‘Unprecedented’ Use of Tear Gas Against Portland Protesters Prompts State Regulators to Call for Environmental Testing
(August 2, 2020) — Oregon environmental regulators are requiring the city of Portland to test stormwater around the federal courthouse and parts of downtown, citing the “unprecedented amount of tear gas” used by local and federal law enforcement agencies since May.
The Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter Thursday to Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Quality outlining its expectations. The city must send a monitoring plan to state officials within the next three weeks describing how it will monitor for specific heavy metals and chemicals that regulators believe are likely associated with CS gas, a strong form of toxic tear gas used against protesters for months.
City officials said they are aware of the letter and are working in conjunction with the state to do more than just monitor for the roughly half dozen metals required by the state.
Diane Dulken, a spokesperson for the sewer and stormwater agency, said Portland is working to “prevent the pollutants from getting into the Willamette River.” She said the agency “regularly” tests for contaminants at locations along the river but will now test specifically near the courthouse, two public parks and Justice Center due to the extensive tear gas used there.
But Portland also raised an alarm bell: It doesn’t know much about tear gas or its residue, and it said those materials are likely already in the sewer system. Dulken noted that tear gas residue is in the trees, on the ground and likely throughout the area near the courthouse and justice center, which has been the centerpiece of nightly protests for months.
“Maybe these materials aren’t hazardous, maybe they are,” Dulken said. “We’re researching that. There isn’t a lot of information.”
The letter is just one of many tear gas related developments wafting through political circles, from Salem to Portland to Washington DC.
It landed the same day that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler apologized for the city police bureau’s “indiscriminate” use of tear gas in late May or June during months of racial justice protests and demonstrations. Wheeler oversees both the Police and Bureau of Environmental Services, which operates the city’s’ sewer and stormwater system.
In Salem, lawmakers discussed a bill that would prevent law enforcement agencies across the state from using “chemical incapacitants” like tear gas. The legislation would create an exemption for a single less-noxious gas, pepper spray, under certain circumstances and with sufficient announcements.
And US Rep. Earl Blumenauer and state Rep. Karin Power, the Milwaukie legislator who chairs the state’s House Energy and Environment Committee, on Thursday sent a letter to state and federal environmental leaders asking a series of health and policy questions related to gases police use for crowd control.
“While we work to stop the use of these gases altogether,” they wrote in a letter to the heads of the state DEQ and federal Environmental Protection Agency, “we are also seeking greater transparency about what chemicals have been deployed to date against protesters in Portland, and potential impacts on human health, wildlife, aquatic life, and local air and water quality.”
The Democratic politicians said they want to know the number of tear gas cartridges fired, how many were beyond their expiration date and what agency will pay for associated cleanup. They demanded a response by Aug. 6.
Late Wednesday night, on their last night in charge of policing protests at the courthouse, federal law enforcement and border security officials again launched tear gas across a swath of city parks and streets surrounding the downtown Portland federal courthouse. Tear gas clouds stretched across the entirety of Lownsdale Square and enveloped broad sections of Southwest Third and Fourth avenues.
Protesters wore gas masks, goggles, helmets and poured milk into the eyes of those in the thickest areas of tear gas clouds. The gas stings, burns and irritates exposed skin. OPB this week documented dozens of instances in which woman exposed to the gas subsequently had irregular menstrual cycles.
Harry Esteve, a spokesperson for the state environment agency, said the city will likely have to wait until it rains to get reliable test results. According to the National Weather Service, Portland’s last measurable rainfall, three-hundredths of an inch, occurred July 7.
The state is asking Portland to collect and analyze stormwater for chromium, hexavalent chromium, lead, zinc, copper, barium and perchlorate. Most of those substances are toxic to humans at even at extremely low levels.
“We’re taking a close look at the situation,” Esteve said.
Following the monitoring request, Portland must submit a report that includes comparisons to previous tests at the same locations. The state called for the monitoring under the stormwater permit it issued to the city.
Portland police have used tear gas on demonstrators for years, although never with the frequency that federal and local officers have deployed it this spring and summer.
Since July 24, the state fielded 160 official complaints about the gas, Esteve said, plus additional outreach through social media. Those complaints center on concerns for health and the environment.
