Days into the nationwide protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, the Black-led, police accountability group Don’t Shoot Portland sued the city of Portland, Oregon, over use of tear gas against protesters. The lawsuit led to a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Portland Police Bureau from using tear gas, except in narrow circumstances. But officers quickly switched gears, and in response to growing protests, they ramped up the deployment of OC spray, rubber bullets, pepper balls, flash bangs, and other impact munitions known as “nonlethal” or “less-lethal” weapons. Don’t Shoot Portland again sought and obtained a court order to limit police’s use of those weapons.
Then on June 30, just four days after a federal judge had sided with protesters and issued a restraining order on the use by police of less-lethal weapons, Portland officers meeting protesters outside the local police union building again fired smoke grenades, rubber bullets, and other impact munitions into the crowd, injuring several people. They then declared the protest a riot and deployed tear gas despite the court order restricting its use.
“They blatantly ignored the order,” Tai Carpenter, Don’t Shoot Portland’s board president, told The Intercept. “What happened on June 30 was just an all-out attack on civilians. That night just really stands out for the vast amount of violence that was being inflicted on the street.”
In August, as protests in Portland continued uninterrupted for a third month, Don’t Shoot Portland filed a new motion, asking the federal judge in the case to hold the city in contempt of court over police use of “less-lethal” munitions that night. In a court hearing this week, protesters testified in graphic detail about what they described as an unprovoked, violent response to a protest that had been largely peaceful.
A spokesperson for the city of Portland declined to comment on pending litigation. Attorneys for the city said in court that police response “was based on good faith and reasonable interpretations of the less-lethal order.” They argued that police were responding to protesters throwing bottles, rocks, and cans and shining green lasers at them, and that officers feared that protesters would set the police union’s building on fire. In court filings, they wrote that plaintiffs had offered “vague descriptions of uses of force such that it is not possible to begin to evaluate whether the uses violate the Less Lethal Order.”
The implication that a confrontation between protesters and police was too chaotic to discern, and that police were justified in their outsize response by some individuals’ actions toward them, is one that’s been regularly invoked following violent repression of protests. Often the official narrative established by police is hard to challenge in a court setting, because evidence is usually messy or incomplete, or the chain of events gets obscured in the fog of war surrounding many protests.
But the June 30 incidents were not only among the most violent in Portland’s summer of protest, they were also some of the best documented, captured in several long videos shot from different angles by protesters and bystanders. “It was one of the most heavily visualized nights of the protests,” said Carpenter. “There were a lot of livestreamers there, there were people on their balconies, because it was in a residential neighborhood.”
In fact, the number and quality of videos has allowed attorneys for Don’t Shoot Portland, working with the applied-research group SITU, to produce an unusually detailed reconstruction of that night’s events, a granular analysis of a number of incidents of police violence over a 90-minute period of time that clearly shows the circumstances, and lack of justification, that preceded each deployment of force. The reconstruction, which was shown in court, offered a forensic analysis of a protest with a level of detail that is usually reserved for criminal investigations. It provided a rare piece of evidence of abuse by officers that is much harder to dismiss than many witness accounts of police violence, opening the door for an equally rare moment of accountability.
“What these protests have exposed is the utter contempt that the police bureau has for criticism or even the idea that anybody should question what they do at any time,” Jesse Merrithew, one of the attorneys representing Don’t Shoot Portland, told The Intercept.
“You can watch it on video what actually happened,” he added.“What we’re hopeful of is that this helps the court impose the accountability that the city has been unwilling or unable to impose on the police bureau.”
On the evening of June 30, protesters who had previously stayed mostly downtown for the first time moved to the more suburban area where the Portland Police Association has its headquarters. By then, a growing number of people in Portland had begun to protest not only to demand justice for Floyd, but also large cuts to the police bureau’s budget and accountability for violence carried out by local police. In court documents, Don’t Shoot Portland called the police union “the chief obstacle to police accountability in this city.”
