Democracy Field Trip: Portland Ground Zero
By Justin Dunlap
It all started innocently enough. I just wanted to go down to the protests in Portland to be a supportive parent and let my kids express their beliefs that equality should reign above all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. I am a long time fighter for equality. I have not always been as face forward about the issue as I could have been. Growing up in Oklahoma in the 80’s, there were a lot of words that were just slang that are wildly unacceptable today. The list of words with single letters in front of them is short enough, but too long already. The N-word, the G-word, the R-word just to name a few. I am sure I used 2 of those, 100%. But my momma would have slapped me silly if I ever used the N-word.I have tried to raise my kids to be better than I have ever been, and I can guarantee they have never said any of those 3. So off we went to Portland to experience first hand what was going on.
That first night we had a 5 hour journey into Democracy in action. On a lark, I held my phone up and started live streaming to my facebook account. There were speeches, chants, righteous anger, and no cops or feds in sight at all. We saw some fence shaking, got pictures right up next to the graffitied federal building pillars, and had a general sense that the crowd of 1,000 or so was definitely being heard. We were tired by that time, so we left. 5 minutes later the Federal Agents came out of the building with tear gas, smoke grenades, pepper spray balls coming out of paintball guns, impact rounds including but not limited to rubber bullets, foam marker rounds, baton rounds, bean bag rounds, and my personal favorite the flash bangs. I had removed myself and my daughter at the right time it seemed. This was July 20, 2020, and it was just the very beginning of my journey down the rabbit hole of streaming.
I was pissed that I had almost gotten my daughter tear gassed, she was pissed she had missed out on the action. It was a mixed bag of emotions. This was also around the time that the feds in unmarked vans, wearing unmarked uniforms, and not identifying themselves throughout the exchange, would pull up to a protester or even members of the press and just snatch them off the street. Pull up, pile out in a mob, grab a person, shove them in the van (rented mini-vans by the way) and drive away without ever uttering a word. Some of these people went days without being heard from. Nobody knew where they were being taken. Nobody knew who was doing it. I had a whole 4 hours or less of streaming under my belt, but I was gonna go and help. I could add a camera to the evidence. I could use my big, white, dumb body for something good. I went down 2 nights later with some family that had come into town specifically to see what was up with the protests and to see firsthand how bad it was. We were there for about 3 hours before the tear gas came out. I never knew what tear gas tasted like before that night. We were prepared, mostly. We had some goggles and face coverings, but no gas masks. We had kept a fair distance, so when the gas came out we had a hasty retreat to safety. We still got a little taste of the spicy air, but nothing incapacitating. This was only 2 days after my first visit to the protests, but the crowd had easily tripled. Portland people were super pissed that the feds had come in. The Rose City does not welcome that kind of visitors. This was the first night of the new big fence, it was also the first night the new big fence got knocked over by the protesters, it was also the first time I know of that a sitting mayor had been tear gassed by federal agents! Ted Wheeler was right up next to that fence when they hit it with full force gas measures on July 22nd, 2020. July 24th was the first time I put PRESS in big black letters on the side of my white helmet. I also got a proper respirator and goggles. I knew that if I was going to document this I needed to put down my protester hat and put on a different one. Being identified as press afforded me certain protections, like being able to stay in place during an order to disperse. It also made for an easily visible, easily missable target when literally thousands of rounds of all types of munitions were flying through the air!
Over the course Of the next month and a half I went downtown to the protests, to direct action marches starting at parks and moving through neighborhoods. People would just come out of their houses and into the streets to march along with the throng of people heading to different precincts, or the Portland Police Association (PPA, their union office), or the sheriff’s office. The same thing happened night after night. Start off with rousing speeches, march to a location and protest peacefully, then eventually a dumpster fire would be set, or a mattress would appear and be set ablaze, or cardboard would be tossed over a fence to burn on the sidewalk. Once they even managed to get a tiny fire going inside the PPA. When the fires started you always knew to put your gas mask on and get your goggles tightened down, cause the LEO (Law Enforcement Officers) were on the way. Even though “Tear Gas” Ted Wheeler, as the Police Commissioner, had ordered the use of tear gas to be stopped way back in July, it still continues to this day, as late as Saturday, September 5th. When the LEOshow up (cops, feds, marshall, state troopers, county sheriffs, I’ve seen them all), they perform the same way. Talk through the LRAD (long range acoustic device), we affectionately have deemed him DJ LRAD, the worst DJ ever, declaring it an unlawful assembly and working up the ranks to a riot. The laws surrounding those designations are vague at best. But, once it is called a riot all bets are off, they march into the area shoulder to shoulder with shields and batons at the ready. Once the crowd has been started in a direction, then the bull rushing starts, the takedowns are hard and indiscriminate, and the pushes can last for blocks. They go through residential neighborhoods in their efforts to separate the group and cause confusion and fear amongst the protesters. They lay out tear gas, regular gas, smoke, flash bangs and pepper balls almost every night. When they get the area cleared of civilians, they will withdraw a certain distance back to a central post and wait for the protesters to gather and start the whole thing over again. It goes on until enough of the protesters have been dispersed that LEO thinks they can keep a minimal force around to keep an eye on them. While arrests have been made on members of the press, Mom’s United For Black Lives members, Veterans for Black Lives members, and countless unaffiliated members of the general protesting populace, the protesters still remain strong in Portland.