Esteve said that CS gas, a form of which has been used on Portland streets for months, is “not considered a federal hazardous substance.”
He said DEQ won’t analyze the public health effects of recent tear gas apart from looking at its effects on stormwater runoff, which leads to the Willamette River, saying that “is not something that we regulate.” He said the potential public health impacts are a matter for the Oregon Health Authority to address.
“The thing about tear gas is it dissipates pretty quickly, so it’s not something that we would respond to like a spill or something like that,” Esteve said.
Jonathan Modie, a spokesperson with the Oregon Health Authority, cited the fact that CS gas is considered toxic by the Centers for Disease Control. Modie referred to federal documents, which indicate people exposed to the gas should “as quickly as possible” wash their skin with “large amounts of soap and water” if they are exposed. The CDC states that “long-lasting exposure” to riot control agents like tear gas in closed spaces could lead to blindness or “respiratory failure possibly resulting in death.”
Dulken, the city spokeswoman, said the agency received information that federal officers were hosing down the streets outside the federal courthouse, spraying the residue into storm drains. “That is not allowed,” she said, “but it was done.”
She said her agency is investigating how it can prevent the tear gas residue that’s already in the system from being flushed into the river when rain comes.
Dulken said it’s not unusual for the bureau to sample stormwater and test for five of the metals included in the state letter, but she said the bureau doesn’t test for hexavalent chromium or perchlorate. She did not have immediate information regarding how frequently the bureau samples in general, but said testing occurs more frequently during the rainy season.
On Friday, crews are expected to examine storm drains near the Justice Center. Dulken said crews will try to take advantage of the dry weather to find residue and clean it out.
That residue will likely flush into the sewers and Willamette River when the rain comes.
Portland, Dulken said, is in uncharted territory. No other city has had so much tear gas deployed over an extended period of time.
Burns, Bloody Wounds, Broken Bones: Portland Protesters Describe the Injuries Caused by Trump’s Federal Officers
(August 1, 2020) — Bloody wounds. Seared skin. Broken bones.
Weeks of restive demonstrations in Portland are leaving an indelible mark on protesters as the nightly cries against police violence and racism have often ended with an aggressive show of force by local and federal officers.
Police have fired chemical agents and less-lethal rounds into crowds, at times indiscriminately, to scatter or subdue them after some protesters have lobbed fireworks or bottles at officers, flashed lasers in their eyes or tried to dismantle protective barriers.
They’ve used batons on body parts and hurled people onto pavement.
Sometimes the combative acts become national news.
Donavan La Bella, 26, was hospitalized with a fractured skull after a deputy US marshal with the agency’s tactical unit shot him in the head with an impact munition while La Bella was holding a stereo over his head across the street from the federal courthouse.
Federal officers pepper-sprayed and used batons to beat another protester, Christopher David, a 53-year-old Navy veteran, as he tried to speak to them. A lone federal officer directed pepper spray into the eyes of an unarmed Vietnam War vet as the man loudly lectured other officers standing guard at the courthouse.
It’s difficult to determine precisely how many people have been injured after 60-plus consecutive days of protests.
Brian Terrett, a spokesman for Legacy Health, said two of the system’s hospitals have seen one or two patients a night. Wounded protesters also have received treatment from volunteer street medics or at other hospitals across the city.
Portland police and federal officials this week said their officers have also been injured during the protests, in some cases seriously or permanently.
A spokesman for the US Marshals Service said since July 24, about 19 deputies with the agency have sustained “multiple traumatic injuries” from hammers, lasers and other items that some at the demonstrations have used as weapons. The agency said its employees have been “doused” with “unidentified chemicals” and hazardous waste, including bleach and human waste.
Federal court records detail some of the more serious injuries among the officers, including broken bones, hearing and eye damage and chemical burns. One federal officer was struck in the head by a man armed with a two-pound sledgehammer; another suffered a deep leg wound from a marble or ball bearing shot from a high-powered wrist rocket or air gun, court records say.
Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told Fox on July 26 regarding lasers: “We have two to three different officers. We are waiting on final results to see how much their eyesight will permanently be lost because of the activity of these criminals.”
