The Feds are coming to your city. The Parachutes will follow.
National news outlets want the sexy police-state footage that street-level journalists risk their lives to obtain.
But they don’t want the context, and they don’t want to pay.
One night last week, during one of the smaller demonstrations, a tall white man in a clean ballistic helmet and brand-new plate carrier emblazoned with “PRESS” strolled through the crowd in front of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. He stopped by a gaggle of other journalists, most out-of-towners. “I’ve only been around for the last week,” he said, “but the protests in Portland feel a lot more performative than the ones I’ve seen in other cities. Less genuine.” A local journalist mentioned having been present for over 50 nights of the protests, starting in early June. “Yeah, I can only speak for what I’ve seen this week,” said Clean Helmet. “I’m flying back to DC tomorrow.”
Later that night, as I stood in a cloud of tear gas and dodged impact rounds in a respirator and second-hand firefighter helmet covered in “PRESS” stickers, I knelt to examine a new type of spent CS grenade, checking the temperature with my knuckles, as I’ve grown accustomed to doing before touching riot munitions. Clean Helmet rushed up.
“THAT’S HOT!” he yelled through a respirator. I turned to look at him, and he pushed me backwards. “IT’S HOT! DON’T TOUCH IT!”
While I regained my footing, he took a picture of the grenade sitting on the asphalt of SW 3rd Avenue before running off again. I picked up the grenade with a bandana, rinsed it at the handwashing station on the curb, and later added it to the collection cluttering my living room’s bookshelf. For the record, this one was manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems. Most of the spent munitions have been Defense Technologies.
Clean Helmet was on the ground in Portland, by his own description, for less than a week. This means that he was present for approximately 1/10th of Portland’s BLM protests, thus far. I’m sure he got some great footage.
The Parachutes (as we have come to know them) come with money, and zero community connections. Their goal is the clip that can make the nightly news. They want a story that will dominate the news cycle.They do not know what is happening in Portland, and they do not care. They are coming to a city with a vibrant, scrappy community of street-level journalists. By and large, they do not want the context that those journalists can provide. And soon they will come to a city near you. When the Feds and the Parachutes come to your town, you’ll want everyone to understand the context there, too. And they are coming. Clean Helmet is already back in DC, and on to the next assignment.
So here is some of that context. Please bear with me. There has been a lot.
Beginning on May 27th a group of Black and indigenous women began protesting on the steps of the Multnomah County Justice center. On the night of May 29th, as the flames of the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct smouldered a crowd of thousands converged on the same Justice Center, smashed windows, and set the lobby on fire. The crowd was driven back from the building by police, and pushed into the luxury shopping district. An Apple Store, a Louis Vuitton, and a Target were looted. The mayor’s condemnation was immediate.
On the night of May 30th, with a curfew in effect, local journalists took to the streets, amid crowds of thousands. The police began a pattern of declaring entire sectors of the city to be “closed,” and insisted on their prerogative to arrest anyone found within those areas, without further probable cause.
On June 1st, the Governor announced that she would be deploying the National Guard to the streets of Portland, in an advisory capacity. Over the course of the next several days, the streets swam with clouds of tear gas and rumors of armed Guardsmen in fatigues. Portland Police were captured on video beating protesters seated in an intersection, hands held high.
On June 8th, the police chief of 6 months resigned, and was replaced by Chuck Lovell, a black man, and a former school resource officer who, in 2006, had been disciplined for putting a crying teenage girl in a choke hold and handcuffs for the crime of arriving 30 minutes late to school, with a signed note from her mother.
In the month of June, local reporters were beaten, knocked down, threatened, maced, tear gassed, shot with impact munitions, and arrested by the Portland Police Bureau while documenting the community’s response to ongoing police violence. In many cases, these attacks came immediately following explicit, filmed declarations by Portland Police that they did not recognize, and would not respect, press credentials.
What followed was a month of actions, and dozens of marches. A declared Autonomous Zone, named for Patrick Kimmons, sprang up on the doorstep of the mayor’s luxury condo for a single night. The police precinct in North Portland, a traditionally Black, overpoliced and underserved neighborhood, was surrounded and vandalized. A statue of George Washington, on NE Sandy Boulevard, was toppled, and received national coverage. Protesters confronted local and state police outside the Portland Police Association’s union headquarters as their contract was due to be renewed
At every turn Ted Wheeler, the mayor, was unable to match the indignation he had felt for the looted Louis Vuitton store. Despite widespread public outcry, demanding the significant defunding of the Police Bureau, the mayor repeated the Police association talking points, including lying about money lost by downtown businesses due to protests.
On July 2nd, PPB, the Sheriff’s Office, and other coordinating entities were hit with a Temporary Restraining Order, prohibiting them from interference with press and legal observers. Such interference was already illegal, but police were now ordered to stop such practices specifically. Local journalists immediately began collecting documentation of the TRO being violated by law enforcement.