Protesters met a line of officers before reaching the union’s building and stopped at a distance, chanting or listening to speakers. Witnesses described seeing a couple plastic bottles hurled toward the officers, but no further criminal conduct and “nothing shocking or riotous.” But within minutes of protesters’ arrival, officers in full riot gear filled the street. Using a loudspeaker on an LRAD truck, a type of sonic weapon sometimes deployed at protests, they announced that the assembly had been declared unlawful and threatened to deploy force to arrest protesters. Then, as the crowd complied with orders to move back, police, unprovoked, begun pushing and beating people back with batons. Almost immediately, and responding to no visible provocation, they fired the first impact munitions and pepper-sprayed people at close range.
The reconstruction of the following hour and a half that was presented in court zeroed in on four moments that evening during which police deployed multiple types of less-lethal weapons, as well as a moment when they “bull-rushed” into the crowd. It ends showing police as they declared a riot and deployed tear gas.
In the first incident, police can be seen shoving and beating people with batons and pepper-spraying them in the face, before shooting munitions at them at close range, even as protesters are moving back as directed. Police are also shown grabbing a protester holding a banner, ripping it, and preventing people from dispersing despite ordering them to do so. In the second incident, a protester can be seen throwing a bottle on the ground in front of police — in response to which police fire impact munitions at the protester multiple times before rolling a smoke grenade into the receding crowd. Officers are then seen firing at a different protester who kicked away a smoke canister. In the third incident, police are seen shooting impact munitions at a crowd that was posing no threat, from 120 feet away, and then doing so again at a closer distance during a fourth incident.
In court, James Comstock, a lead investigator in the case, walked a judge through SITU’s reconstruction, which he explained was built using a laser scan of the area to reproduce a three-dimensional model of the street where the protest took place. Visual evidence of each incident was then mapped onto the model and replayed in real time. Each incident was presented from multiple viewpoints, including side views and aerial views captured by a bystander filming from his balcony. And each deployment of force was shown in the context of the 30 seconds that preceded it, in order to paint as accurate a picture as possible of any action that might have justified it.
“I don’t know that anybody has used a reconstruction like this in a protest case,” Merrithew told The Intercept. “We use them all the time in criminal cases and we’ve used similar reconstructions for police shooting cases.”
“It gives a really good overview for people to understand what’s going on, the movement of the police and the protesters, and the violence, and it’s in real-time so you can actually see what’s happening,” echoed Carpenter. “It will show a lot of people what we’ve been saying, that it was all unprovoked.”
In court, the judge also heard firsthand accounts from protest participants, including Pedro Anglada Cordero, the protester who was shot with a rubber bullet after kicking a smoke canister away, and Eric Greatwood, a livestreamer and a regular presence at Portland protests who recorded most of the evening with a video action camera placed on top of a 20-foot pole, and who was shot in the groin with a FN303 round, a type of impact munition that has caused fatal injuries in the past.
Anglada Cordero, who was at the protest with his wife, was retreating from police along with most others in the crowd when a smoke canister was tossed toward him. Anglada Cordero, who noted that his wife had already been coughing because of the chemical agents in the air, said that he instinctively moved to kick the can away. When the can barely moved, he took a few more steps and kicked it further away, the video shows. Police immediately shot him with rubber bullets, hitting him once behind the knee and once in the thigh, and leaving tennis ball-sized bruises later documented in court filings.
“My first, spontaneous reaction was to get it away from us,” he told The Intercept, referring to the canister. “It was in my interest to keep our immediate group safe from being exposed to more agents.”
But police took the gesture as an attack on them, and right after he kicked the canister, things escalated quickly, Anglada Cordero said. Moments later someone who tried to grab and toss a can was tackled to the ground. In court, city attorneys sought to describe the incidents as evidence of protesters’ violent conduct. Anglada Cordero said he was just trying to protect his wife, himself, and those in his immediate vicinity.
“The moment they toss a smoke canister our way and the moment someone kicks it back, that constitutes a reason for them to escalate and retaliate,” he told The Intercept. “So suddenly they are in the right to use ammunition against the crowd, but the crowd has no right to defend themselves.”
Eric Greatwood, an independent livestreamer who has filmed dozens of protests, captured much of the evening on video, providing footage that was used for the reconstruction presented in court. At one point, officers recognized him and called him by name, ordering him to move back. “That just sent the hairs of my arm up, just to call me by my name like that,” Greatwood told The Intercept. He complied but kept filming from the sidelines as police arrested protesters. Then moments later, as Greatwood crouched down to look at an unexploded smoke grenade, police fired an impact munition at him, hitting him in the groin.
“I know for a fact that they did it intentionally because there have been other people who have been fired on in that area,” said Greatwood, who can be heard moaning in the video as his camera kept rolling. “They have sights on those things, they know exactly how to fire them, they are supposed to bounce them off the ground. They fired directly at me.”
A U.S. Air Force veteran, Greatwood said that anyone in the military caught doing what police did to him would be in prison. “I don’t know how a man can actually hit another man in the groin, that just completely baffles me, he totally aimed for it.” The officer who shot him, Brent Taylor, said in court that had had not intended to target Greatwood’s groin. “I’m shooting at a moving target,” he testified. “I’m aiming at his lower legs but how quickly he changes his position, I cannot control.”
Greatwood, who has filed notice of his intent to sue the city for using excessive force, said that he was in pain for weeks after being shot and had difficulty using the bathroom. But he was back the next day to livestream another protest, and many more since then. “I just couldn’t not film what was happening.”
In court, attorneys for the city pushed back against the reconstruction presented on behalf of Don’t Shoot Portland. “It wasn’t an effort to provide an objective presentation from both police perspective and demonstrator perspective, right?” an attorney for the city asked Comstock in cross-examination, noting that the reconstruction focused for instance on the actions of Portland police, and not of Oregon State Police who were also on the scene. “The purpose of this video is giving context around the video that we’ve collected,” Comstock replied.
In fact, the legal team representing protesters said that they chose to reconstruct the June 30 incidents over other episodes during which police may also have violated court orders in part because of the volume of evidence available about them. “It’s important for the case to be able to give the court the best possible, quality evidence so the court can determine whether or not they violated the order,” said Merrithew.
But as Portlanders reckon with the historic wave of protests that has gripped the city for months, leading to two deaths and hundreds of arrests, and as the upcoming mayoral race is likely to be determined in large part by officials’ response to the protests, the broader public also has a right to see evidence of what happened, Merrithew argued.
“Probably a very small percentage of the public is looking at these things every night and actually paying attention to what’s going on; they’re hearing it from a 10,000-foot view, which allows them to sort of be naive in whatever camp they’re predisposed to be in,” he said. “We’re trying to bring the same quality of evidence to the public as we are to the court, because the public needs to understand that the justifications that are being made by the bureau are false. The public needs to understand what these public employees are doing in their name.”
The impulse to discern and record what was happening is also what drove Greatwood to start livestreaming the protests in Portland. “I’ve seen a lot of footage that was basically just the backs of people’s heads, and there was a lot of chaos, but you couldn’t exactly see anything,” he said, adding that his video camera, placed on top of a pole or sometimes on a drone, offers a bird’s eye view of the protests. “I wanted to figure out if protesters were causing the police’s actions or if the police were just being a little bit heavy-handed.”
Greatwood said that he has always been respectful toward officers at protests, getting out of their way when asked and limiting himself to documenting what was happening, including on June 30. But he felt he had been targeted that night because he was there with a camera. “They are probably upset because they know that they have been acting out of line, and they don’t like it being broadcast,” he said. “If you are doing things that are proper, you shouldn’t be afraid of a camera and the truth.”
That night, he said, he had seen “barely anything happening” before police unleashed on protesters. “I saw more things that seemed blown out of proportion when it came to the police providing footage or photos to the press,” he added. “I felt like there was a lot of gaslighting from the police, and that there was not a whole lot that the protesters were doing to get them egged on.”
Others who testified last week also said that regardless of the outcome in court, it was important for Portland residents to document and address the harm and trauma inflicted on countless protesters over the last months. “There are so many people that have gone through something so similar to what I went through that night,” said Anglada Cordero, who after being shot helped other protesters who were maced at close range and couldn’t breathe. “When you go through such an experience, and you see others hurt, then you feel compelled to come out and be in solidarity with others. And that’s what happens every night, when people are getting hurt, more people come out and help each other.”
The judge in the case is expected to rule on whether to hold the city in contempt of court in the coming days.
“It’s hard to have faith in the court system when it’s been proven all your life that your civil liberties don’t matter,” said Carpenter of Don’t Shoot Portland. “But the trauma and the violence have been clearly documented on the record; they’re facts that can’t be ignored. Even with the way that our justice system works, there has to be accountability.”