A spokeswoman for the Portland police on Friday said she did not know the number of officers who have been hurt but said injuries range from bruises and cuts to broken bones and concussions.
The following stories are from some of the untold numbers among thousands who come to the heart of the city and leave as an example of how physical harm and combustible conflict have become a hallmark Portland’s latest protest movement.
Trip Jennings, 37, of Northeast Portland
A barrage of pepper balls struck Trip Jennings while he clutched a camera in his hand. One of the rounds ripped through the Plexiglas lens of his gas mask, lacerating his left eye and cheek, he said.
“I would love to say that it was just a bad shot,” said Jennings, a filmmaker and soon-to-be father. “But it does seem like the feds were aiming for my head.”
Jennings said he was one of dozens of people retreating up Southwest Salmon Street early Sunday morning after federal officers ordered them to leave the area near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse downtown.
Protesters, journalists and other observers were all following the directive and moving quickly, he said. The federal officers fired anyway, unleashing a fusillade of pepper balls, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
“It did not feel like a dispersal tactic, it felt like a tactic to inflict pain,” said Jennings, who has covered conflicts around the world, including Israel’s West Bank and Chiapas, Mexico.
“It felt like a last-ditch attempt to use one of the last elements of control that governments have to stay in power.”
Several injured protesters were at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center when Jennings arrived a short time later, he said.
A doctor had to wear a respirator while she tended his wounds because chemical agents coated his body.
“It now looks like I’m an extra in a zombie movie,” he said. “It’s just gross.”
But Jennings said he has no regrets trying to document a movement in support of Black lives and against police violence.
“There are so many people of color putting themselves at more risk than I am and it’s inspiring,” he said.
“They’re creating a world I want my son to live in far more than the one we had three months ago.”
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Andre Miller, 36, of Southeast Portland
Andre Miller and Danielle Anderson’s 5-year-old son sobbed and backed away from his father when he returned home from the hospital.
“He kept looking at his dad and just crying and backing up,” said Anderson, 35. “He was scared, and he didn’t know what was going on. He saw the blood all over his dad’s face and was confused.”
Miller had attended protests against racism and police brutality in Portland since they began after the May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Known to friends and family as “Dre,” Miller has been involved in activism and volunteer work in Portland for years.
Not long after midnight on July 22, federal officers fired a riot munition striking Miller in his head as he filmed the officers and backpedaled away from them.
Miller and Anderson have four children together. She said she was with him when he was shot.
“He thought he was losing his life,” Anderson said. “He was saying his last words because he really thought that this was it.”
He lost consciousness multiple times on the way to meet the ambulance. He had to ride in it alone because of coronavirus concerns. He was wearing a helmet when he was hit, but the munition struck him just below the coverage of his helmet, said Anderson. Anderson said Miller’s CT scan lit up with metal shrapnel in his head.
Miller is in a lot of pain while recovering at home but did not experience internal bleeding or bone damage and is expected to make a full recovery physically. Anderson said he has suffered significant emotional trauma as a result of the incident.
“He absolutely cannot bring himself to watch any of the videos,” Anderson said. “The minute he hears his video … he can’t. It makes him sick to his stomach.”
— K. Rambo
Kristen Jessie-Uyanik, 41, of Northeast Portland
Jessie-Uyanik was struck in the head on July 25. It was just before 11 p.m. when she heard a “boom” and felt something hit her above her eye.
While she said she wasn’t ready yet to talk publicly about her injury, she wrote a Facebook post the day after and said that stands as her account.
Jessie-Uyanik said in the post that she and other women she was with had lined up on Southwest Third Avenue, about 10 feet from the fence in front of the federal courthouse at the time. She pulled on her safety goggles and wore a helmet.
“I remember some confetti had been launched on the far right side of us,” she wrote. “I could hear a marching band playing in the intersection to our left. I didn’t notice anything in particular happening around me or in front of me in those moments. I was looking around, looking forward, and taking it in.”
That’s when she was struck, she said. The impact left an open wound on her forehead near her eye. She does not know what was fired at her.
In a follow-up message to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Uyanik said she didn’t hear a dispersal order before she was fired on. “No announcement whatsoever,” she said. “The feds were completely silent as far as I could tell.”
According to her account, she said he was pulled backward, then picked up by someone who carried her through the crowd to a medic vehicle. She said the street medics stopped the bleeding.
She said she was eventually taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where she received seven stitches. She said doctors told her it looked like “tiny fragments” had pierced her skin.
Jessie-Uyanik said she has taken part in several Black Lives Matter protests since late May.
“I was inspired to use not only my voice, but also my body, to defend our First Amendment right to protest and send a clear message that Black lives are worth fighting for,” she wrote.
— Noelle Crombie
Michael Weisdorf, 38, of Southwest Portland
Weisdorf, a longtime activist, found himself with a fractured elbow and disfigured face the night of July 18. He said Portland police are to blame.
“They didn’t try to arrest me or anything,” said Weisdorf, 38, a graduate student at Portland State University. “They just broke my arm and left me in the street.”
Weisdorf’s evening began at a Black Lives Matter rally at Peninsula Park in North Portland.
He and other protesters later marched to the Portland Police Association headquarters on North Lombard Street.
Someone broke into the office that evening and set fire in the lobby area. Police declared a riot and began to disperse the crowd that had gathered.
Weisdorf said officers in riot gear moved in on him and other peaceful demonstrators, forcing them to the south and east for at least eight blocks.
They had just crossed over Interstate 5 on North Rosa Parks Way when Weisdorf was thrown to the ground at least two times by officers who surrounded him as his walking slowed, video of the encounter shows.
Weisdorf was eventually able to get up and stagger away, according to the video. He later underwent surgery at Legacy Emmanuel Medical Center.
“I found out my elbow had a bad compound fracture,” Weisdorf said. “I didn’t see it poking through the skin, but it was bleeding.”
Numerous abrasions and contusions covered his face from being slammed into the pavement, Weisdorf said. He spent the next two days in the hospital.
“This sort of really confirms my feeling that this is not an institution we can reform,” he said. “The entire approach to public safety needs to be rethought if we see this kind of behavior from the police,” Weisdorf continued. “I was exercising my constitutional rights. This is real basic First Amendment stuff.”
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Nat West, 43, and Beck West, 16, of Northeast Portland
West and his teenage daughter set out to protest Saturday night, as they had done numerous times in the weeks after George Floyd’s death.
They returned to their Northeast Portland home later that evening with burns, welts and contusions.
Federal officers launched explosive crowd control munitions at those assembled outside the federal courthouse around 11:20 p.m. as a small handful of protesters threw water bottles and other projectiles, West said.
One of the crowd control munitions detonated next to the heads of West and his daughter Beck, he said.
Days later, Beck remains nearly deaf in her left ear, according to West. But her support for the Black Lives Matter movement has only strengthened.
“That’s the real message the Portland Police Bureau and the feds need to hear,” said West, the founder of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider.
“Our children are not scared. Our children believe in the mission. Our children understand what’s at stake and the opportunity.”
While the use of force by federal officers against Portland protesters continues to receive scrutiny, West said he hopes it will not distract people from the aggressive tactics long used by the city’s own police.
“I don’t think the feds are doing anything that the Portland police haven’t done already,” he said. “They’ve been doing this, often to Black protesters, for years with the same level of violence.”
But West is also optimistic that the current movement will lead to lasting reforms in policing.
“I really think we can solve the problems of the Portland Police Bureau,” he said. “Hopefully, we can be a model for the rest of the country.”
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
Nate Cohen, 30, of Chicago
Saturday night was Cohen’s third night at the Portland protests. Cohen lived in Portland from 2008 through 2017, then went to Chicago for graduate school. He said he tracked Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland and decided to travel here to put his emergency medical technician training to use as a street medic.
As Saturday night stretched into Sunday morning, Cohen watched as federal officers emerged from the federal courthouse and pushed people out of Lownsdale Square across the street.
The officers fired tear gas and pepper balls, he said. Cohen walked among a couple dozen demonstrators, flushing irritants from their eyes.
At one point, he saw a tear gas canister land behind a group of legal observers and journalists in the area of Southwest Third Avenue and Salmon Street. He rushed over to douse it with water and check on two people who were closest to the canister.
That’s when he was struck in the chest with another tear gas canister the size of an Izze drink.
He said the canister was fired from a grenade launcher and emitted sparks and gas after it struck him.
He collapsed in pain and struggled to breathe. He didn’t get a glimpse of who fired at him.
“It knocked the air out of my lungs,” he said. “I went down on my hands and knees and was trying to suck in breath.”
He said his friends grabbed him and led him to another medic. He was lucid enough to describe his symptoms to the medic, he said, and even guided her through a check of his ribs to see if any were broken. Another demonstrator, a stranger, drove him to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
Cohen was a licensed emergency medical technician for about six years and in 2012 performed field medicine with a non-governmental organization in East Africa. He said he has volunteered as a street medic at protests in Portland, Chicago and Minneapolis.
Now he is a theater director wrapping up his master’s degree in fine arts at Northwestern University in Chicago.
The bruise remains painful and makes it difficult to move his arm and shoulders.
Freedom and justice, he said, are “core tenets” of “what it means to be American.”
Being fired on by a federal officer, he said, “feels so clearly wrong to me.”
— Noelle Crombie
Dominique Bouchard, 26, of Southeast Portland
Bouchard was injured June 5, before federal officers responded with force to Portland protests.
She said she decided to take part to support demands for police reform. “There wasn’t a lot of thought for me to go out there and participate,” she said. “It’s really important that the police are defunded to keep communities safer.”
Bouchard said Portland police were moving in formation and pushing the crowd away from the Justice Center after declaring the gathering unlawful and ordering the crowd to disperse.
She doesn’t know what prompted the order from police other than the late hour. “No one was doing anything,” she said.
She was amid a throng of people moving west on Southwest Main Street. It was after midnight, she said. She said she was trying to follow police directions to disperse.
“They kind of came out of the crowd of flash bang and the smoke from that and it was surreal,” she said.
She was struck with something that stung and left a fist-sized bruise on her thigh. She did not see what hit her.
She kept running, she said, and was in the area of Fourth or Fifth Avenue when a Portland police officer “just came out of nowhere.”
She said he didn’t say anything as he “body-slammed” the right side of her body, knocking her into the street.
“I caught my fall with my hands, which was a bad idea,” she said. “The impact was so great that I broke my right wrist and my left wrist was sprained.”
She said the injury was “extremely painful.” She went to Providence Portland Medical Center for treatment that morning.
The injury required surgery. She said doctors told her to expect a six- to nine-month recovery.
She said she hasn’t returned to protest out of fear she’ll further injure her wrists.
“With the injury, it’s been a lot of adapting,” said Bouchard, a Portland Community College student and mother of a toddler. “The first few weeks, I couldn’t do much of anything. To not be present as a parent was hard for me.”
“I know the feds are here,” she added, “and that’s awful but the Portland police were acting out in brutality before the feds showed up.”
— Noelle Crombie
Mac Smiff, 39, of Southeast Portland
Longtime activist Fahiym Acuay, who goes by Mac Smiff, has taken part in the demonstrations to demand police reform. In the early morning hours of July 25, he was fired on with some sort of impact munition.
Smiff said he was about 50 yards from the federal courthouse and looking at his phone.
“I was tweeting and I was shot in the face,” he said.
He said the object hit his forehead. The impact, he said, was similar to “a really bad football hit.”
“It dropped me straight to my feet,” he said. “I was face down on the ground. I had no idea what hit me.”
Smiff could not identify the projectile but said it contained a paint-like substance. It caught the corner of his face shield and helmet.
It left him with a “chunky bruise on my forehead and a concussion,” he said.
He got checked by street medics and later was evaluated at home by his wife, who is a nurse. He said he suspects he suffered a concussion.
He experienced headaches in the days that followed.
“It still hurts today,” he said. “If I touch it, I can still feel that pain. It’s still tender there.”
He said his immediate reaction to being fired on was shock. “I was so far from the action,” he said. “I wasn’t anywhere near the action. That was pretty strange to me. It just felt horrible.”
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