On July 4th, protesters armed with fireworks repeatedly faced down Portland Police, who once again beat Portlanders in the streets amid clouds of tear gas, and threatened journalists with arrest. And as Portlanders continued targeted actions against the Portland Police Bureau, their police union, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, unmarked rental vans, driven by camo-clad federal agents, began abducting people without explanation, from downtown Portland.
And that’s where you all came in.
It was at this point that national media outlets descended on Portland’s Plaza Blocks, where the protests had temporarily shifted their attention to the aggressive federal presence now operating out of the Federal Buildings downtown. The Mayor held a photo op, stood at the the fence illegally installed around the Federal Courthouse, and was teargassed so thoroughly I couldn’t see him, though I stood mere feet away. He wasn’t wearing a respirator. He fled the scene, and attempted to rebrand himself as a resistance hero, fighting for local control over the beatings, tear gassings, and unjustified arrests.
National outlets began to contact local freelancers through social media. They asked for our footage. They would be happy to give us on-screen credit. Anyone who asked for money was usually told some version of “Sorry, we don’t pay freelancers.” There was always someone with twitter footage who would do it for free.
A few of us sold footage. All of our twitter followings blew up.
Out of the camaraderie of breathing the same teargas for weeks, we compared notes, and supported each other. Some reporters who had been working multiple jobs, on top of getting tear gassed for weeks, were able to pay rent a little easier. Some journalists were given interviews, and national bylines. We kept asking the big outlets to talk to protest organizers, to center the radical, abolitionist black voices of groups like Don’t Shoot PDX and Direct Action Alliance. We told everyone who would listen that this was not about the President, even as we watched local law enforcement and Federal paramilitaries work arm-in-arm, as fellow travelers. Some of us were given credits in national media, only to be asked to serve as “fixers” for talking heads in expensive helmets and expensive plate carriers, who stood in front of expensive cameras, and couldn’t tell you which building was the Police Headquarters and which was the Federal Courthouse.
And because we all have spent two months getting trauma-bonded, we all kept talking to each other. We reached out, and encouraged freelancers and independent reporters to use a shared rate schedule for footage. National outlets, which had paid for footage licensing days earlier, began to tell us that we were not eligible for compensation, as we fell under their policy of “unvetted freelancers” operating in a conflict region.
So, by the assessment of no less an authority than the Grey Lady herself, we are battle-hardened and fearless, to a degree which makes the Nationals fear for their liability. It’s true that the press corps which has come into existence in Portland is not the same species which existed before June. Career journalists, asked about journalistic objectivity, find themselves compelled to point out that, objectively, local and federal law enforcement continue to deploy overwhelming violence against an uprising spurred by overwhelming police violence.
I no longer know of any local reporters who don’t consider helmets, eye protection, respirators, and plate carriers essential equipment for doing their jobs. Our journalistic standards have come to include rules like “don’t show anyone’s face without explicit permission during a declared unlawful assembly,” with exceptions for when events happen in full view of law enforcement. Our professional guidelines have come to include rules like “If the Nationals want you to work for them, in any capacity, tell them to get you better body armor.” We’ve affiliated through groups like the IWW Freelance Journalists Union, and commiserated with veteran war reporters on the way that gas masks leave your scalp numb and your jaw sore. Those of us who have made a habit of livestreaming have had to re-evaluate, after the Department of Homeland Security published images showing a screen of aggregated Twitch, Woke, and Periscope feeds.
We faced understandable backlash from demonstrators, concerned that our footage could put them in danger from unaccountable federal agents. We also consider the very real possibility that, much like the variety of colored smoke grenades deployed by the Feds, the image of The Livestream Screen was intended purely to confuse and disorient protesters, and to make protesters and reporters alike feel less safe.
Today, the Washington Post has reported that DHS has compiled surveillance dossiers on journalists covering the Portland protests. And the President has announced his intention to call in the National Guard to subdue the city. So this has likely bought Portland another searing week in the spotlight, and may have bought some other cities a few more days of breathing room.
When this absolute clusterfuck arrives on your doorstep, some things to remember: When the National Media and the Federal Government come to your town, they are doing it to serve their own agenda, whether that agenda is advertising revenue, or points on a political scorecard. They are willing to put the bodies of your friends and neighbors in harm’s way to accomplish these things. They will turn a tidy profit and tell you that they have no budget to support you. They will attempt to lift up and tokenize divisive voices that fit a predetermined narrative. They will adamantly ignore Black voices that call for abolition. They are happy to leave the community you have built, through perseverance and struggle, in ruins.
Don’t let them.
Stay together, stay tight.
We’ll be out on the streets again tomorrow.