

Police also fatally shot a teenaged Black girl in Columbus, Ohio, Ma’Khia Bryant, the same day as the Chauvin verdict was announced. Police shot Bryant after she charged at two people with a knife, according to body camera footage, the Associated Press reported.

In mid April, police body camera footage showed 13-year-old Adam Toledo dropped a gun and raised his hands immediately prior to being fatally shot by Chicago Police on March 29, after police responded to the scene on reports of gunfire.

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