But now, a new element has entered the game. Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys have begun to come around the locations where these protests have been going on for 100 days, largely without violence against persons and with zero lives lost. August 22nd, a 200-plus person protest by members of those 2 organizations, along with III%ers (3 Percenters), came to the downtown area. When counter-protesters showed up it was an all out, hours long brawl in which a frag grenade was thrown from the alt-right groups into the counter protesters. Also brought by that side were paintball guns filled with pepper balls and marbles, knives, shields with screws drilled to face front so they could slash and stab with them, and ultimately a pistol was drawn by an out-of-state man named Alan Swinney, a known member of the Proud Boys. He cocked the hammer, put his finger on the trigger, and was aiming it head high into the crowd. (Photo Credit-Sergio Olmos @MrOlmos) The very next weekend, a 200-600 car caravan of right wing supporters cruised through Portland, many of them breaking of from their subscribed route and, flowing into the downtown area, began shooting paintballs and bear mace from the backs of pickup trucks at protesters heading down to the evenings march start at the Justice Center. For over 2 hours fights broke out between left and right wing supporters all throughout the downtown area. It came to a gruesome head when a member of Patriot Prayer, Aaron Danielson, raised a can of bear mace at two opposition members and was subsequently shot twice. When he was shot, one of the bullets went through the can of bear mace and discharged the entirety of its contents into the air. The shooter ran off as Danielson turned, took his few last steps, and fell face down. He died at the scene less than ten minutes later. I was the only person to catch it on my live stream.
His bear mace drifted all the way over to where I was and because I didn’t have any of my protective gear on, it was a total lull in any action when it occurred, I was inundated. I realized I had just recorded a murder. I immediately handed over my evidence of the shooting to the officers who arrived on the scene. I spent the next two hours sitting on the back of a riot van, one of those very same vans that had for weeks been such a harbinger of malicious intent was now a safe spot for me to sit in shock and try to begin processing what I had just been through. I stayed and gave my statement to the detectives in charge of the case, and by the time I got back to my car 8 blocks away, the clock on my 15 minutes of fame had begun. Every major and minor news organization wanted a piece of the action and wanted my permission to use my footage. I gave it away freely to almost everyone who asked. I wouldn’t sell it because I didn’t want it manipulated in any way shape or form, nor did I want anyone to not have access to it. I spent the next few days having interview after interview, telling the story, the truth of what I saw. All of those little interviews were like little therapy sessions, they helped me to process and decompress it, and for that I am thankful. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity to get past something like this so quickly.
Then the hate started. The internet can be just an awful place. One would do one’s self a service to never go check what the internet has to say about you. I wish I didn’t know, but I am glad I do. Because there are people out there who think I had something to do with it. That I was in on the murder. It’s fully ridiculous to think that I could be an orchestrator of such an event, but that’s what began to fly around. Those very same people who should be happy I was there to catch the only evidence that points to the murderer of their friend, have put forth a call to action to bring to justice the ones responsible, and have included me in that list of people. That is scary. I live here, I’m not an out of town mainstream media journalist. This place is my home. To have to watch my back when I go to the grocery store, to have to install extra security measures, to have to know what kind of bullet-proof vest is the right kind for me, and which level of NIJ protection I need to keep myself safe if I ever want to go out and report again on things that need to be seen, these are things I didn’t want to have to ever know. It all started out so innocently.
Justin Dunlap is an online journalist and Livestreamer who created Democracy Field Trip, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington. He studied theatre at Northeastern Oklahoma State University with the Editor-in-Chief of this magazine where they smoked a hell of a lot of cannabis together. Check out his website and visit: