Federal troops and street battles: Portland protests near 100 days

PORTLAND (Reuters) - The protests that erupted in Portland after George Floyd’s killing nearly 100 days ago have evolved into a seemingly constant battle between progressives and far-right groups while highlighting long-standing racial tensions in Oregon.

Black activist Myke Tavarres speaks to the crowd during a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 27, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

The protests drag on even as street demonstrations in other U.S. cities have waned, and some civic leaders say they have been spurred rather than quelled by the deployment of federal troops in July.

Marked by clashes between right- and left-wing protesters, caravans of people supporting U.S. President Donald Trump have squared off on the streets against counter-protesters with deadly results.

The tensions have roiled downtown Portland, the Pacific northwestern enclave with a reputation as a liberal city, every night for nearly three months.

“If you have a place that’s perceived as progressive, very liberal, and then you have people who might have a different perspective, this is (seen as) the place where you can ‘battle it out,’” said Shirley Jackson, a professor of Black studies at Portland State University.

Click the image to see more photos of Portland's protests. Pictured: Xavier Warner and Teal Lindseth use megaphones during a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, Oregon, U.S., July 28, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

On Aug. 29, one member of a pro-Trump group was shot and killed. The suspect in the case, who had said he was part of the anti-fascist movement, was killed while being arrested by U.S. marshals on Thursday.

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Although Oregon is known as a progressive, left-leaning state, it has a history of institutional racism that is extreme even for the United States.

Oregon was the only state to join the union that explicitly banned Black people from living there, and it once had the largest Ku Klux Klan organization west of the Mississippi River. The state also failed to fully ratify the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to Black people, until 1973.

That history means white supremacy groups and anti-government militias have deep roots in the state, outside of its liberal hubs.

Demonstrations against racism and police brutality swept across the United States after the May killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In Portland, however, the protests have taken on a sense of permanency.

Tai Carpenter, president of Don’t Shoot PDX, an anti-gun violence nonprofit, said the state’s racist past - and continued police brutality in the present - are fueling the longevity of the city’s protests.

“Police are still showing that Black lives don’t matter. Because they were never meant to matter in Oregon,” Carpenter said. “The fact that we’re in Portland is why we’re coming up on 100 days of protest. That’s why the movement isn’t blowing down here.”

The violence between rival groups over historic tensions has alienated some activists.

Elizabeth Reitzell, 29, a high school teacher in Portland, has demonstrated with the Portland Buddhist Peace Fellowship by joining in silent meditations every week since July, after initially being put off by the aggression she saw in the street protests.

“I was really eager to be involved but I struggled to find how I could fit in a meaningful way without being wrangled in with the less peaceful protesters,” she said.

“(The violence) is very confusing to us organizers,” said Xavier “Princess” Warner, 19, a co-founder of Black Unity PDX, a civil rights collective. “Because us fighting for equality, us fighting for our lives, us fighting for our rights, is not political.”

Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver and Caitlin Ochs in Portland; Editing by Tom Brown