Portland isn't under siege, but part of the city feels foreign: Reporter's Notebook

What it's like to be on the ground amid the protests.

July 23, 2020, 8:19 AM

PORTLAND, OREGON -- For more than 50 nights protesters have taken to the streets in Portland, Oregon. Impassioned to make a difference and stand up for racial equality. Now, the nightly chants have an added message. Flooded with concern over how the federal agents are treating protesters, the call for them to leave is sometimes the loudest.

I started my career in Oregon, in Bend. I spent a lot of time in Portland, I love it here. This is not a city under siege, but around the federal courthouse and other areas of the city, it feels foreign.

People start gathering each night before dark. The protest has a feel of a tailgate, an outdoor concert. People are grilling, talking, singing and playing music. Young women are walking around offering free pizza, armed with hand sanitizer for any willing takers.

The loudest cheers come when the moms march in. Wearing yellow, some carrying sunflowers, an odd accompaniment to a helmet and goggles for when the pepper spray comes. The #WallOfMoms grows bigger by the day. They come from all different backgrounds and life experiences; many are grandmothers as well. That's the thing, once you are a mom, you're always a mom.

One woman was carrying a sign that read, "I understand that I will never understand but I STAND." It resonated with me. As a white mother, to white boys, I will never understand fully what many people in this country go through, but we can't stand by while black mothers suffer and that collective feeling is why so many mothers show up each night. They leave their children at home to fight for others and it's powerful. You can't deny it.

PHOTO: ABC News correspondent Kayna Whitworth reports from Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2020, on protests that have garnered increasing violence with the presence of federal law enforcement.
ABC News correspondent Kayna Whitworth reports from Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2020, on protests that have garnered increasing violence with the presence of federal law enforcement.
ABC News

I ask them what they will do when the tear gas starts, because it will, they say.

"I'm ready," they say. Teargassing moms, it's a thing happening in America.

These peaceful demonstrations start taking a negative turn each night when protesters begin banging on the fence put up around the federal courthouse, or attacking the plywood with hammers and crowbars. Fireworks are now seemingly a nightly occurrence. Agents react with crowd munitions like rubber bullets, tear gas and flash bangs.

I found my heart racing at 2:45 in the morning while rubber bullets ricocheted off the building next to me, our eyes burning with tear gas. Protesters were warning us of the danger. This is what protesters are prepared for every single night.

I spoke with 29-year-old Mark Pettibone, who says he was snatched by federal agents while walking home. He said he feared for his life when he was pulled into an unmarked van. After pictures were taken, his bag was searched, his rights were read, he said he was let go. He faces no charges.

The acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf is telling us the agents are acting well within the authority of the federal government.

PHOTO: A protester attempts to stomp out a small fire during a protest at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Ore.
A protester attempts to stomp out a small fire during a protest at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Ore.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images

For me, it's important that we not overlook the reason why people started protesting. They want racial equality and police oversight. Many people in Portland feel that the police department has been engaging in questionable behavior for years.

I asked Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is adamant that the violence and vandalism have increased because of the presence and actions of federal agents, if he was also looking internally at what have could have been done better by the Portland Police Department.

"The Portland Police Bureau needs to be held accountable, too," he said. "They are not perfect. I believe there have been some times when they have deployed munitions when they should not have."

He went on to say some further actions need to be evaluated, but that his office is ready to make changes.

PHOTO: ABC News correspondent Kayna Whitworth reports from Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2020, on protests that have garnered increasing violence with the presence of federal law enforcement.
ABC News correspondent Kayna Whitworth reports from Portland, Ore., Wednesday, July 22, 2020, on protests that have garnered increasing violence with the presence of federal law enforcement.
ABC News

People keep asking me how this will end, and the truth is, I don't know.

For now, some people in Portland spend the day preparing for the night. The park across from the courthouse is full of people, coolers and free clothing for anyone who wants it. They warn the "riot ribs" are extra spicy on account of all the tear gas in the air.

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